September Ask a Trainer: Separation Anxiety

Photo-9_2This month we asked Kiki Yablon, KPA CTP, of Dog Training by Kiki Yablon to talk to our readers about separation anxiety. 

Separation anxiety is one of the most difficult problems dogs and their owners face, and it’s more common than you might think; more than a quarter of pet dogs are thought to experience distress at being left alone or separated from their people. The associated behaviors–including excessive vocalization, property destruction, and inappropriate elimination–can cost owners thousands of dollars and even their homes. Untreated anxiety can lead to other behavioral and health problems, and dogs can even pay with their lives if they are relinquished as a result of their behavior.

Because of the high stakes, getting qualified professional help is key to understanding your dog’s behavior when left alone.

If you suspect your dog has separation anxiety, here are the first three things to do:

1) Get it on video. Video will help a qualified professional directly assess what’s going on and rule out other causes of the behavior.

2) Get a babysitter. The first step in behavior modification is to temporarily avoid the circumstances in which the problem occurs. This isn’t easy with separation anxiety, so you might have to get creative: Work at home if you can, or see if you can bring your dog to work, provided he’s otherwise well trained. If any human company will do, a well-run daycare can help, so long as your dog enjoys and plays well with other dogs. Set up trades with friends (I bet you have at least one friend whose dog also hates to be alone), or pay “babysitters” for evening outings.

3) Get your veterinarian in the loop. Although training can go a long way in preventing a dog from developing separation anxiety, and can also help with treatment, separation anxiety is not a training issue. First, your vet needs to rule out medical conditions that can contribute to anxiety. Second, many dogs with separation anxiety benefit greatly from medication in combination with behavior modification, and a licensed veterinarian is the only professional qualified and legally able to discuss whether your dog is one of them. Your vet can also refer you to a veterinary behaviorist, a veterinarian with advanced training in behavioral medicine.

Veterinary intervention for separation anxiety should not be considered a last resort. Anxiety worsens the longer it goes untreated, and makes it harder for your dog to learn new behaviors, so it’s important to get it under control quickly.

Once you have a veterinary diagnosis and treatment plan, a qualified trainer can help you implement behavior modification. 

Special thanks to behavior resident Dr. Kelly Ballantyne from Chicagoland Veterinary Behavior Consultants for her input.