This blog is not intended to treat or diagnose your dog. If you’re concerned for your pet, please contact your veterinarian.
Is this your dog?
- You were only gone for 30 minutes and you come home to a destroyed carpet.
- There’s feces and urine in the house even though he’s been potty trained.
- Your dog cries and scratches on the door the moment you leave.
- You come home and your dog has escaped their kennel. There’s trash everywhere and the shoes by the front door are ripped.
- Your dog paces and constantly licks his paws or lips to the point of rawness.
This can be all incredibly frustrating for owners, sometimes leaving them to feel that the dog is doing it to be spiteful. Dogs can be taught tricks and manners, but these destructive behaviors stem from symptoms of distress.
In this post, we’ll look at:
- Understanding separation anxiety so you’re not feeling too frustrated and confused
- Symptoms and what to look for
- Tips and useful tools from resources as well as my own experience with my pup of 4 years
Separation Anxiety is a common behavior disorder that happens when the dog becomes upset because of separation from their caretaker, the person they’re attached to. This is usually in the form of emotional distress expressed through destructive, loud, and over-the-top behaviors even if their human leaves just for a short amount of time.
I adopted my 5 year old German Shepherd mix, Ranger, when he was only a year old. We have been through all the scenarios listed above (and more). I say WE because it affected me as a dog parent. I was frustrated, confused on what I did wrong, and lost on what to do. I felt disappointed when another mishap would happen because I thought there was progress. But mostly, I felt so bad for Ranger that I just wanted him to get better.
When we moved from Anchorage to Fairbanks, he lost almost 10 pounds shortly after relocating. He did not relax the entire 6-hour drive. I had to start work the following week, but Ranger tried to escape his kennel every time I was gone. He sometimes threw up, tore up his dog bed, and had diarrhea. He did not, and still does not, do well with change. Any time we drive in my Jeep, he’s excited at first but then the panting and pacing starts. Pretty soon he tries to crawl in the front or on my lap. It wasn’t until this year he finally started sitting during smooth rides. Otherwise, he enjoys when I take the Jeep out trailing and camping because he gets to jump out and run around when I stop. I am always determined to make him happy and reassure him that he will always be loved and not alone. He’s a playful, lovable, and a very smart dog. We absolutely love adventures together. But when there is change, I have to reinforce his routine for stability and make sure he is familiar with it so he feels safe and calm. So here are signs and what our experience has been like to get Ranger to improvement.
Understanding the signs can help you to decide if it’s emotional stress or boredom, and when to seek veterinarian help.
- It’s not boredom if there is emotional stress involved. Emotional stress in a dog could be seen as whining, barking, panting, excessive drooling, destruction (furniture, dog bed, shoes, carpet, etc), pacing, constant licking on a particular body part of theirs (typically their lips or paw).
- Self-harm. This is when they are attempting to escape their kennel to the point of potentially hurting themselves in the process.
- Accidental urinating and/or defecating in the home even though they’ve been potty trained.
- Diarrhea and stomach issues due to high stress.
- Reluctance to eat. When Ranger is anxious and I try to give him a treat, he refuses to eat it until he is in a calm state or himself again.
Why it happens and what causes Separation Anxiety?
There’s no conclusive evidence of why dogs develop separation anxiety. However, it is common for many dogs who have been rescued or adopted from shelters to have this disorder. It is also believed that dogs who experience a loss of their person or group of people leads to separation anxiety. So I concluded since I adopted Ranger, who spent a year with another family prior, that he developed the disorder.
Another factor is change. This can be anywhere from a change of caretakers or family, moving to another home and location, or change in house membership such as a new roommate, new pet, or loss of a family member.
It took many steps to get to where we are today. We are not perfect, but we are a lot farther than we were the first year I had him. When taking these steps, you may have to re-take steps to alleviate frustration and stress for you and your fur bestie. What is important in these steps is finding what works for you and your pup.
Where to start?
Start by talking to your dog’s veterinarian. Our vet was excellent at giving advice, tips, and recommendations. They even offered medication, but I wanted to try tools and techniques first.
So what did we try?
- Sleep in separate beds. This absolutely crushed me. As much I loved cuddling, especially those cold winter nights, and snuggling with Ranger the doc basically recommended practicing setting boundaries. We did and it was fine. But, sometimes I caved and said, “Okayyyyy. Just this once!” Then it was almost every night. Pretty soon, I noticed him getting too comfortable with my space and him becoming anxious again when I went anywhere else.
