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Overcoming Dog Separation Anxiety: Expert Tips and Techniques from Animal Behaviourist Leslie Obrien

Separation distress/anxiety is a common but challenging issue that many dog owners face. When left alone, dogs with separation anxiety experience from mild to extreme distress, such as destructive behaviours, barking, whining, urination defecation or shutting down. Understanding the root causes and effective treatment strategies is essential for helping these dogs lead happier, healthier lives. In this interview, Leslie O’Brien, an experienced animal behaviourist, shares her insights on separation anxiety in dogs, its causes, and the methods she uses to treat it successfully.

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Can you explain what separation anxiety is and how it affects dogs?

Sure! Separation anxiety in dogs can be compared to the anxiety humans feel when they’re alone. Dogs with this condition get extremely stressed when their owners or a bonded animal leaves. Often, destruction is at the point of departure (doors, windows, etc).

When a dog is left alone, the absence triggers a stress response in its body, and in order to seek relief from this, the dog responds in various ways. This stress can harm the dog’s immune system and overall health, causing issues like digestive problems and skin conditions. It’s important to address these signs with the help of a professional animal behaviourist like myself to ensure your dog’s well-being.

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What are some common reasons why dogs develop separation anxiety?

There are several reasons dogs might exhibit separation distress/anxiety. Genetics play a role, much like – we inherit traits from our parents; a dog’s lineage can carry stress responses into their offspring. If a mother dog is stressed or undernourished during pregnancy (health affects brain development), her puppies might be more prone to anxiety. This is where good breeders make good decisions not to use nervous dogs. Sadly, backyard breeders could care less.

Environmental factors also contribute. For example, a dog that was once fine alone might develop anxiety after a traumatic event, such as a break-in or a severe storm. Dogs remember these experiences, so the next time their owner leaves, they might recall the fear they felt and become anxious. This can lead to behaviours aimed at preventing the owner from leaving or withdrawing when they sense the owner is about to go.

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How do you assess and diagnose separation anxiety in the dogs you work with?

We start with a home visit or online consultation to observe the dog’s behaviour and gather background information. This includes understanding the dog’s diet and history, (where known) exercise and sleep or rest regime. Establishing if the dog has a positive or negative outlook on life.

We ask owners to provide video evidence, capturing the dog’s behaviour as they prepare to leave and during their absence. Key moments include when the owner picks up car keys or a handbag—common triggers for anxiety. We observe if the dog starts to show signs of stress even before the owner leaves and how it reacts once the owner is gone.

Some dogs are fine for a while – then go into stress when passing their alone time limit – Some Panic from the start. We look for behaviours like destruction or withdrawal—additionally, the dog’s reaction when the owner returns can be telling. An overly enthusiastic greeting can indicate the dog was anxious during the owner’s absence.

Understanding these behaviours helps us diagnose the severity of separation anxiety. It’s also important to note that an anxious owner can transfer their anxiety to the dog. Early training and coping mechanisms are essential to helping puppies grow into well-adjusted dogs. Avoiding prolonged periods of leaving the dog alone is key, as it can exacerbate its anxiety.

What are some effective strategies you use to help dogs overcome separation anxiety?

One of the first things we advise is not to leave dogs alone, but this can be challenging as people need to work. We explore options like having a family member or friend visit during the day.

Doggy daycare is another option, though it comes with its own set of potential issues, such as the spread of diseases or improper handling. It’s crucial that the daycare is managed by qualified professionals and has a calm, suitable environment for nervous dogs.

A great alternative is to hire a pet sitter to visit the home a few times a day. They can take the dog for walks and keep it engaged. Burning off energy is vital because a high-energy dog can become destructive simply out of boredom, not necessarily due to anxiety.

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Additionally, it’s important to provide mental stimulation and create a consistent routine. Sometimes, what seems like separation anxiety is actually just excess energy that is under utilised. Addressing physical and mental needs can help reduce anxiety and improve the dog’s overall well-being and mood state.

Dog in man's arm. dealing with dog separation anxiety, expert advice

Could you share a specific case where you successfully treated a dog with separation anxiety? What were your methods and outcomes?

