Treatment of Separation Anxiety

The treatment of separation anxiety requires patience, consistency and understanding.  Remember, the animal acts like this because it loves you too much!  When you leave their presence, they worry you will never come back.  It is important for us humans to understand that they are motivated by fear and not by spite.

The following guidelines are general recommendations for treating this problem.  Please consult with your veterinarian to set-up a plan for your pet.  In my experience, each animal requires a treatment plan tailored just for them.


Break the vicious cycle by taking the pet to doggy daycare, hiring a pet sitter and/or altering the family schedule.  This insures that your animal is never alone during the therapy program.  Obviously, stopping the cycle is critical on the road to success.  


Step 1:  Make sure the pet gets plenty of exercise.  In veterinary school they taught us, ‘A tired animal does not get into trouble’.  While boredom or lack of exercise is not the cause of separation anxiety, giving the pet an outlet for exercise will make the rest of the training much better.

Step 2:  Make your dog work for attention.  This principle is also called “Nothing in life is free”.  For example, the dog jumps in your lap and demands attention.  Put it on the ground without any emotional display.  Tell it to sit and stay.  After a minute of waiting, reward the dog with attention.  This is a great way to brush-up on obedience skills.  If your dog is not crate-trained, you might want to consider this approach.  Though please keep in mind that crates do not cure separation anxiety.  They just limit the damage.  Some dogs will actually get worse when confined.

Step 3:  Once the dog will sit and stay on command, establish a ‘safe’ zone and have them stay there.  The safe zone might be a crate, a small room or a special doggy bed in a corner of the room.  Choose a quiet spot away from windows and doors.  At first, keep in visual contact with the dog and ask them to stay for only a minute or so.  If the dog remains calm, slowly increase the time before rewarding them with attention.  Remember what I said at the outset about patience, consistency and understanding.  This process of “reprogramming” your dog’s perception can take months.

Step 4:  Start to decondition your dog to departure cues.  Pick up your keys, put on a jacket, grab your purse or briefcase and act like you are getting ready to leave without actually leaving.  In the dog’s mind, these cues are signals that mean a bad thing is coming, i.e. you are leaving.  Repeat them until the dog no longer associates these cues with leaving.  Usually 20 to 40 times a day for a few days will do the trick (yes, only 20 to 40 times/day, that is all). 

Step 5A:  Once the pet is comfortable with each of the above steps, start to actually leave for a few minutes at a time.  Place the pet in their safe area.  Give them a toy, turn on the radio or TV, use an air freshener or some other thing as a signal that everything is going to be okay.  Think of it as a pacifier for the dog.  If the pet exhibits any signs of anxiety, work on the first four steps again.  The biggest mistake people make is progressing too quickly.  Go slow!  Let me say that again – go slow . . . Gradually increase from a few minutes up to a few hours.  Vary the times you are gone so the dog can not predict when you will return.

Step 5B:  Teach all family members how to interact with your dog before departure and upon arrival.  Act like the entire episode was just an ordinary part of the day.  Do not immediately run to the dog and shower it with praise!  Ignore them upon arrival for a few minutes and then casually take them outside.  Keep your emotions in check, you must be calm and collected.   


Anti-Anxiety Medication:  In my experience, dogs with moderate or severe separation anxiety require pharmaceutical intervention (and their owners would like some too).  This may extend through the duration of the behavior protocol.  The two drugs I prescribe most commonly are Clomipramine and Fluoxetine.  While a given animal will only receive one or the other of these drugs, both work by increasing a neurotransmitter called serotonin.  Before, during and after using either of these drugs, I recommend blood work to monitor organ function.  A word of caution, these drugs will not work by themselves.  They must be combined with behavior modification techniques to successfully treat separation anxiety.    

DAP Collars and Diffusers: DAP stands for dog appeasing pheromone.  This chemical is found in the skin between the mammary glands of nursing females (bitches).  When puppies smell this pheromone, they seem to relax.  The pheromone is commercially available in a collar dispenser or a diffuser.  I prefer the collar because the DAP travels with the dog wherever they roam.

So to recap, separation anxiety is one of the most challenging situations pet owners may face.  A good outcome is possible but only with a deep commitment from the owner.  You must try and understand the animal’s perspective and then have the patience of a saint.  Go slow.  Celebrate the baby steps your pet makes along the way and stay committed.  It will be worth it in the end and wonderfully gratifying.   

Published by kristennelsondvm

Dr. Kristen Nelson grew up on a farm in Watertown, Minn., where she developed a deep love for animals of all kinds. She received a Doctor of Veterinary Medicine degree from the University of Minnesota, College of Veterinary Medicine. Kris then completed a small-animal internship at the prestigious Animal Medical Center in New York City. In addition to writing and speaking, she cares for small and exotic animals in Scottsdale, Az. Dr. Nelson is widely quoted in the media. Her credits include Ladies’ Home Journal, USA TODAY, the Los Angeles Times and numerous radio and television interviews. Dr. Nelson has written two books, Coated With Fur: A Vet’s Life and Coated With Fur: A Blind Cat’s Love. Kris and her husband Steve share their home with rescued cats, birds and a dog.

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