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.
This is Part 2 of myths about separation anxiety. Check out Part 1 for the topics of crate training, spoiled dogs, whether it’s okay to return to a barking dog, and food-stuffed toys as distractions.
Myth 5: Bark Collars Will Solve The ProblemAnti-bark collars are tools designed to punish a dog when they sense barking. This could be an unpleasant smell, a vibration, or some variety of electrical stimulation or shock. In the case of separation anxiety, punishing away one symptom will not address the root of the problem (assuming the collar even works to stop the barking of an anxious dog). Punishment for a sign of stress (barking) cannot create a calm, happy dog. Because the anxiety remains, new behaviors can appear to replace the barking, such as peeing/pooping, destructive scratching or chewing, escape attempts, or self-harm. To stop the behavioral signs of anxiety (barking, etc), you will need to address the anxiety itself. This can be done through desensitization training.
Myth 6: Get A Second Dog
Please only get a second dog if you really want two dogs! Adding a second dog to your home will involve work to safely introduce the dogs, manage their relationship, train the new dog, etc. It is rarely a quick fix.
Some dogs with separation anxiety do improve when they have another dog around; some do not. Some are only helped short term and then the effect wears off. Some dogs are actually more stressed by having another dog around. You also need to consider that the new dog could also end up having separation anxiety (remember, you probably didn’t know your current dog would have a problem when you brought them home). Finally, the dogs will likely need to be separated at some point (vet visits, etc) so it will be important to keep working on a training plan.
Myth 7: Exercise Them More
It is a myth that “a tired dog is a good dog” when it comes to anxiety. Tired is not the same as relaxed. In fact, being overtired can make behavior worse, rather than better (just ask the toddlers of the world!).
The right amount of exercise can help dogs settle into a calmer state, but the key is finding the best routine for your dog, not just layering on more and more. Experiment with different types and amounts of exercise and consider adding mental exercise too. But don’t expect being exhausted to cure separation anxiety.
Myth 8: Medication Alone Will Fix The Problem
Medications prescribed and monitored by a veterinarian can be an extremely important part of resolving separation anxiety; however they are not quick fixes by themselves. The goal of anti-anxiety medication is to give the dog a little more time to think clearly and learn, before anxiety or panic sets in. This allows behavior modification and training to get a foot in the door and to work more effectively.
It’s not medication OR behavior modification, but medications AND behavior modification working together.
For certain dogs and in certain homes, the addition of a second dog or an increase in exercise really can make a difference. There are even rare cases where the right medication combination is easy to find and helps quickly. (I don’t believe there is a case where punishing your dog’s fear is the right option.) 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 (and with vet support), I believe your dog can learn to feel safe, and be better-behaved, when alone.
If your dog has separation anxiety, consider scheduling a private behavior consultation.