How I Cured My Dog From Separation Anxiety In 6 Weeks
This story was originally published on PingTag’s Blog.
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In 2017, Leo was found wandering the streets of Los Angeles after being abandoned by his owner, and was turned into the animal shelter.
Due to that incident, he has developed severe separation anxiety that caused him to be in total distress when left alone, to the extent that he used to rub his nose against the wall and the ground until it bled, so that he can get people’s attention.
When I walked by his cage at the shelter, he was laying on his side, barely lifting his head to glance at me with his nose completely raw and covered in blood. And when I asked the volunteer about him, she said that he was returned multiple times to the shelter after being adopted because people couldn’t leave him alone even for 5 minutes. I understood at that moment that Leo had lost hope in finding someone, and was not interested in having his heart broken again.
I decided to adopt Leo on the spot, and try my best to help him. I was at a low point in my life and I guess I needed a challenge to solve that would give me a sense of purpose.
And so the adventure began…
I didn’t know what I was getting myself into, and I am grateful for that. Had I known how hard it was to cure dogs from separation anxiety, I wouldn’t have even attempted it.
It was bad. It was really bad.
The minute I left Leo alone in a room and closed the door, he would scream, pee on the carpet, dig his nails into the door, and start rubbing his nose to the ground until it started bleeding.
After talking with trainers and behaviorists, doing online research and asking questions on forums, I realized that it typically takes at least a year for a dog to start showing signs of improvement, and many dogs never even recover from separation anxiety.
And since most behaviorists told me they had a waiting list of 3–6 months, I had two options: to take him back to the shelter and break his heart again or to accept the challenge and do it myself.
I took on the the challenge, and for the first month, I spent my evenings and weekends reading all the books I could find on the topic, consuming hundreds of YouTube videos, articles, blogs and forum posts.
I experimented with lots of techniques, many of which didn’t work, but a few of them started showing signs of improvement. I kept notes of my research, what worked, what didn’t, and I even had a detailed log of Leo’s progress from being unable to stay alone for 1 minute, until I was finally able to leave him for 30 minutes without a problem.
6 weeks later, Leo was able to stay alone at home for 6+ hours, completely calm, with no signs of anxiety, until I returned.
He is now a confident, quirky, and happy troublemaker. Instead of hiding behind me when he saw strangers, he goes to greet each of them and ask them to scratch his butt for him.
After training Leo out of his separation anxiety, I was also able to help a couple of friends and family members who had dogs with similar conditions, using the same methods and tricks that I used for Leo, and they all saw similar results.
I am sharing those methods and tricks here in hope that it would save others the pain that I had to go through and the time that I spent collecting researching and trying different things from all over the web.
And if you currently have a dog who has separation anxiety, I hope my story will help you see the light at the end of the tunnel, and will give you courage to not give up on them.
First things first
Before we begin, I would like to make it very clear that I am neither a trainer nor a behaviorist. This is NOT a professional advice, but rather a collection of techniques that worked for my dog and showed promising results within the first month.
Each dog, especially rescue dogs, is a unique story and a different case, and your mileage may greatly vary.
You should always consult professionals before attempting any of the techniques described here.
With that out of the way, and without further ado, here is what worked for Leo.
Always use positive reinforcements
Dogs are smart creatures, and are mostly motivated by positive reinforcements. When I first got Leo, I watched close to 100 YouTube videos on training and behavioral modifications, and there were some trainers that I will not name here who used a very aggressive “pack leader” approach to dominate and train their dogs. For instance, when it came to crate training, some of them were using force to pull the dog into the create using a leash that goes through the back window, and when the dog tried to come out, pushed the door in its face. That felt totally wrong to me.
Other resources suggested using a spraying, vibrating or shocking collar on the dog for when he barks when left alone. I got that collar, used it once and then tossed it away because the last thing a dog in distress needs is further distress. Those collars may be useful in eliminating a compulsive behavior (dog barking at other dogs walking by), but not during an emotional distress.
Build up the separation
At its core, separation anxiety is simply your dog not trusting that you will come back when you leave. This is likely due to some kind of past trauma where the dog was abandoned by its original owner, such as the case of rescue dogs, or by an over-display of affection and over-stimulation of adrenalin that makes dogs addicted to the presence of their owner, and distressed by their absence.
Your top goals is to make the dog trust that when you go away, you will be back.
I started by training Leo for the “Place” and “Stay” command, then the “I will be right back command”.
First, I stayed within line of sight, then turned into a different room, then started closing the door and then opening it and returning.
I did that 10–15 times each day, and increased the time every day by a few seconds each time, until he was able to be alone in the bedroom with the door closed for 15–30 minutes while I was in the living room or the kitchen.
And if I ever heard him getting anxious or whining, I would still repeat the mantra “stay, I will be right back” through the wall.
Only when he was comfortable staying in a different room with the door closed long enough that I started leaving the apartment while monitoring him through my phone.
Monitor them while you’re gone
There are lots of fancy pet cameras out there, but I used a mobile app called Manything, which allowed me to turn my old iPhone into a remote viewing camera that monitored Leo while I was away, and also allowed me to talk to him through the app if I saw his separation anxiety kicking in, and tell him that I will be right back.
At that point, Leo was already used to me going into a different room, closing the door and hearing my voice telling him that I will be right back. Talking to him through the camera provided a continuation of that.
The app has motion and audio detection with adjustable sensitivity, so you can set it to send you a push notification if your dog is moving around too much, if he’s going to the door, or if he’s barking or whining.
