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Canine Behavior/Dog with Severe Separation Anxiety?


I just adopted a 6 year old Springer Spaniel (spayed female) from a shelter in early January.  She has terrible separation anxiety.  I work every day and have tried a few things...but she panics every time!  Some symptoms include: excessive drooling, trying to escape, barking, howling, "screaming", shaking... peeing if left out.  I'm not sure what to do next?

Here is what I have tried:
- Vet visit:  She is healthy according to my vet.
- Melatonin: My vet suggested giving her 3 mgs a day but I have not seen a difference yet. I have only done this for a week.
- DAP diffuser: This has been used for a few weeks.
- Thundershirt: NO help!
- Baby gates in kitchen: She attempted to escape and tore up the walls, peed, hurt herself tearing the gates down.
- Crate: She barks, drools, and whines for hours.  I'm afraid of complaining neighbors (I rent.)
- Exercise: I walk her three times a day for 30 minutes or more each time, I take her to the dog park, and I work on obedience training and crate games.
- Desensitizing: I could do more of this...but it is sometimes hard to do effectively AND give her consistency.  She almost expects the weird key-jingling, coat-wearing, shoes on and off behavior every morning now...
- Music and TV on: This seems to help at first...

Is this a time issue?  Am I on the right track?  She is such a sweet and obedient dog...she just wants love!  I ignore her for ten to fifteen minutes before I leave and when I come home... I'm going a bit bonkers here.

Please help!

Some people say DO crate train because of the den feeling...others say do NOT because she panics... agh!

It's not a matter of desensitizing, that is a quite difficult thing to do even in humans.  It's a matter of counter conditioning.  "She almost expects the weird key-jingling, coat-wearing, shoes on and off behavior every morning now..."  Obviously not working and most likely because time of day is involved and, whether or not you're aware of it, you are highly stressed.  Your body language communicates to the dog instantly.  You know you're trying to help her but she *sees* the stress involved and this is one smart dog, she's put 2+2 together!

Crating a dog that is in such extreme anxiety is not safe, physically or psychologically.  She will at some point attempt to get out of the crate and can be seriously hurt in the process.  You must somehow construe a way to confine her to the kitchen; she has barrier frustration (which is why she did the damage trying to get through the baby gates) so this can be tricky.  You might have to hire a carpenter to actually install solid wood doors that are cut in "half" (dutch doors) with the bottom half higher than she can jump and a locked handle (inside lock).  Yes you can expect damage to the room, so removing anything she can actually destroy is a good idea (table, chairs, cabinets, etc. and put baby locks on ALL lower cabinets, especially those containing cleaning articles).

Melatonin is a sleep aid formulated for HUMANS and intended to be taken at bedtime. Its effects vary and it is not FDA approved as a medication so the action of this agent on the brain has not been fully investigated.  I can tell you that I took it ONCE and felt AWFUL for hours the next day.  STOP using it.  Your veterinarian should be aware of medications that are approved and tested and presently being used to treat severe separation anxiety.  I suggest you bump up to the next level of veterinary care: a veterinary behaviorist.  You should be able to find one on the following sites but certainly by calling the veterinary college in your geographical area:

Follow my protocol for counter conditioning in severe separation anxiety.  This is not a quick fix and it requires you make a full commitment, but it will work.  How you treat this situation now will determine whether or not the dog makes a full recovery over the next few months.

1.  You can create an emotional independence in the dog by conditioning a "time out" article.
Simply place the chosen article (something you don’t use for any other purpose, like an odd garden statue) in full view of the dog every day for thirty minutes to one hour and call a "time out", during which you actively ignore the dog.  When you remove the article, reward the dog with praise, but don’t overdo it.  Over the course of two weeks, your dog will begin to recognize the article and begin to acknowledge your unavailability (many dogs go to a corner to lie down, or their favorite couch spot, etc.)  Once you observe your dog’s recognition of the article, put it in plain sight about ten minutes before leaving the house (but NOT in the room the dog is confined to, the dog will lose its conditioned response.)  In other words, use the article as a CUE to the dog that you are not available.

2.  Make your dog earn everything for about one month, including pats, entering/leaving the home, etc.  (This is called “Nothing in life is free”.)  You will be promoting yourself psychologically, which will help the dog to feel calmer.

3.  Purchase Turid Rugaas' book, “On Talking Terms with Dogs: Calming signals” or go to her web site  Observe the dog’s behaviors before you depart to determine if your departure rituals are creating anxiety.  Use calming signals just before leaving the house WITHOUT saying “goodbye” to the dog (which can set the dog up for emotional distress.)  Dogs instantly respond to these signals and you’ll begin to see that response immediately.

