When I was working at the training facility, something we'd hear often was: "My dog has separation anxiety." My mentor would talk them through how to get their dog to settle in their crate and how to create routines more conducive to leaving their dogs. Often what was described was what I would these days consider more of a Fear of Missing Out (FOMO) situation. The owner would pick up their keys, a trigger that meant the dog would get to go places, and then the dog would get both excited and anxious.
At the time, when my mentor discussed these consultations with me after the fact, she noted that the client wasn't describing true separation anxiety (SA). Some FOMO or insecurity about being alone, yes, but not true separation anxiety. I remember being slightly baffled. Their dog was barking and checking up furniture while they were gone, surely that qualified as separation anxiety. I asked her what true separation anxiety entailed her answer was a dog is experiencing true separation anxiety when 1. they damage themselves trying to get to their person or 2. they damage their environment (not toy or furniture, think eating through doors) to try to find their person/people.
Let me tell you though, the first time you see true separation anxiety is almost heartbreaking. My first time was a Shiba Inu who was eating through the walls and doors of the house to look for his humans when he left. I remember my mentor asking his people to leave the room during the consultation, leaving the Shiba with us. That dog completely panicked. Even in a new situation, even with none of the normal cues to go off of that Shiba screamed and paced and would have tried to make his way through the door if we hadn't been holding his leash.
**On a more personal level, Tabiri came back to Alison with a propensity for escaping and what I would consider true separation anxiety. While I am speculating and his first owner did love him, it is also likely that Tabiri spent long hours alone in his crate and that left a mark on him to this day. The first two months we had him I suspect he was too off-kilter to try escaping his crate. He did leave him at least daily and it came to be routine. Then Whitman went on unemployment, so Tabiri was never alone and he back slid when we had to leave him. He started escaping his crate. We found leaving him loose in the bed room (sometimes the issue is confinement, which I'll discuss later). That worked for several months, but if we left him too long, he'd begin to get destructive (walls, door frames). When you have a dog with that level of separation anxiety you don't forget the panicked look in their eyes when you come home, the trembling because they know they've been destructive which they've conditioned to understand is bad, but they just couldn't help themselves. One hundred percent, if you let Tabiri out mid-panic his only thought would be to try to find me. This has largely been resolved now, but it was a lot of behavior modification, changing patterns, and management.
Now, even now it feels slightly exclusionary to tell people that their dogs separation anxiety doesn't count because it's not true separation anxiety (and my mentor never said as much). If your dog urinates/defecates, barks/screams/whines for an extended period while you are gone, destroys their environment on a small scale like chewing furniture, paces/spins, or can't settle, all of those are symptoms likely stemming either from FOMO or a less extreme form of separation anxiety. Those symptoms become unhealthy coping mechanisms and because they help the dog deal with their anxiety, those habits are also self-reinforcing. And since the very definition of separation anxiety is that it occurs when you are away from your dog, it is very difficult to reinforce alternate behaviors instead.
The advice I've heard most from colleagues regarding truly damaging separation anxiety is that your dog cannot be alone while they undergo an extensive behavior modification protocol. That is completely unfeasible for most people and so you either get lack of follow through or overall inconsistency. I'd like to offer some alternatives which while they are not true cure alls, hopefully offer you and your dog some relief. I wish I could wave a magic wand or even be more methodical, but I have found what works for an individual dog can vary wildly and so I tend to take a more "throw everything at the wall and see what sticks" approach.
There are two takes to this piece. A crate can either help calm and contain a dog so they can't harm themselves and have limited space to wind themselves up. Or, confinement can make a situation much worse. Some dogs when confined and stressed panic and that panic can lead to escapes and injuries. There are dogs that are perfectly fine in there crate as long as you don't leave (Tabiri is one of these) and there are dogs that have such a strong association that their crate means their human is leaving the merely being taken near one can make a dog panic.
