Separation Anxiety Myths: Part 1

Separation anxiety (and its cousins: isolation distress and separation-related problems) can be a huge source of stress for dog guardians. If your dog barks, howls, destroys things, pees or poops, or otherwise causes trouble when they are left alone, you have no doubt spent time trying to figure out what to do to help them. Unfortunately, there are a lot of ideas out there that aren’t very helpful in practice. 

In this post, I’ll cover the topics of crate training, spoiled dogs, whether it’s okay to return to a barking dog, and food-stuffed toys as distractions. 

Check out Part 2 for information about anti-bark collars, getting a second dog, increasing exercise, and whether medications will solve all your problems.

Myth 1: You Have to Crate Train to Deal with Separation Anxiety

Nope! Many dogs actually have an easier time when left in a larger space, with more freedom to choose where to spend the time. Increasing freedom can reduce stress and jumpstart desensitization training

Crate training is also an extra training step that can slow down your progress toward your goals. If you have to first teach your dog to go into their crate, then relax when you are there, and then finally start working on relaxation when you leave, you’ve added to the time and energy you have to put into the training process.

But! Some dogs might do better and be calmer when in their crate. It’s smart to experiment with both options when evaluating whether your dog has separation anxiety. Also, some dogs need to be in a crate or smaller confinement space for other reasons (house training, relationships with other pets in the home, etc). You can incorporate the crate into your alone-time training, if needed. Just know that it may slow things down.

Brown Dog in Crate with Kong Toy
Crates and Kongs are wonderful tools for some situations. Separation anxiety might not be one of them.

Myth 2: Dogs with Separation Anxiety Have Been Spoiled

If you’ve heard advice that boils down to “be stricter” or “be a better leader” to solve your dog’s alone time behavior, you can rest assured that you are not at fault here. Separation anxiety is an anxiety or panic disorder. It isn’t learned or reinforced by human behavior. Researchers have even looked for a correlation and found “owner behaviors considered as spoiling activities such as feeding the dog from the table or allowing the dog to sleep on the owner’s bed are not more common in affected dogs”. (Source: Flannigan and Dodman, 2001) Your dog needs to learn to feel safe, not more discipline.

Myth 3: Returning When Your Dog is Barking Will Reinforce Their Behavior and Make It Worse

As long as your dog is suffering from separation anxiety (a fear of being alone or separated from a specific person), emotions are in charge and driving their behavior. Regardless of what you may have heard, comforting a fearful dog does not increase their fear. Returning to a panicked dog is doing them a kindness as well as making sure they don’t escalate from barking to doing damage or hurting themselves trying to get to you. Don’t force your dog to continue feeling stressed or panicked; it won’t help. If you aren’t sure if your dog’s barking is caused by anxiety or something else, consult a trainer with experience in separation anxiety to help you evaluate. 

Myth 4: A Food-Stuffed Kong/Special Toy/Stuffed Set of Your Clothes Will Fix Everything

Distractions and fun activities like a food-stuffed toy can be hugely helpful in many circumstances. Unfortunately, separation anxiety isn’t usually one of those cases. Many dogs who are anxious or panicked when left alone will not eat even their very favorite foods. It’s not a sign that your dog cannot be helped if they won’t eat in these situations.  This goes for any strategy of distraction or comfort that you see online or hear recommended. It’s often totally fine and easy to try these things. If they work for your dog, great! If not, there is still hope in the form of a desensitization training plan

Beyond Myths

There will always be that one special dog whose concerning behavior can be helped with the right crate, toy, or lifestyle tweak. But the reality for most people is that these things don’t solve their dog’s separation anxiety. If that’s the case for you, there is still hope for you and your dog. By moving past the myths and toward effective behavior modification strategies, I believe your dog can learn to feel safe, and be better-behaved, when alone.

If you need help with your dog’s separation anxiety, consider scheduling a private behavior consultation.