I knew I was in trouble within days of adopting him. If I made it all the way to the car before the barking and screaming began, I was lucky. I’d return from grocery shopping to find cracked blinds hanging lopsided above splintered windowsills, and puddles of drool creeping across the floor. My return home was never a reunion. It was a rescue.
Separation anxiety is a nightmare, but shouldn’t come as a great surprise. Dogs evolved as pack animals, and aren’t naturally inclined to spend time alone. Packs don’t break up for the day just to reconvene in the evening. My dog wasn’t being a jerk when he redecorated my living room. He felt unsafe and exposed because he had been separated from his tiny pack and didn’t know what else to do.
Before you begin addressing separation anxiety, it is vitally important to understand this point. I hear so many people projecting spite and anger onto their pets. “He knew what he was doing,” they tell me. I say this as unequivocally as I can. “No, he did not.” Believing otherwise will only lead to a mutually resentful and unhealthy relationship.
The first step in solving this problem is the hardest one. Affected dogs are deeply attached to their owners and those bonds must be stretched. Instead of excitedly greeting them when returning home, be aloof for a while and pay them no attention until they settle down. Get them used to some physical separation by having them sleep in their own beds and keeping them off the couch. Make sure that every day includes some quality time together, but also that you are the one to initiate it.
It is necessary to teach dogs that (with apologies) you aren’t the center of the universe. If you have more people in your household, delegate tasks like feeding and walking to them instead. If you live alone (indeed, dogs that live with singles are more than twice as likely to develop separation anxiety), it may be wise to consider daycare once or twice a week. Try to make their pack bigger, not smaller.
Another important step is breaking down the cues that lead to anxiety. Dogs aren’t stupid. They pay careful attention to things that matter to them. They know your habits, and can use them to predict your next move. It’s time to start paying more attention to your own behavior and shuffling the signals. Put on your jacket, but go watch TV. Grab your car keys, but make breakfast. Step outside and lock the door, but come back moments later without making a big fuss. By severing these connections, we help reduce the hypervigilance that amps up their fears.
Sometimes, training efforts fall short and we need to consider medical support. There are numerous anti-anxiety drugs that can help, but these options need to be deployed with adequate understanding of their benefits and limitations. While some people scoff at the idea of dogs on Prozac, affected patients may be a danger to themselves and others. This is not boutique medicine—it is potentially life-saving. That said, these drugs are not magic bullets. They are intended only for use alongside dedicated training efforts, and will fail if used incorrectly.
Separation anxiety can feel like a hopeless curse, but with patience and understanding, most cases do improve. It’s not a quick fix, and it’ll be a choppy ride. But, speaking from personal experience, it has been rewarding to see my own dog gain confidence and poise over these years. Going through this together was a challenge, but we grew closer for sticking it out.
Dr. Mike Fietz is a small-animal veterinarian at Georgetown Veterinary Hospital. He received his veterinary degree from Cornell University in 2003 and has lived in Charlottesville since.
You can meet us at the Charlottesville-Albemarle SPCA, where we’re all available for adoption. 3355 Berkmar Dr. 973-5959, caspca.org, noon-6pm, daily COURTESY Charlottesville-Albemarle SPCA
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