I once worked with a Lab mix. His owners were considering rehoming him, which was very fair. The dog was a true COVID puppy (brought home the day of the shutdown) and thus hadn't been alone ever for the first six months of his life. This dog was one of the most overall anxious dogs that I have ever worked and I was frank with my clients that I would give him a two day trial and if I could not contain him safely, then I could not take him on. I was also frank that even if we got through the full board and train, it might not be enough and they might still feel they needed to rehome the dog. My first day with him he panicked at the sight of the crate (his owners had tried crating him as a young dog and given up). We got him in and I sat near him for hours afterwards. He did want to escape and tried if given the opportunity. Some of the issue was confinement, but the problem was he was equally as destructive loose as he was crated. Over the two day trial the dog came to understand that the crate as a safe area. He would back slide and try to get out, but started to listen to reminders to lie Down and Settle more readily. By the end he loved his car crate because it meant we got to go places and he would rest in his crate readily. I didn't solve his separation anxiety, he would still work himself up when people started to leave, but he did have a safe space and outlets for his anxiety.
In contrast, for some dogs if you leave them loose in the house or even a room the lack of cue of confinement circumvents the anxiety and panic they feel. When testing this theory, I highly recommend testing it for only a short period of time and ideally with a camera watching, otherwise you might be in for damage.
Altering Triggering Cues
Dogs with anxiety of any form crave stability. They rely on patterns and environmental cues to inform them what to expect. Any deviation from the pattern can trigger anxiety. And in the case of separation anxiety, any cue the is paired with their human starting the process of leaving can trigger the separation anxiety.
For instance, a great many dogs with SA begin to pace and whine and get hyper active when their owners grab their purse or keys or put on their socks and shoes. All those activities might mean that you're going to take them for a walk, but more likely when coupled with a morning hour, it means you will be leaving your dog behind.
My favorite solution to circumventing triggering anxious behaviors is habituation. What this means is you get a dog so accustomed to their triggers meaning literally nothing, that the anxiety and the triggering cue become decoupled. It sounds fancy, but really what this means is that you pick your keys up 75 times a day and maybe only go somewhere one of those times. Put your shoes on 15 times a day and leave twice or even not at all. Decouple the value your dog puts on those environmental cues and you can bypass the cycle of escalating anxiety.
Often I see management recommended as a complete training plan for dealing with separation anxiety. In my opinion this is unrealistic for your average dog owner. However, management should certainly be used to help mitigate your dog's anxiety.
If you leave your dog crated but they are prone to escaping, try different types of crates - airline, wire, if you can afford it, a high anxiety anti-escape crate. You can try different locks or carabiners to help keep a crate shut. If that isn't working trying leaving your dog out for a brief period of time to see if that helps, then build duration that you're away.
If you must leave your dog, consider dog day care or day boarding or even a dog walker. These options can help give your do enough interaction, even though it isn't from their person, to help keep separation anxiety at bay. If you can and live in an area with a reasonable climate and have car temperature monitoring, you can bring your dog with you some of the time (provided your dog experiences less separation anxiety in the car which is typical but not universal). This was a temporary management technique we used with Tabiri the first few weeks after Whitman went back to work and he was struggling to adjust.
Experiment with bedding- try a crate pad or no crate pad. I know a lot of dogs who want something the can tear and shred. For some dogs, the act of shredding is soothing and this can be an outlet for those behaviors that would be inappropriate in a different circumstance. Shredding was extremely helpful to Tabiri while we were working through the worst of his SA, so we intentionally give him blankets we don't mind him shredding. It also provided us a useful metric for how anxious he was. When he was anxious, he'd shred his bedding, when he wasn't he would nest non-destructively (he hasn't shredded bedding in months thankfully). The catch with this technique is you can only give shreddable bedding to dog who won't eat it, only shred it.
The key here is to remember that 1. management always breaks down eventually, so you may start to see break-through anxiety and 2. management is not a solution and should be used in conjunction with other techniques.
Relaxation Protocol and Cued Relaxation
Karen Overall's Relaxation Protocol is one of the most recommended resources for working on separation anxiety. The concept is you start with a simple Down behavior and slowly build distraction (this includes leaving the room) over time so that your dog has a bombproof relaxation cue even in the face of a busy environment and triggers. While this protocol is fabulous, it is also intensive and requires consistency and I've only ever had one client completely follow through.
