Separation anxiety is a heartbreaking condition that effects 1 in 7 dogs (that's 13 million dogs in the United States alone).
My own dogs suffer from separation anxiety and it has made it very difficult for me to leave the house.
When I am away, I stress out thinking about how they're doing, which makes me a lot less fun to be with at social gatherings. Heck, it's even put the kibosh on most vacation dreams.
Thankfully, there is hope! On today's show, Preventive Vet's own certified dog trainer and behavior consultant, Cathy Madson, and I are joined by special guest, Dr. Judy Korman, veterinarian and Chief Business Officer for Assisi Animal Health. Dr. Korman is a part of the development team, along with engineers and neurobiologists, that created a breakthrough drug-free therapy to help dogs with separation anxiety.
Jump to Section
- Symptoms of canine separation anxiety
- Take the Canine Separation Anxiety Quiz
- Regular puppy behavior vs. separation anxiety
- Learn more about the Calmer Canine technology
- How to use your laptop to record your dog while you're away
What is Separation Anxiety?
Separation anxiety is a particular fear and state of worry that dogs experience when they are left alone or separated from a certain person. "It's usually when the attachment figure leaves the home that you're seeing some of the most major signs of separation anxiety," says Dr. Korman.
There are varying levels of severity, but the dog is experiencing the equivalent of a panic attack in people. In many cases, a dog will start to show anxious behaviors when they think they are about to be left alone due to the anticipation of being away from their person.
Many things can contribute to a dog developing separation anxiety, including:
- Previous bad experiences when left alone
- Being re-homed or growing up in a shelter environment
- Lack of socialization during their critical development period as a puppy
- Possible genetic component
- Never taught how to be alone
- Canine cognitive dysfunction ("doggy dementia")
- Change in routine (e.g. loss or addition of a family member)
- Suffering from other anxieties (noise phobia, travel anxiety, etc.)
- Previous bad experiences when left alone
What’s happening in the brain?
When a dog is experiencing separation anxiety, the naturally occurring chemicals in their brain are out of balance. The sympathetic nervous system (a part of the autonomic nervous system) is activated, readying the dog to respond to the perceived "threat" with the fight, flight, or freeze responses.
The release of hormones (such as cortisol and adrenaline) floods their brain and causes physiological responses that include increased heart rate, alertness, and more blood flow to muscles so they are ready to act. This state of mind is exhibited by the measurable physical symptoms of separation anxiety.
"These physical expressions of the panic and anxiety they're feeling aren't voluntary," says Cathy Madson. "A dog isn't being a 'bad dog' on purpose or to get back at you for leaving them alone. They really can't help themselves."
When a dog repeatedly experiences this state of panic, it becomes harder for their body to flush these chemicals and restore balance in the emotional processing centers of the brain. It becomes more difficult for them to return to a state referred to by behavior experts as "under threshold" — the state where they can successfully absorb behavior modification exercises and retrain their conditioned emotional responses to certain stimuli — in this case, being left alone.
Symptoms of canine separation anxiety
Some anxiety symptoms are more obvious than others. When evaluating a dog's symptoms to determine if it is in fact separation anxiety, it's important to consider if the dog only shows the majority of these behaviors when left alone or when separated from their attachment figure.
If they are also exhibiting these behaviors at other times, it might be a different type of anxiety, a lack of training, or due to an underlying medical issue.
The most common separation anxiety symptoms seen in dogs are:
- Barking, whining, and howling.
- Destructive behavior such as chewing or scratching, especially destruction at exit points (windows, doors, gates, crate doors), sometimes referred to as "escapism."
- House soiling in an otherwise house trained dog. In severe cases this often includes bouts of diarrhea or vomiting with the dog is left alone.
- Barking, whining, and howling.
More subtle signs of separation anxiety include:
- Watching the door or out the window expectantly for their owner's return
- Licking or chewing on themselves repetitively (also called self-harm or acral lick)
- Excessively greeting their owner when they return, often throwing themselves at the person, clawing or biting at them in overexcitement.
- Shadowing their owner when they are home, and unable to relax without knowing where that person is at all times.