4.  Change your departure rituals so you do not inadvertently "cue" your dog.  This means doing things differently EVERY day during treatment (which should last about two to four weeks.)  If you put your coat on last, put your coat on five minutes before you actually leave the house; if you pick up your keys last, put them in your pocket ten minutes before leaving the house, etc.  Again, given two weeks (at least) of this treatment, along with the others, your dog’s extreme sensitivity to your departure rituals should diminish and/or extinguish.  When you RETURN home, ignore the dog for a few seconds, and then ask the dog to “sit” and acknowledge him/her; keep your homecoming attention short and sweet.  If there is any destruction around (torn objects, etc.) IGNORE IT.  What you don’t want is the dog to fear your RETURN as much as s/he fears your leave taking.  

5.  Do not allow the dog free “run” of the house when you are gone; this places a heavy emotional burden to “protect” on the dog, and might increase stress (which accounts for excessive barking!) Put the dog in a protected space (kitchen, well ventilated and spacious laundry area,  etc., NOT the basement or the garage).  Keep “special” toys there the dog doesn’t have at any other time, like a “kong” with a ½ teaspoon of peanut butter, a Buster Cube which holds a portion of the dog's daily food and which the dog will roll around to obtain it, a squeaky toy, etc. The dog will begin to anticipate this treat and associate it with your leaving the house.  Try using sound technology especially designed for dogs, as seen on Amazon:

Dogs that have been rehomed often develop separation anxiety; dogs that have been heavily bonded to a person that is then “lost” (not seen again for whatever reason) can suffer serious anxiety at the leave taking of the “new” human caregiver; dogs that have moved with their human family to a totally foreign environment are emotionally “lost” and may develop separation problems.  Some dogs are generally anxious or high strung and have a greater tendency toward emotional distress.  Ask your veterinarian if your dog may benefit from a course of medication while you are using behavior modification to change his/her separation related problem behaviors.  This medication should NOT be SSRIs (“doggy Prozac”).   There are several medications (including Clomicalm) which are presently being used to treat severe separation anxiety, but remember that all medications have side effects.  Be certain to check the web site and observe your dog carefully for potential side effects, especially harmful ones, and report these to the Vet immediately.

You've had this dog a very short time.  You must remain calm and be committed to a program of counter conditioning, plus medication should the veterinary behaviorist suggest it (which s/he most likely will).  Putting the dog at ease psychologically (with NILIF, making her earn everything) will help to calm her overall. Introducing mental stimulation (try "Teach Tricks" by Kyra Sundance, available at Amazon) will enhance her cognition.  Putting your coat on and stepping out for fifteen seconds at random intervals will totally confuse any cues.  Ignoring her for more than ONE minute when you return is an error: after one minute, stand perfectly still until she has settled down and LOOKS at you, then ask for "sit" and praise her, go on as normal.  Acknowledging the dog upon return is important but when and how you do it is equally important.

Try these things and give it some time.  Report back using followup feature.

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Jill Connor, Ph.D.


I have spent my entire professional life rehabilitating the behavior of the domestic dog and I can answer any question regarding any behavior problem in any breed dog. I have answered more than 5,000 QUESTIONS on this site in the past (almost) eight years. If you are a caring, committed owner and need advice, I'm here for you. I am personally acquainted with my colleagues (Turid Rugaas, Ian Dunbar, etc.) who were members of an elite group in EGroups that I founded: K9Shrinks. THERE ARE NO QUICK FIXES for serious behavioral issues; not only is it unprofessional to offer same, it is also unethical. IF I ASK YOU SUBSEQUENT QUESTIONS, I NEED YOU TO INTERACT WITH ME. More information equals more credible answers and a more successful outcome. If you want ANSWERS THAT WORK, participate in any way I request. I'm quite committed to working on this site for YOUR benefit and the benefit of YOUR DOG. Help me in any way you can.


30 years of solving serious behavior problems in domestic dogs; expert in dog to human aggression; Internet columnist for for 5 years; former radio talk show host, WHPC.FM, Garden City, NY "Bite Back" (1995 through 2000). List owner, international animal behavior experts, Seminar leader: "Operant Conditioning and Learning"; "Aggression in The Domestic Dog"; "Solving Problem Behaviors" -- conducted for various training facilities on Long Island from 1993 through 2000. Former clinical director of "Behavioral Abnormalities" in conjunction with Mark Beckerman, DVM, Hempstead, New York.

Member, APDT (UK); Psychologists in Ethical Treatment with Animals

Harcourt Brace Learning Direct: "The Business of Dog Training" "The Fail Safe Dog: Brain Training, not Pain Training"

Ph.D., UC Berkeley

Past/Present Clients
Board of Directors: Northeast Dog Rescue Connection; The Dog Project; Sav-A-Dog Foundation; etc. Pro Bono counselor: Little Shelter Humane Society My practice is presently limited to forensics. I diagnose cause of dog bite, based upon testimony before the Court, for attorneys and insurance companies litigating dog bites, including fatal injuries. I also do pro bono work for bona fide rescue organizations, humane societies, et al, regarding such analysis in an effort to obtain release for dogs being held for death in municipal shelters in the US.

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