Conquering Separation Anxiety
This is a post I’ve been meaning to write for a long time but it honestly felt hard to even know where to begin so I put it off. But I’m writing it now in the hopes that it will help, or at least remind anyone working through this that they’re not alone, in dealing with FOMO or separation anxiety in their adopted dog. It’s not a fast or easy fix, but it’s also not impossible to work through and improve upon. Trust us, you can do it. (This post might sound alarmist, but it’s written from the POV of someone who adopted a dog with one of the worst cases of separation anxiety I’ve personally seen. Most dogs just have FOMO, or won’t be this bad!)
First, let’s talk about: what actually is separation anxiety?
Separation anxiety is different from FOMO (fear of missing out) which most dogs totally have. Dogs have been bred over thousands of years to enjoy human companionship, and it is 100% totally normal for a dog to cry, bark, rip up a bed, etc. when you first bring that dog home and leave it alone. That is not separation anxiety. If your puppy is crying when you leave the room, if you dog barks for 30 minutes after you leave, that’s still probably not separation anxiety (which is good news, because FOMO usually resolves with a bit of training, time, and settling into a routine). This is a great starting point for crate training your pup with FOMO.
Separation anxiety as I’ve come to understand it is basically a mental disorder. It’s when the dog is not just unhappy but absolutely panicked by the thought of being alone, and will do anything, including self harm, to resolve that panic. Dogs with extreme separation anxiety can be a danger to themselves when left alone because they will try to escape crates, chewing on the metal bars until their teeth break or their mouths get cut up, jump out of windows, escape out of apartments, chew through doors, etc. (It’s important to note that some dogs could do these things out of boredom, others out of separation anxiety and panic at being alone.) If your dog has true separation anxiety, there is unfortunately no easy fix. The only real cure is time and trust. But there are a lot of things you can do to help your dog work through it, and that’s what I’ve tried to gather here.
What type of separation anxiety does the dog have and how does it present?
Figuring this out will help you tremendously in working with your dog. I recommend getting a camera so you can watch the dog after you leave the apartment and see how long it takes to start crying or barking, how long it lasts, and what helps it or not. This is the one we have, and you can set up motion alerts so you have a record of when the dog is up and barking and can check in. I have gone so far as to make spreadsheets noting what time I left, how long the dog barked for, what time the walker came, etc.
From what I’ve noticed, there are two types of separation anxiety. Either the dog will begin to panic as soon as it’s alone and ignores whatever is around because it’s immediately panicking, or the dog will start to panic more and more as time goes on. Both kinds are workable. Behavior modification training works better with the first kind, while setting a routine might be triggering for that dog. For this type of separation anxiety, it’s important to desensitize things like putting on your jacket, picking up your keys, leaving the apartment, etc. Do these things many times a day, and make leaving no big deal. Crate games are still helpful for the second kind of anxiety, but not as necessary, however routine will be super important for that dog to understand that you’re always coming back. For these dogs, it’s important to use the camera to see how long they can handle being alone, and then with time work up to it.
Get a Crate
There is a very small percentage of dogs who cannot be crated due to confinement anxiety. The vast majority of dogs just need to learn that the crate is a safe space and they will be ok in there. And it is by far the safest place to leave a dog with separation anxiety who could otherwise scratch or chew at a door until they break through and escape, bloody their paws/nails and mouth, ingest harmful chemicals, etc. It also keeps your sofa, rug, and other furniture from being destroyed. See our article on crate training here. We use these wire crates for our dogs, but for really powerful dogs who might break or try to escape, we have found this to be a great option.
Routines, Rewards, and Crate Games
For most dogs, the absolute most important thing is time. They need to understand that you’re always going to come back, that being alone is no big deal, and that the crate is a safe space to be. Here are some important steps we do to get the dogs used to being in the crate and being alone.
1) We feed all meals in the crate as we’re leaving, and they get special “crate only” snacks (for us that’s a frozen peanut butter kong). Now when I open the freezer in the morning and pull a kong out, my dogs RUN to their crates and wait there.
Penny used to SCREAM bloody murder in her crate, now she screams if I take too long to bring her food to her in it. Just as a note, I never leave dogs in the crate with toys other than the kong or a goughnuts, which I believe is the only safe toy to leave a dog with (it’s the only thing my power chewers have never destroyed. Fair warning it is large and black and phallus shaped).