Here is an example of my 10-year-old Pug, Mabel Petrillo, barking and banging on the baby gate back in November:
Want to know if your dog may be suffering from separation anxiety? Take the quiz below.
Is this normal puppy and dog behavior? Or separation anxiety?
You might wonder how can you tell when certain behavior is just a puppy being a puppy, or even normal adult dog behavior, versus true separation anxiety. Many symptoms of separation anxiety are the same that bored and under-exercised dogs display, and some might even be due to an underlying medical condition.
Puppies going through the teething process often engage in lots of chewing. Senior dogs might be having more accidents indoors because they are aging and might be developing canine cognitive dysfunction, or doggy dementia. A certified dog trainer or veterinarian can help you determine whether or not your dog's behavior is related to anxiety.
We received the following question from a reader:
"We just got a six-month old rescue dog and he follows me everywhere. I need to train him to stay alone so we can have our lives back. He barks if left alone. One time I left him for 15 min, came back and he was fine so I thought next time I could do it longer. So we left for 45 min and came back and he was barking lots. We haven’t left him alone since then.
He’s been with us for 3 weeks only and since we have been home due to holidays, soon we all need to go back to our routines, school, and jobs. He’s a very calm dog, not crazy, just very needy. I really want to train and can’t afford to pay a trainer that would charge more than 600 dollars for this! Thank you!!!"
A dog this age might not have separation anxiety — yet. A certified dog trainer, behavior consultant, or veterinarian can make a more concrete diagnosis, and discuss other reasons he's exhibiting barking. Since he was recently rescued, he is still going through a transition period after adoption.
Settling into a new home takes some time, and it's important to slowly build a dog up to being left alone for longer and longer periods of time. Creating a regular routine can help a new dog in the home learn what to expect and provide a much-needed sense of security.
A certified dog trainer is the best resource for helping a dog learn that being left alone isn't something to be worried about. Prevention is cheaper than future treatment of full-blown separation anxiety, not to mention the cost of repairs or replacement for things that have been chewed up or destroyed.
In some cases, the barking and howling of anxious dogs causes major tension with neighbors, and has resulted in evictions for renters. Investing in the personalized help of a professional will save you stress and future costs down the road.
How might someone tell that their dog is suffering from separation anxiety without setting up a video camera or webcam?
- Neighbors will often inform people of constant barking or howling. DID YOU KNOW: The subjects of the fantastic documentary "Biggest Little Farm" actually made their big move away from the city because they were being evicted due to their rescue pup’s separation anxiety symptoms.
- You might find chewed up items or damage from scratching or chewing on doorways and walls.
- You come home to potty accidents when your dog is reliable going outside when you're home.
- Your dog has to follow you everywhere and seems to panic when you're out of their sight
- When you get home your dog is frantic during their greeting. You might notice they are unable to settle down after your arrival for quite some time, and they seem unable to control their jumping, mouthing, pawing, and might even urinate out of excitement.
What Should You Do If Your Dog Has Separation Anxiety?
If your dog has separation anxiety, you'll want to connect with a certified dog trainer and your veterinarian to begin anxiety management and treatment. They can help you utilize management tools, such as calming music, dog appeasing pheromones, anxiety vests, or supplements and medication.
More importantly, they will get you started with a behavior modification plan, which will include counter conditioning and desensitization. Your trainer or vet might also recommend other treatment options, such as the new Calmer Canine treatment.
What is Calmer Canine?
As the video below explains, Calmer Canine is a drug-free technology that uses targeted pulsed electromagnetic field (tPEMF™) signals specifically tuned to target the anxiety-center of your dog's brain (the Amygdala) to increase the production of nitric oxide and reduce inflammation caused by stress and anxiety.
Treatments are given twice daily for 15 minutes about 8 hours apart. There is a velcro vest that can be used to attach the device in place, or if your dogs hate wearing things you can just hold it over their heads. They don't feel anything while it's happening and if anything, when I pull out the device my pups seem ready for their treatments and just relax into a comfortable position on our laps.
Fun Fact: The technology was conceived and developed by a group of veterinarians and neurobiologists after learning about a Harvard study that took place after a group of depressive human patients experienced a major lift in mood after receiving an MRI scan.