But my favorite feature is that you can record a voice message and have it played automatically whenever there is a loud sound or too much movement, so that your dog thinks you’re around watching him/her.
Reverse their psychology
Your anxious dog associates you leaving the room with pain, and returning with pleasure.
I wanted to reverse that association long enough with Leo to “neutralize” that behavior.
I did that by giving my dog a bully stick, leaving for 30 seconds, and then returning and taking it away from him. I’d then wait 5–10 minutes and repeat the same exercise. I did that a few times a day for several weeks.
A word of caution: when I shared that with other dog owners who have dogs with separation anxiety, they rightly mentioned that it could lead to “resource guarding” behavior, and if you haven’t had your dog long enough, they might get aggressive if you try to take away their treat.
I was able to avoid that by teaching Leo first the “drop it” command, which would make him drop anything he has in his mouth, and wait for permission to eat it again, even if it was his favorite bully stick!
Never get them excited
Most books and articles that I read about separation anxiety agreed about this: never get your dog excited when you come home.
I know this is much easier said than done, but it is super important to reduce the adrenalin rush when your dog sees you in order to eliminate the anxiety when you leave.
Your dog will always be excited when you return, but if you match your dog’s excitement, or reinforce his excitement by showing too much affection when you return, your dog will get addicted to that moment, which will worsen his separation anxiety.
You can say hello, pat your dog on the back, and then go about doing other things, and later on when the dog is calm, say a proper hi.
Randomize the triggers
Dogs are trigger based, so you need to randomize the order in which you introduce those triggers before you leave home
For instance, seeing you getting dressed and by putting your shoes on followed by hearing the sound of your keys would trigger your dog’s anxiety because that is the order in which you do things every day before leaving.
Leo even knows the difference in color and scent of cloths that I wear at home from the ones that I wear when I go out.
And you need to scramble that pattern by randomly getting dressed to go out without leaving home, or by jiggling the keys and then taking them to the kitchen.
And if you need to leave, randomize the order in which you do your routine before you leave, or start getting ready 30–60 minutes before you have to leave.
Leave your scent
One thing that I saw Leo doing through that camera app when I left home was that he was wandering around to find any of my cloths laying around, would pull them off the bed or the hanger, make a pile, and lay on them until I returned.
So I started leaving him the sweater that I slept in, and placing it in his bed where I wanted him to stay. I guess having my scent around helped calm him down while I was gone.
Limit their space
I have friends whose dogs run to the window as soon as they leave to watch them walking away or driving away, and I can confidently say that for a dog with separation anxiety, that would make it worse.
Through trial and error, I found out that Leo was more anxious if left alone with access to the entire apartment, and was more calm when left in the bedroom with the door closed.
It helped that his “safe space” was under my bed, but I also believe it could be related to the way I trained him, because I usually left him in the bedroom to go to the living room while I was building up the separation. On some level, I believe that when Leo is alone in the bedroom, he doesn’t know whether I am in the next room or 10 miles away, especially when I talk to him through the camera app.
I also tried using a crate to see if he would be more calm in a small space while I was gone, but it made him more anxious. I guess it’s hard to know with rescue dogs how crates were used for them in the past.
Use the right tools
In addition to using the mobile camera app, I also found and used some tools that helped a lot with Leo’s training
- Thundershirt: This is simply a tight jacket that dogs wear to helps them deal with anxiety (for instance, during fireworks) as it stimulates a gentle calming hug. I remember the first time I put one on Leo, he literally collapses sideways and relaxed on the ground. I have used it almost every day while training him. I used it during training, but I didn’t leave it on him when I left home for longer periods since it could feel a bit constricting for longer periods.
- Calming drops: I used to give Leo Rescue Remedy’s drops about an hour before starting the training, in order to prevent his separation anxiety from interfering too much with the work. I like them because they are natural and they worked well. I have friends who use hemp CBD or cannabis for their dogs with similar results, but I haven’t tried them so I cannot comment on them.
Train yourself first
In the beginning, I had no experience with separation anxiety and I used to get frustrated when Leo wasn’t responding to a specific method or trick, and that only made it worst for him.
Then I realized that a dog’s mental and emotional states will always be mirror the owner’s state.
So, if you want your dog to be calm, your need to train yourself first to be calm around your dog and not react emotionally to his/her anxiety. A calm dog is a byproduct of a calm owner.
And if you have ever watched an episode of the Dog Whisperer, you’d notice how Cesar always starts by training owners how to behave and carry themselves around their dogs, and then would train their dogs.
No magic pill
There is no magic formula, or just one trick that cured Leo from his separation anxiety, but rather a combination of things done over a long enough period of time that made a difference.
At the end, you will see results if you put in the time and effort. You may not see those results right away, but keep at it.
I found that it only required an hour of training each day for 6 weeks to see significant improvements.
That’s 42 hours total!
Not a bad investment for your best friend.
In my case, it was the amount of research, reading books and articles, watching videos, and asking questions on forums that consumed 3+ hours of my time each day. That’s close to 400 hours.
Hopefully, you don’t have to put in all that time, now that you have some tricks that will get you more than 80% of the way with 20% of the effort.
Before you go…
Anxious dogs are a flight risk and are hard for someone who finds them to know what is wrong with them. That’s why I recommend having a QR Pet ID tag on your dog with all medical and behavioral information added to the page that opens when the tag is scanned, so they can return it to you safely and quickly.
PingTag QR Pet ID tag for your dog are available here.
And if you have any questions, let me know in the comments below.