Dog Separation Anxiety Conquered!

by Melissa R. on October 13, 2009

Irish Setter Molly

Irish Setter Molly

This is my story about my dog’s separation anxiety. See how I identified the problem as separation anxiety, and the solutions I used together to help my dog conquer separation anxiety.

Many years ago I adopted a 6 year old female Irish Setter from a rescue group in Wisconsin. Molly was my very first dog while out on my own and she was dearly loved and spoiled! She had been owned by a “breeder” but was not leading a quality life, and we believe spent most of her adult life confined and having puppies. I’m sure that coming to live with me was her dream come true. The very first thing Molly did when she entered her new home was climb onto the couch, and sit there happily, wagging her tail.

Rightfully so, Molly became very devoted to me, and very slowly, started showing signs of anxiety when I would leave: whining, barking, howling, gnawing at her crate, etc. I thought she’d “get over it”, but decided to set up a video camera to see exactly what was going on. That happened to be the day poor Molly went over the edge. I came home from work and thought somebody had vandalized my home! The blinds had been ripped down & torn to shreds, the wall near the door was scratched terribly, the handle on the sliding door & the front door were dented and scratched, part of the molding was torn off, etc. Certainly Molly couldn’t have done this as she was safely in her crate, right? Wrong. She had gotten out…

Watch this video to see just how how severe her dog separation anxiety was. Rest assured, Molly never physically hurt herself.

I immediately visited my vet, and this is when I first found out about Separation Anxiety (SA). I had no idea it existed, and that it is fairly common with symptoms ranging from mild anxiety to severe. Molly’s case was severe. The first thing we did was put her on a course of medication called Clomicalm, which helps with anxiety. She was going to severely hurt herself soon, so the medication was of utmost importance. In addition, I brought her to my parents for a couple weeks until the Clomicalm was able to get into her system and help soothe her anxiety (my parents are semi-retired, and were home all the time). During this time, I researched what to do for Molly.

Dog Separation Anxiety Solutions: what worked for us

  1. I made my comings & goings CALM. No fawning or fussing over Molly when I left or came home. (I was always petting her and hugging her and doing very lively, active, entrances and exits…something we all do everyday with our pets, but not good for a dog with SA)
  2. I made ZERO eye contact or interaction with Molly 20 minutes prior to leaving home. Eye contact with your dog is just the same as speaking or touching them – so when you don’t make eye contact, they begin to relax and realize nothing is going on of any importance. This was the HARDEST thing to do. You don’t realize how often you make eye contact with your dog! Give it a try someday, you’ll be amazed!
  3. I filled a Kong with treats, sealed it with peanut butter, and froze it the night before. Then I put it in her crate with her when I left in the morning to give her something super tasty to distract her while I left.
  4. I put a blanket over her metal crate so it would be more “den-like”.
  5. All meals & treats were provided in the crate so it would be a happy place.
  6. We started Behavior Training. I would have her go in her crate (give her a treat) with a stay command, and then walk just a few feet away, while not acknowledging her. Then I would return and give her another treat for reward. I continued this several times every night, and would increase the distance when she became comfortable with the previous distance. Before I knew it, I was standing outside my home, with Molly sitting comfortably in her crate. We did this for weeks on end until she had no problem with me leaving and being gone for a period of time.
Molly had Separation Anxiety

Molly had Separation Anxiety

Once I had Molly on the medication for a few months, and she was behaving while I was gone (all the while continuing to do the Behavior Training), we started to wean her off the Clomicalm, as that would be the final test to see if we conquered her anxiety. Slowly but surely we weaned her off it, and she was just fine!

I cannot stress enough how important the Behavior Training was, on my part, and for her. Without that, we would never have succeeded. This was a very difficult experience to deal with, but I am proud that we were able to, and happy to share this story so that other people out there can learn from it.

If you suspect your pet is suffering from any level of Separation Anxiety, be sure to consult with your veterinarian. Molly’s case was severe; not all dogs need medication. Sometimes it is just about the behavior training, and other points I outlined above.

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About the author: Melissa is a devoted pet owner with several cats: Kai, Cirrhi & Ritter; and the newest addition, Emme a Nova Scotia Duck Tolling Retriever. Melissa is an avid dog agility enthusiast, and hopes her new pup will someday be an agility champion! She is a Graphic Designer and Project Coordinator for the DrsFosterSmith.com and LiveAquaria.com websites. She holds a Bachelor of Fine Arts in Graphic Design from Michigan State University and is a lifelong pet lover and owner. See more articles by Melissa R.