Secondly, Leslie McDevitt's Control Unleashed teaches your dog how to relax, how to settle, how to use patterns and targets to build calmer, more desirable behaviors, and much much more. These exercises are less prescribed and more free form, which can people difficult for people to know what to use when. However, the techniques do help your dog learn how to relax and this can be used while working on separation anxiety using some of the below tools.
Camera Monitoring and Remote Rewarding
The advent of technology in the modern age is a wonderous thing and it's really the first time that we have been able to help prevent dogs perpetuating self reinforcing behaviors while their people are out of sight. This includes the destructive coping mechanisms of separation anxiety detailed above.
For me, having a camera to monitor the dogs is a game changer. I can set notifications on most camera monitoring systems to trigger off of sound noise or both and when I get a notification, I can check in. Many of the camera monitoring systems also come with a microphone so you can talk to your dogs. For some dogs, this increases anxiety because they can hear but not see you. For some, the dog ignores the microphone entirely. For my own dogs who are very responsive to verbal cues, I can tell them to "Lie Down" which is their specific cue to lie down and relax and they generally do. I have used this quite successfully with Tabiri. I have both a Wyze and a Furbo and overall, I adore the Wyze (and it's cheap), though the Furbo gets extra points for treat delivery capabilities.
That's the other thing is cameras can be paired usefully with remote treat delivery such as the Furbo or with a device such as a Treat and Train, which dispenses treats on cue. Thus you can tell your dog Quiet or Settle and then reward the behavior when they do.
As I said, these are truly game changes to breaking the pattern of self reinforcing behaviors.
In my experience, there does seem to be a genetic component to separation anxiety. I have seen this less in bloodlines (though I'm certain that exists) and more in breeds. For instance, within my own breed, I have done a notable number of consultations for separation anxiety in the past couple years. Some of that is because of the pandemic certainly, but I know of people who have had issues long before the pandemic.
With anything genetic in dogs as a trainer I mostly note that if three is a genetic propensity then the habit is going to have a stronger propensity than it otherwise would. I can't really do anything, but it is useful knowledge and it will inform my training plan.
I never felt with Tabiri that his separation anxiety reached a state that it was so prevalent or severe that he needed to be medicated, but if things had taken a turn for the worse rather than for the better, I would have considered talking to my vet about anxiety medication for him. I have a higher ability to cope with behavioral issues than most, so if either your dog's quality of life or your quality of life are suffering because of issues related to SA, do consider discussing medication.
Additionally, one thing to note is intractable separation anxiety can be a symptom of low thyroid values, so doing bloodwork at your vet can be a good troubleshooting step. In Tabiri's case once his thyroid medication had fully taken effect, his separation anxiety abated substantially.
An Ounce of Preventative is Worth a Pound of Cure
The pandemic has been hard on everyone, people and dogs. I don't blame owners for not taking the time out of their day to putting their dogs in their crate or a different room and helping them remember (or learn) how to be alone. Knowing how to be alone is a skill. One that both people and dogs can struggle with, so practice leaving your dog alone every single day, even if you aren't leaving the house. Yes, even if you work from home and get all your groceries delivered, life happens. Sometimes your dog will need to stay over at the vet or be boarded last minute or or or. Teach your dog how to exist without you. I cannot stress the importance of this enough.
Birdie is a singleton and you can bet that I will be stressing the importance of being alone as part of her training growing up. I am working hard to make sure she is socialized with my other dogs, but she also needs to learn how to be without them, which may potentially be a challenge. When looking for a puppy, look for one who crate trains their puppies (at least rudimentarily). The more your breeder is doing to prevent separation anxiety from a young age, the more that you will be set up for success.
**I do not believe that Tabiri's separation anxiety is genetic, his siblings don't exhibit the behavior. It seems to be a combination of circumstance and low thyroid value. Since putting him on thyroid medication, his separation anxiety has become extremely manageable.