We need help. My dog Stella has severe separation distress and throughout the last six Thanksgivings and Christmas holidays when we have dinner with my family in Yerington, she has utterly destroyed a treasured Persian rug, chewed a three foot hole in our drywall, shredded an entire couch and most recently, clawed her way through our back door. What can we do to help Stella become more comfortable and independent when leaving is unavoidable?
With so many folks working from home these days, the cases of separation distress have skyrocketed. The first known mention of the phrase “separation distress” was recorded in 1968, and since then it has become a well-known term. It has been estimated in a recent survey by Certapet that 47% of Americans report feeling anxious when away from their pets, and 76% of dogs exhibit some form of separation distress.
To give you an idea of how COVID has affected those numbers, pre-pandemic levels of dogs with separation distress were 14%. Signs of separation distress in dogs can be excessive panting, drooling, chewing on the paws or nails, pacing, potty accidents, refusing to eat or drink or attempting to escape when left alone.
The first step I would suggest is to involve a professional dog trainer and a veterinarian as a tandem team. The vast cases of separation distress that I work with involve the aid of medication to take the edge off of the dog’s anxiety and to help them be successful in conjunction with the training. There are two pharmacological interventions that have been approved in the United States for separation distress; fluoxetine and clomipramine. There are also holistic remedies that you can try with supervision from a medical professional.
As a professional dog trainer, there are a series of steps that I will encourage you to take. Begin by observing Stella throughout your day for the very first signs of agitation. Does she become distressed when you pick up your keys, put on your shoes or open the garage door? Is she relaxed as long as someone is in the room with her, or is her anxiety triggered when a certain person leaves the room? Because every case of separation distress is different, it’s important to find the thresholds at which she becomes agitated, and then to work on desensitizing those triggers.
For example, it’s clear that Stella becomes agitated when you and your family leave the house during the holidays. Experiment with shorter, more frequent outings and take note if there is a certain length of time after which she becomes destructive. Is she calmer if she is in a crate? Is she more relaxed if you leave music on or a favorite interactive toy accessible? How about going for a walk prior to leaving?
After evaluating Stella’s tolerance for being left alone, you will want to begin to implement desensitization training. Pick up your keys. If Stella becomes worried and runs over, wait calmly until she relaxes, then put your keys down. Repeat until she looks bored when you reach for the keys. Do the same with your shoes, opening and closing the door, turning on and off the car and so forth. The goal with desensitization is to make the things that concern her mundane.
In conjunction with desensitizing Stella to your departure rituals, you can also begin to practice leaving her alone for brief periods of time. Start small. Stand up and pour yourself a drink in the kitchen. If you return and she has remained calm, praise. Pop outside to check your mail and when you come back, refrain from an over-exuberant greeting. Instead, calmly reward her once she has settled down. You can also make your absence less frightening by providing enrichment activities. Frozen Kong toys stuffed with chopped up hotdog hidden throughout your house is a fun way to keep your dog’s mind busy while you are absent. Just remember where you hid them!
A final suggestion would be to look into hiring a dog walker or dog sitter to watch Stella for those unavoidable occasions when you will be gone for a long period of time, or to sign her up for doggy daycare. That way you can keep a balance between methodically desensitizing her to your absence and ensuring her safety and happiness when you have to leave.
Kendall and Chandler Brown are owners of Custom K-9 Service Dogs, a dog training business serving Minden/Gardnerville, Carson and Reno. For information go to customk9servicedogs.com or email firstname.lastname@example.org.