2) We practice crating while we’re home. If the dog only gets crated when you leave, the dog knows crate = being alone. If you practice crating for 10, 20, 60 minutes at a time (while you’re making dinner or showering are great times to practice), the dog will learn the crate is no big deal.
I always give the girls a special treat and ask them to go to their beds if we’re doing a foster meeting or moving furniture and need them out of the way, and they happily oblige.
3) We have all fosters sleep in their crates. Our personal dogs now sleep in the bed with us but as fosters they all slept in their crates, and if one is sick or we’re traveling we can still have them sleep in there without issue. I know it’s tempting to let them sleep with you, but the more you can reinforce that the crate is a good, safe place to nap, the better the dog will be when you leave. The first few nights can be tough, but eventually they have all learned to be calm in there overnight, even if it takes a few nights.
This was one of the worst things to work through with Penny- she would SCREAM in her crate at first, and even stress poop in it then bury it in her bed or blanket, so we’d have to take her out, bathe her, and do laundry at 4 am. But persistence paid off.
4) We leave music on. We like to youtube “dog sleeping playlist,” or we leave talk radio on. We have also weirdly found that “tibetan singing bowls” work super well for puppies. I have an app on my phone that plays white noise sounds, and this one proved to be magic for a screaming puppy we had recently.
5) We try to tire fosters out before leaving them. A tired dog is much more likely to fall asleep than a stressed out, hyper dog with nowhere to get that energy out. That can be physical exercise like a walk or run, or mental exercise like training or crate games. For physical exercise without space, I cannot recommend the flirt pole enough.
6) We make coming and going no big deal. We don’t let the dogs out of the crate until they calm down if they’re freaking out when we come home, and we don’t say goodbye or rush out the door. We feed the dog, then as the dog is distracted we quietly slip out. Watching you leave can be a trigger, so try to place the crate where the dog can’t see you.
My girls are crated in the bedroom with the door shut, and I often sneak out the upstairs door so Baloo thinks I’m home and upstairs. It has helped him a lot with departures!
7) We foster! This is not an option for everyone or for every dog, but for dogs with really intense separation anxiety who like other dogs, this can be a huge help. We found early on that Penny did really well with another calm dog next to her so we fostered constantly. If we skipped a day she would scrape her face up, so I made sure we always had a foster (sometimes 2 in case one got adopted). We eventually adopted LooseSeal because she is so calm in the crate and so nonchalant about us coming and going. Penny is not cured, but if she has her emotional support dog next to her she feels so much safer. This can go both ways, because we’ve also gotten fosters who have separation anxiety and that made Penny panic more, so it’s not a quick fix, but it is an option to try out if you’ve been considering fostering or adopting another dog (I’d recommend adopting a dog out of foster where you know if the dog has separation anxiety/FOMO or not).
This is not a first line of defense, but if the separation anxiety is truly intense enough that your dog is a danger to him or herself, I believe it’s time to consider medication. Penny was on prozac (fluoxetine) for about 4 years as we worked through her separation anxiety. A medication that I wasn’t offered but wish I had had to help her through the transition and on days where her routine was out of whack is trazodone. It’s a sedative that helps dogs relax, and helps with anxiety. Baloo gets trazodone and CBD in the mornings, and after 3 weeks his separation anxiety has greatly improved. At first he was chewing on the bars trying to escape, and barking and crying loudly. After some trial and error with dosage, and settling into his routine for a few days, he has not tried to escape since week 1. Now he is able to calmly settle down and enjoy his kong, and he sleeps most of the day, up to 5 hours. Over time once he settles into his new home, they will hopefully be able to decrease the amount of trazodone he needs to be alone. When we travel and leave Penny somewhere that isn’t her home, she panics. Now she gets trazodone, and it helps her immensely with not panicking and trying to escape. (We never could have gone on the Great Pigmerican Roadtrip without it!) While not ideal, medication is definitely preferable to a dog hurting him or herself trying to get out of a crate or escape an apartment, so talk to your or the rescue’s vet if you’re interested in medication.
Overall, separation anxiety can feel daunting. I wish I could give you “5 easy tricks to overcoming separation anxiety!” but that doesn’t exist. It’s a long process, there will be setbacks along the way, and no two dogs are alike in their timeline and the way their anxiety manifests. But with time and dedication, amazing things are possible. We wish you all the luck in the world, thank you for sticking by your dog!
(I started an Amazon influencer profile for Penny so if you buy any of the stuff I talk about in the post through these links I get a few cents. I think I’m supposed to tell you that.)