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{ 14 comments… read them below or add one }

Bonnie Ramba October 15, 2009 at 10:18 am

These are excellent ideas! May I also add that for my greyhound, “Clarence”, I loaded my CD changer with uplifiting music. I could tell that Clarence enjoyed that. I had previously used music when I had a critically ill sheltie named Jasper. To everyone’s surprise, Jasper survived and would lie near the CD player whenever I played the soothing music in the future.

Tina October 16, 2009 at 7:51 am

I always left the TV on when I left to help my lab mix who definitely as anxiety about being left alone. Cartoon Network seems to be her favorite.

Melissa October 19, 2009 at 8:09 am

Oh that is something I forgot! I did purchase some “Soothing Pet Music” CD’s which I would play for Molly when I left. I dont know if they helped or not, but they made me feel better anyway.

Ellen B. October 19, 2009 at 9:56 am

Thanks to this blog post and the comments added, I left my dog this morning with (#3) a kong toy filled with treats & seal with peanut butter, he has (#4) a blanket over the top part of his crate, and (comment) he is listening to the radio. He doesn’t have anxiety issues, but these all sounded like great ideas, and I want him to be as content as possible when home alone.

Jamie October 26, 2009 at 9:21 am

I used to leave my dog with a Kong filled with treats until I came home one afternoon and found he had wedged the whole top part of his snout into the toy. It was a medium Kong recommended for a dog of his size. I had to take him to the vet where they had to sedate him to cut the toy off of his face. I’ll never own another Kong after that experience. I don’t know how long he was trapped with that on his face. His face was swollen and red when they took it off but he was fine once the swelling went down. I am just thankful my vet was open or it would have been a much worse experience.

Melissa October 26, 2009 at 12:42 pm

Wow Jamie, I’ve never heard of that happening. I sure am happy to hear he was fine. Guess we all better check to make sure our Kongs are “extra large” and nobody can get stuck. Thanks for sharing your experience with us.

Sarah December 1, 2009 at 3:41 pm

Thank you for sharing your story. I recently adopted a 5 year old Lab who was used for excessive breeding and later abandoned and found in a barn. The first few months were pretty smooth sailing until the past few weeks when her SA increased dramatically. She howls/barks from the minute I leave the house until I return. I’ve used kongs, a crate, canine pheramones, clothing with my scent on it, you name it. My neighbors are NOT happy. I’ve implemented many of these techniques but need to consult my vet in addition to intensive Behavior Training. It is very comforting to know (during such a stressful time) that others have succeeded in easing SA.

mandi March 18, 2010 at 9:32 am

hey, i’m in an adoption trial 2wks. with a dog who was found on side of the highway eating garbage. She then was evaluated and was diagnosed with pyometra (a fatal serious uterus infection) she had EVERYTHING female removed from her in a surgery (big scar). was also in early stages of a pregnancy at the time. it has only been 4wks now since her rescue. she spent 1 wk with the rescue place, then got surgery, then 2wks later she came to me, and i’ve had her 1wk. she’s been through alot, and hard telling what happened before that time, because she’s between 1 to 2 yrs. old, and has a bad old leg injury where her elbow is a big knot, and is ceased, and her leg is smaller than the other one due to her favoring it for a while apparently. all that being said she’s is super sweet, and learns pretty fast, i actually kind of love her already, and esp. my son loves her (she sleeps with him he is seven). anyway, i’ve left one day for three short times to test her (she is house broke) she freaked barking, whining, clawed up my door probably would destroy it completley if she has enough time alone! she peed on the bed (a river). i was unaware of the leg issue going into this, and was told she was laid back and almost a perfect dog. seperation anxiety was never mentioned, i was told she does fine in a house left out to rome. i’m extremely stressed out right now. i feel hopeless like i could never rectify this issue, you have given me some hope. i can get my money back in the trial period, but it would not be enough time to know if she can get over this. i’m so upset that i wasn’t warned about this, now my son loves her and he would be highly upset if we give her back. i don’t have money since my husband works at a factory and i stay home with kids right now (i wouldn’t have it any other way). the adoption fee plus a door and whatever else really makes me nervous here. i will get started right away with this technique it sounds the absolute most promising thank you so much for sharing your story.

