Separation Anxiety

Separation anxiety is more than Spot whining when you leave for work...dogs with separation anxiety (SA) will often become absolutely frantic when left. Generally, they'll "fall apart" within a relatively short period of time after their owner's departure - they're not bored, they're frightened! You've gone away, will you ever come back? Digging, destructive chewing, howling, barking, urination, and defecation can all be symptoms of SA if excessive.

This page is a list of my personal research into SA, treatments, and behavior tips. Your mileage may vary, and I'd like to hear any additional input or experience.  There is no magic pill for SA!!! Neither the veterinary or alternative methods described here will be effective WITHOUT the additional work with behavior modification.

How to tell if a dog is bored, or has SA

Or, when is a chew just a chew! If your dog is at a developmental stage that involves chewing and other "puppyish" activity, it may not be SA - even if they just ate your couch! Here are some signs that may be present if your dog has SA:

* Destruction or anxiety related behavior occurs when he/she is left alone, even for short periods. If your dog doesn't get destructive unless you're gone for 8 hours, he's probably bored
* When you're home, the dog follows you from room to room, not allowing you out of his/her sight
* He/she seems anxious when you're getting ready to leave the house, following you, panting, or excessive excitement
* He/she dislikes spending time outdoors by his/herself
* Inappropriate urination/defecation that only occurs when you're absent - if the problem occurs when you're home, it could be a housebreaking issue
* Greetings when you return home are excessive and/or frantic
* Neighbors complain of excessive, non-stop barking when you're absent from home

If it's really what?

General "wisdom" involving SA involves a two-fold treatment. First, intervention by way of veterinary or alternative treatment to lessen the physical reactions of the anxiety. Then, behavior modification to retrain the dog to a new way of thinking and acting.

Veterinary medication

Clomicalm (clomipramine hydrochloride) - Clomicalm is the most commonly recommended traditional medication for SA. Dosage is generally at 2-4mg/kg, and the medication can take 30 days or longer to take effect. Please note that clomicalm is NOT recommended for dogs with an aggression issue in addition to SA - it may cause the aggression to worsen. It's also not recommended for dogs with seizure issues, or for breeding males. For complete info on Clomicalm and possible side effects, review the complete labeling.

Elavil (amitriptyline) - Elavil is not officially recognized for the use of animal anxiety, but is commonly prescribed for this "off label" use. Dosage is generally at 1-4mg/kb. It can also be useful in the treatment of thunderstorm anxiety. For more info on Elavil and anxiety disorders, click here.

Other traditional medications - Several other human anti-anxiety medications are sometimes prescribed for "off label" use in the treatment of anxiety disorders. Some common medications are Paxil, Zoloft, and Xanax. If you feel your dog can benefit from the use of one of these medications, please discuss this with your vet.

Herbal alternatives

Melatonin - Melatonin is one of the most commonly suggested alternative treatments for SA. Dosages of 3mg can be used for dogs up to 50lbs, and increased proportionally from there. When purchasing melatonin, look for a regular variety as opposed to a "time release" - it seems to be more effective for canine use. Melatonin can also be useful for thunderstorm anxiety, and is best given 45-60 minutes before departure.

Valerian - Valerian can be dosed at 4mg/lb for use with anxiety problems in the powder form, or 1/4 human dose for small dogs, 1/2 dose for medium, and full dose for large dogs when using the liquid tincture. Beware - valerian WILL "wire up" some dogs, and cause them to become more anxious/energetic. Best results are achieved when you'll be absent for shorter periods, and when the valerian is given ~30-45 minutes before departure.

Skullcap - Skullcap often works well with dogs who have a poor reaction to valerian. The same basic dosage protocol applies.

Other herbal remedies - Passionflower can be useful for treatment of anxiety, but I haven't had particularly good luck with it in treating SA. Actipet also sells an herbal blend for anxiety called "Anxiety Free". Please be VERY careful with any herbal blend that contains kava kava - if you feel that it's appropriate for use, consider using it for a short period of time. Kava kava has been linked to liver problems in dogs.

Non-herbal alternative treatments

L-theanine - This is a new item to my virtual "arsenal" of SA treatments, but initial results seem very promising! It's given good results with the couple of dogs that have tried it up to this point, and would probably be my first recommendation for a non-veterinary alternative. L-theanine is a free-form amino acid, and is recommended for use in treating anxiety in humans, as well. Most health food stores have the ability to order this, if they don't carry it in stock. Dosage is 100mg for a 50lb dog, once per day, scaled up/down from there.