- Food driven toys and treats. I gave Ranger a treat every time he went in his kennel, when he stayed outside the bathroom door calmly, and also any time we go in my Jeep. His favorite is the Kong toy where we put peanut butter on it to keep him busy for awhile. Safe toys that keep a dog busy will get them tired and calm.
- Have a consistent routine. This is SO important. Just like children, an anxious dog needs routine to feel safe and secure. Dogs learn routine as easy as they learn commands and tricks. They know potty time, bed time, and feeding time. So, when it came time to go in his kennel he knew that after feeding time in the morning that is what he’s supposed to do. Practicing this really helped!
- Exercising. The veterinarian has said, “A tired pup is a good pup!” Walks, rope playing, dog parks, hiking, and doggy day cares are Ranger’s jam! These are great outlets for him to release all that built up energy.
- Thunder Shirt. I honestly don’t know if it truly worked for Ranger, but it states that it helps with dogs and their anxiety who suffer from separation, fireworks, thunderstorms, etc. The constant pressure from wearing the shirt gives them a sense of calm and safety.
- Familiar “home” item. A blanket, dog bed, your shirt, or dog toy that has the scent of home or their human companion can ease anxiety. Any time I board Ranger, I would bring his dog bed and a previously worn t-shirt of mine so that it has my smell. This could also be helpful for kennel training. Funny story, but I have also tried making a person (me) out of my clothes (as shown in picture above).
- CBD (Cannabidiol) oil. Some people get confused with this being marijuana because they both come from the same hemp plant. However, they are not the same. CBD does not have the THC (tetrahydrocannabinol) that causes the “high” the way marijuana does. In fact, people have been using the hemp plant for medicinal purposes for thousands of years. So while CBD is relatively new to the market, research shows “CBD oil works by interacting with the body’s naturally occurring endocannabinoid system to soothe and calm anxiety naturally.” I buy Ranger’s CBD oil locally that’s made for dogs and put the drops in his food as needed.
- Prescription. After about 3 years, I finally asked the veterinarian for advice after it felt like everything else wasn’t enough. Ranger was prescribed Trazadone for his separation anxiety. It’s a human prescription medicine used to treat depression as well as insomnia and anxiety, but veterinarians can prescribe this, too. It can be used daily or as needed. I only give one to Ranger as needed such as for long driving trips, grooming, veterinarian appointments, or if we move. Please talk to your dog’s veterinarian for more information.
Vet Ride of Progress
This year, I believe we finally reached steady improvement. There were many ups and some downs. But, our little victories went a long way. This may have come with age, too, but I feel I finally found a routine and have the right tools and techniques for Ranger. For trips to the veterinarian, I give Ranger one dose of his medication. So on the way to his annual vet appointment he was not as anxious. He did not pace, whine, put his head down on my shoulder, or try to crawl in the front seat as he usually would. He simply just stood in the backseat and watched the road with me. PHEW, right?
When we made it to the vet, he’s the usual pace-y self and very alert about the door and every noise. Yes, that is him extra shedding on my pants you see me wearing. Doctor visits aren’t meant to be fun.
The nice receptionist offered a pheromone bandana for Ranger after his obnoxious barking at other dogs (he REALLY wanted to play, tail wagging and all). Pheromones are the same chemicals transported in the air that mothers give off a few days after giving birth to their puppies in which these molecules apparently give them a sense of calm and safeness. Amazing!
Ranger wore the bandana. He actually laid himself down a couple of times in the exam room while “waiting!” He took his shots like a champ thanks for peanut butter and toys. The doc said some dogs are too anxious to even settle for peanut butter. Not Ranger!
Ranger went to doggie daycare afterwards to burn off the rest of his energy. I felt he deserved it after that appointment! At the end of the day, he got more treats, a high five, and is passed out.
My boy is getting better with routine and managing himself. And I’m getting better at learning to stay calm for him, being persistent with his routine as well as knowing how to better take care of him each time it gets tough. Because let’s face it, we all have our bad days. A change in routine and there’s a little setback. But with support, consistency and love (lots of puppy lovin’!) we are able to rebound better each time.
If you have experience or any tips that has helped you that I did not mention, comment below!