One case that stands out involved a dog that required medication in addition to behavioural therapy. First, we collaborated with a veterinarian to ensure there were no underlying health issues and to prescribe the appropriate medication, as behaviourists cannot recommend medications.

Initially, the medication dosage had to be adjusted because the dog became overly sedated. Once we found the right balance, we could start behavioural training. We began with very short periods of separation—just a few seconds where the owner would leave the room and quickly return. The goal was to always come back before the dog escalated into a state of panic.

Gradually, we increased the duration of these separations, from 30 seconds to one minute, then to two and three minutes. Over several months, we managed to extend the separation to two hours. While this wasn’t a full day, it was a significant improvement.

Throughout this process, it was crucial to reinforce the dog’s understanding that the owner would always return. Once the dog was stable and the anxiety reduced, we could consider reducing the medication under the vet’s guidance, ensuring a smooth transition without withdrawal symptoms. This combination of medication and gradual behavioural training helped the dog gain confidence and significantly reduced its separation anxiety.

Dog in the grass. dealing with dog separation anxiety, expert advice

How do you educate and support dog owners in managing their dog’s separation anxiety on a day-to-day basis?

I conduct a lot of video consultations, especially after the initial assessment. Once we understand the dog’s specific issues, I create a behaviour modification program with clear steps for the owners to follow. Owners send me videos of their progress, and we use WhatsApp or online consultations to make necessary adjustments.

It’s crucial to have compliant owners. Winning their trust is key to ensuring they follow the schedule, implement dietary changes, and adhere to the training regimen. I emphasise the importance of consistency and structure for the dog’s well-being.

I also recommend increased exercise if needed and ensure the owners understand the significance of each step. Being caring, involved, and genuinely concerned for the dog’s success helps me build a strong rapport with the owners, which is essential for the program’s success. When owners see my dedication, they’re more likely to commit fully to the process.

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Are there any innovative approaches or techniques you’ve found effective in treating separation anxiety recently?

Winning the owner over is really important. They need to understand that schedules are crucial for their dog. If we recommend changes in diet, it’s vital to implement those changes and stick to the training regimen. Exercise programs are also essential, and owners must follow through with these recommendations.

While it may not seem innovative, being genuinely caring, involved, and concerned for the dog’s success makes a significant difference. When owners see my dedication, they are more likely to commit to the program. This commitment from the owners is key to effectively managing and treating separation anxiety.

Do you have any additional tips for pet owners?

Puppy classes play a crucial role in preventing behavioural issues like learned separation anxiety because they provide structured training and essential socialization opportunities that are challenging to replicate at home. Accredited puppy schools ensure that puppies learn how to interact positively with other dogs and people in a controlled environment. This early socialization helps them build confidence and develop appropriate social skills, which are fundamental in reducing anxiety and fearfulness later in life. Moreover, these classes educate owners on effective training techniques, such as the choice-and-reward system, where dogs learn to make positive choices to earn rewards rather than reacting anxiously to situations. By establishing good behaviour patterns early on, puppy classes help puppies grow into well-adjusted adults capable of handling various challenges calmly without developing separation anxiety or other behavioural issues.

Addressing separation anxiety in dogs requires a multifaceted approach, combining behavioural therapy, environmental adjustments, and sometimes medication. Leslie O’Brien’s expertise highlights the importance of early training, consistent routines, and the involvement of dedicated owners in managing and reducing anxiety in their pets. By using innovative techniques such as puppy classes and choice-and-reward systems, Leslie has helped numerous dogs overcome their fears and develop into well-adjusted companions. With the right support and commitment, it’s possible to significantly improve the quality of life for dogs suffering from separation anxiety.


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About Leslie Obrien

Animal Behaviourist

Leslie Obrien is the founder of Durban Dog School. Leslie specialises in science-based, positive training methods as a certified COAPE Animal Behaviour Practitioner and Fear Free Certified professional. She is dedicated to helping dogs of all ages become well-balanced, family-friendly pets through compassionate and effective training techniques

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