Melissa March 18, 2010 at 11:03 am

Mandi – there is definitely hope for this sweet girl you have. You should start crating her for sure though. You should speak to the people doing the adoption trial if they have any words of wisdom for you as well, and perhaps a “Loaner” crate while you work out this situation. Poor thing has just found herself in a loving, happy home (finally) and is worried you’re going to leave and not come back. Try some of the techniques in here, and keep us posted! If you can, visit a vet and see if they can help with some behavior modification medications for a short time, as I described. – Melissa

DogAnxiety July 2, 2010 at 9:49 am

As well as all the useful behaviour training techniques mentioned here,we’ve found that leadership can be a big issue for dogs with separation anxiety. For a dog it can only be one of two ways – either you’re pack leader, or they are. Trouble is they live with us in a world they don’t understand, so being leader causes them a lot of stress. It also makes them responsible for you, so when you go out and they don’t know where you are they get desperate and do things like try and scratch their way out of a door – they want to come and find you and make sure you’re alright! If you become leader of the pack they will stop worrying about you and their separation anxiety – with some of the behaviour training mentioned here, should disappear.

Nan March 31, 2012 at 11:06 am

I am so happy I found your article and will be adopting your ideas for my rescue terrier from the Caribbean. I have another older dog that howls when the terrier starts barking after I leave. We have had barking complaints from the neighbors so I started videotaping also. I am using a natural sedative tea of skullcap and passion flower that seems to work somewhat but after he has his kong toy treat he realizes I am gone and starts for about 35 minutes. I will be feeding him in his kennel in the morning and definitely have started the behaviour training already. I also purchased a Thunder Shirt for him and I think this may help eventually with everything else I can do. The older dog seems much calmer when wearing his Thunder Shirt. Thanks again for sharing and I look forward like yourself to a happier and quieter Terrier while I am out of the house.

Mallory June 27, 2012 at 3:59 pm

I can’t thank you enough for your ideas!! We have a rescue terrier that we were told was crate trained but ended up having serious SA when we left for work. According to our neighbors he barked for 4 to 5 hours straight! We put a blanket over his crate, turned on some jazz, put the kong with frozen peanut butter in, and filmed him. We are only two days in and our neighbors haven’t heard a thing from him and he did very well according to the film. Its almost as if he knows he is being watched because he makes eye contact with the camera often, especially when he has a small bark and looks guilty. These were all such great ideas and my boyfriend and I thank you so much!!

Bonnie Henry June 26, 2013 at 9:51 pm

Hi thanks for sharing all your ideas. I have a Shih Tzu mix, He was about 3-4 when I rescued him from the shelter. They had to hold him there for 12 days but they never gave him a bath or took all the wood ticks off him, My girlfriend and I removed 30 ticks off him. He attached to me like you wouldn’t believe, He is now 8 and he still has issues,. I have tried everything, I have tried the crate with a blanket over it, all he did was tear up the bottom of it and the blanket I had in there for him to lay on. I also put a kong in there, He also bent the metal door IN, as he was trying to get out. When I came home I had a heck of a time getting him out.
I now just leave him have the run of the house but have to shut and block the windows on the bay window because a couple of times I forgot to shut the windows and when I came home he was outside meeting me as I pulled up in the driveway. he has scratched and chewed the window sill.
If anyone has any other suggestions please let me know. He is also a diabetic. so I really can’t give him any treats. I would love to know if the Thunder shirt works. I think that is going to be my last try. and if that doesn’t work then I guess I will have to just live with it and keep loving him

Kelly July 13, 2017 at 7:38 pm

OMG Melissa thanks a Million! I SHOULD known these things since I’ve had a Maltese for 18 yrs. Just rescued 9yr old Maltese who is very well trained, adjusting well n bonding well but not doing well with separation anxiety. Maybe I just needed refreshing but ur help has been great in JUST 2hrs following ur POSITIVE crate training! Still need to develop skills while he is with me at work but he has happily eaten, had treats, not barked, n just starting to snooze in crate. Also, probably best result is that I know he can be happy n comfortable in crate…I “PLACE him” in crate with positivity, love, and confidence that this will soon be his home base, safe place and release his anxiety. Thanks from me n my new, soon to be content buddy, SKY!

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