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Separation Anxiety: It’s not him, it’s you.

Naughty Boston Terrier has eaten the door
A tiny Boston terrier puppy chews a hole in the bathroom door in an attempt to escape

Separation Anxiety: It’s not him, it’s you.

Let me start this by first saying that I AM NOT MENTAL HEALTH PROFESSIONAL and I AM NOT A CERTIFIED PET BEHAVIORIST (yes, that’s a real thing). I’m a general practice veterinarian who has made the effort to learn extra tidbits on the topic. I’m also a veterinarian that gets asked about this issue a whole heck of a lot!

We are an anxious society and that is manifesting into our pets as well. For this post, I’m going to focus on separation anxiety in dogs. Cats rarely have the condition, because let’s face it, cats don’t give a crap if we’re out of the house. But dogs? Oh man, that’s the reason we love them so much, because they love us—all the time. That’s generally fantastic, but what about when it’s not? When their extreme love for us causes them to be a quivering, drooling, pooping, destructive, sometimes dangerous entity in our home?

What’s interesting is that as an outside observer, I can often spot the future disasters coming WAY sooner than pet parents typically do. Usually, they don’t come to me for help until the behaviors have intensified to the point that basic daily activities are compromised. They come home and the house is destroyed. Or the dog is soaked in its own waste because it had a panic attack while left alone. Or spouses are threatening divorce because “the damn dog keeps everyone up at night unless it’s in our bed”. The list goes on and on…but here’s the kicker, once it’s gotten that far, there’s not much that I (a general practice vet with only slightly above-average behavior knowledge) can successfully do to fix it.

At that point, you’ll probably need referred to an actual board-certified veterinary behaviorist (I’m not kidding, it really is a thing). And there will be a ton of work required. You’ll not only have to train the dog, but yourself as well, because let’s face it, YOU contributed to quite a bit of this problem. I’ll explain…

The first mistake—you didn’t read my earlier posts about being ready for a new puppy and didn’t follow my advice for picking the right one. You fell in love with a cute picture on the internet or you looked at a group of puppies and felt sorry for connected to the shy, shivering one in the corner. Your heart melted because THAT ONE needed you the most.

I’m not saying that shy, poorly socialized puppies don’t deserve love, but they require a much different approach than most people are aware of, because what’s lacking in their lives is not necessarily affection, but confidence. They haven’t been taught to be happy and well-adjusted.

They were (likely) not abused. Does abuse create fear and anxiety? Of course, but not all anxious dogs were abused.

So, you were compelled to bring this little nugget of nervous energy into your home and love on it. You took your fur baby everywhere you went, because bonding is the most important thing, and the poor creature hadn’t know love yet and YOU were the called savior for that role. And by golly, it worked! You two were bonded so tight. Your Instagram feed documented the whole thing!

But then, you had to go back to work on Monday (your boss called BS on your request for “pet-ternity” leave), and you finally decided to put that new crate together and with one last snuggle, you shoved your confused canine cutie into a dark and scary prison.

And you were gone. For hours. And it was the most awful experience of her life.

And then you came home, and there was a glimmer of hope back in her puppy soul, and you opened the crate and were her savior once again, breaking her free of her jail cell and showering her with kisses and coos and obnoxious baby talk in an alarmingly irritating voice. And she peed all over you.

sad black lab next to a window
Photo by Sharon McCutcheon on Unsplash

You then spent the rest of the evening “making it up” to her. Back to puppy parenting bliss. Until the next day when the whole scenario repeated itself, only with much more drama because there was no way in creation that she was willingly going back into that hell-hole. So you showed up to work with a band-aid on your finger because puppy teeth are incredibly sharp. After three or four more attempts you finally threw the stupid crate away (or donated it to a deserving shelter) and enrolled your sweet snookums into doggy day care where she got parvo and died two weeks later.

Oh wait. Sorry. That may have crossed the line of “sensational reporting” and was uncalled for. Apologies.

What you actually did was enlist your currently unemployed cousin (the one enrolled in an online course learning how to be a life-coach/meditation instructor/financial guru) to be a pet-sitter. Problem solved. But after six months, your cousin traveled to Spain on a personal pilgrimage trekking the Camino de Santiago. You were screwed.

And now, after replacing three doors, two couches and a window screen, you’ve made an appointment with me to “fix it right away.” Surely, you can see how that might put a few unreasonable expectations on me.

“OK, Dr. Lissa Lynn,” you’re saying, “how could I have prevented this problem? What should I have done differently (other than read your informative posts previously mentioned)?”

Those are absolutely awesome questions pet parent, thanks for asking! The first thing I would have told you was to look for a more outgoing puppy to start with, but we’ll assume that wasn’t an option. Next, I would suggest making the crate a fun, cozy place for your puppy. There are all sorts of techniques for that and I’ll trust your googling skills to find the good ones. The point is, a dog who has positive associations with a crate is a much healthier and happier pet. It will be an incredibly useful tool for giving her a safe and secure spot where she can chill (with or without Netflix).

The other most critical component of teaching your dog confidence is basic training. Trust me on this. Start right away. Like, 10 minutes after you bring her home. I’m serious. Don’t wait.

Start with “sit”. It’s the foundation on which all things are built. You should teach your canine child to use “sit” as you were taught to say “please” (hopefully you were taught to say please). It’s the basis for all good manners in polite dog society.

From there, you should continue with commands like stay, lie down and come. All of these things teach her routines and consistency and that leads to confidence and independence (hmmm, kinda like raising children…)

But, those things didn’t happen. What can you do now?

Educate yourself. Find a trainer if possible. You’ll need to search things like “behavior modifications for canine separation anxiety”. There’s so much information available and this post is already way too long.You may also consider anti-anxiety medications. There are several available and you should definitely ask your vet about them. BUT dear pet parent, none of them work without also doing behavior modifications! A PILL WON’T CURE YOUR DOG’S ANXIETY! But what it might do is take some of the edge off so that they can be open to training and behavior mods. Some dogs are so severely affected that you won’t be able to crack that shell without a little pharmaceutical assistance.

So, what you’ve probably gathered is that like most pet parenting struggles, separation anxiety is much easier to prevent that it is to resolve. Once it’s raging, you will likely need help from a veterinary behavior team and will have to commit many, many hours to manage it. If that sounds like pet parenting torture perhaps you should consider getting a cat.

Pawfully Yours, Lissa Lynn, DVM

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