Flower essence therapy - The most commonly known flower essence is Rescue Remedy, by Bach. RR can be very useful in milder cases of SA - put 3-5 drops in the communal water dish each time the water is refilled. There are no "hazards" to flower essence use for non-affected pets - if they don't need the essence, it won't affect them. For more severe cases, Separation from Green Hope Farm can be useful, as can Loneliness or Missing You from Anaflora. Both of these sites offer consultations for an exact mix for your pet and his/her specific issues.

Comfort Zone - Or, the DAP diffuser in the dog version. Comfort Zone is a pheromone scent diffuser that can be useful in treatment of anxiety. PetEdge is one of the most inexpensive places to acquire the Comfort Zone and refills - many pet stores also carry this item. My experience is that it takes 2-4 weeks to "kick-in", and it either works well or not at all. It does require a replacement refill every 4 weeks.

More is better, right?

WRONG! All of these treatments, including the veterinary medications, should be given/tried on a solo basis. While the flower essence therapy can begin to work within a few days, most of these items can take 2-4 weeks to show a change in behavior. A "scattergun" or mix-it-all-up approach can actually make the problem worse instead of better! In addition, please discuss any alternative treatment with your vet before using it in conjunction with a prescribed medication.

Behavior modification

There are three "basics" that I use for beginning behavior modification for SA. The first is to make sure that the dog is in a secure place while you're gone where it cannot hurt itself or destroy your home. This is, most commonly, a crate. But my dog breaks out of the crate!

Well, they make crates to hold lions, tigers, and elephants - there's probably one somewhere that will hold your dog! Many dogs with SA will do better in a varikennel or kennel cab style crate rather than a wire crate - a bungee cord can be used as extra security for the door.

The key element is to make the crate a place where Good Things Happen. The dog gets fed here, gets treats here, gets kongs here, etc. One of my favorite "conditioning" tips is to take a REALLY good, smelly treat - something your dog absolutely loves. Put it in the crate. And close the door - with the dog OUTSIDE the crate. This will help reinforce that there is good "stuff" in there, and that he/she should want to be in there too!

A common mistake that some owners make is ONLY using the crate when they're gone. At my house, even on Saturday we have "naptime".....dogs spend some time in their crates. I'll also put them in for short periods when I'm home, when they're eating, etc. The last thing you want to develop is "crate = THEY'RE LEAVING".

The second piece of behavior modification is to put the dog on NILIF - Nothing In Life Is Free. Dog wants out, dog must sit at the door - dog wants dinner, dog must "down". This has two uses...first, they learn that you're in charge, you're in control, and that there's really nothing to worry about. Second, they learn that what they do CAN affect what happens - hey! I sit, I get a cookie!

The third piece is to keep arrivals and departures very low-key. All dogs get their morning cookie, and head for their crates....15 minutes BEFORE I leave the house. During that last 15 minutes, I ignore them. When I come home, they can go straight outside.....I might say hello, but save more effusive greetings for 15-20 minutes AFTER I've returned.

For a more thorough, basic description of behavior modification for SA, see DDFL's page.

The Book on SA - The most detailed, highly recommended book for the treatment of SA with behavior modification is Patricia McConnell's "I'll Be Home Soon" - it should be required reading for anyone who is dealing with a SA dog. If it's not available at your local bookstore, order from  Dogwise.

Another good book for "case history" of dogs with issues is "The Dog Who Loved Too Much" by Nicholas Dodman. This book is also available at Dogwise, although I didn't find it as practical as Dr. McConnell's book.

When to say.....enough.

The sadder side of SA. Sometimes, all of the love, and behavior work, and medication in the world just isn't enough. Your dog may be too anxious, and continues to be a danger to him/herself in the frantic anxiety that comes from being separated from you. If you've made an honest, long-term attempt with medication and behavior work, sometimes the kindest thing is to consider euthanasia.

"AH HA! I knew it! That mean old rescue lady is telling me to kill my dog!" Absolutely not. Most rescues won't work with dogs with SA, but we're happy to share all of our time, resources, and knowledge to help keep a dog with SA in their home and happy.

But if efforts fail....I cannot honestly believe that being constantly frantic and miserable with no relief is in the best interests of any dog. Sometimes, the tough decision is the right one.

This page is dedicated to Max, my own SA the fosters we have been able to help....and especially those we haven't been able to save. Godspeed to them.

Got a dog with SA, and need advice? Please write - we'll try to help.

The Links

A truly bittersweet note. When I started gathering these resources, close to 3 years ago, a search for "dog separation anxiety" brought me a handful of pages - my recollection is somewhere around 6. Today, that same search will bring you dozens, if not hundreds, of pages. Is this because SA is more prevalent, or because we've become better at helping the dogs? I don't know....but I'm holding out for option 2!

Please let me know if you have a link to add, or if you discover that any of these are broken.