The technology is actually approved for people with mood disorders and severe depression.
My Personal Experience with Calmer Canine
My 12-year-old Frenchie, Marshall, has had separation anxiety since I adopted him at 9 months old. As far as I thought I knew, he would mostly sleep when I was gone, but when he got bored would chew any rugs, shoes, coats, mats, paper bags, or Swiffer dusters that he could reach.
When I started recording him my heart absolutely broke. There was no napping, a lot of howling (and he isn't a barker so it never even crossed my mind that he would do that), banging his paw against his gate, chewing the gate (!!!), pacing, and watching the door for the entire time we were gone.
The box he is destroying in the video below is something he pulled out from behind our garbage cans which are in the corner next to the heater by his bed. I also had no idea he could hold himself up to look out the window.
Mabel Petrillo is relatively new to our family but as you may have guessed after watching the video from the beginning of this post, it didn't take us long to figure out she's got some anxiety to work through!
We had been given two different anti-anxiety pills for her to take, but she would turn into a sleepy zombie staring off into space — even when we gave her half the dosage prescribed. To top that off, this poor girl was recently diagnosed with a collapsing trachea, and put on even more meds.
When I first heard about the drug-free canine separation anxiety treatment option from Calmer Canine, I was hopefully skeptical and really eager to try it. As soon as the box arrived, I took out the device, which looks like a little halo, and immediately got them started on their treatments.
Since Marshall hates wearing anything, I opted not to put the vest on him and just hold the loop over his head for 15 minutes during our regular evening and early morning cuddle sessions. Eventually, he even let me go hands-free and kept it laying on his head.
Mabel had a similar response but since her head is so tiny and her ears aren't standing up, my wife had to hold it over her the whole time and was still able to multitask while reading the news on her phone.
It took about a week and a half for us to start seeing results, but after that, the progress continued and was undeniable.
I used to dread checking the cameras because they just made me sad. Now, the pups are usually completely chill. Marshall is usually snoozing or playing with one of his interactive treat toys the entire time, and Mabel is either taking a nap, eating her food, or playing with her treat toy.
At this point, Mabel can go about four hours until starting to show some signs of anxiety. Marshall had a little setback when we went away for a few days over the holidays and left him with a babysitter, but after being home for a few days, even without more treatments, he has gone back to the progress he made before we left.
We're going to continue treatments for a little while longer, but I am so excited and relieved to have something in our toolkit that has proven to be effective for my dogs.
How to Use Your Computer to Record Your Animals While You're Gone
On your PC
I am a Mac user so I'll leave it to this PC pro to teach you how to create a video using your PC's webcam.
On your Mac
1) Open QuickTime Player (icon is a little black and blue "Q")
2) Go to the file menu and select New Movie Recording
3) The player window will open and you might surprise yourself like when you accidentally open your camera in selfie mode. You will see the red record button and where it shows the audio levels. Place your computer up where it can get a good view of the action and hit the record button.
The only problem I've had doing it this way is that the files end up being ginormous, and if your computer doesn't have a lot of free space, there's a good chance you won't be able to actually save the recording.
If you don't need to record, but would like to spy on your animals — at least for a little while, you can also use something like Skype or FaceTime. Just set up the video chat from your computer to watch the animals and dial in from your phone. I would recommend muting your end of the conversation so they can't hear you because that might add stress and confusion when they hear your voice.
If and when you're ready to invest in some real cameras meant for streaming, I highly recommend the ones I ended up getting (after letting my coworker be the guinea pig).
These Wyze cameras are definitely affordable — I bought two so that I can keep an eye on Marshall in the kitchen and Mabel in the office. There is absolutely no need for help with installation, so don't even think about adding that for $150 per unit. I am so sure of this, that I will volunteer as tribute to handle any of your "installation" questions and troubleshooting needs.
I love that I don't need to always be looking at my phone because it records events if either of them start moving, and it lets me tune in to them at any time without needing to "dial in" each time like you would with a FaceTime or Skype session. It also lets you zoom in and rotate the camera 360-degrees, so you have a lot of control over what you're able to see.