Does your dog seem to get overly anxious every time you leave the house or drop her off at the groomer or vet? And then you start to get anxious and worry about her all day until you can pick her up again?
Well, you are not alone! Many dogs and owners go through this. Keep in mind that you are your dog’s entire world. You have friends, family, work, but your sweet, furry pal only has you. So, it is no surprise that your dog might get anxious when separated from you. And, if your dog has been recently adopted, she may be even more uncertain.
However, separation anxiety can be managed and your dog can be reassured that you will be coming back. Keep your goodbye ritual short and normal. Don’t overly coddle your dog, but don’t scold her either. She is just scared. The more you normalize this routine, the better she will adapt as will you!
How I Learned to Manage My Dog’s Separation Anxiety
After being sequestered at home for many weeks, I decided it was time to take Charlotte and Georgia to K-9 Country Club daycare. We had been cooped up a lot due to the Covid pandemic and California wildfires. My dogs were really getting restless and cranky (like me). The K-9 staff was always glad to see them again and the girls could really kick it out in their huge field. They loved to chase and play with other dogs. The kennel was a familiar place since they had lived there for nine months prior to me finding and adopting them. Yet every time I dropped them off, the separation anxiety–mine and my dogs became an issue. Charlotte became terribly anxious the second she realized I was leaving. I suddenly found it very hard to leave her as well!
After I drove up, Tiffanie met us in the parking lot and Georgia joyfully ran over to visit with her old friend. But for Charlotte, this was a whole different experience! She suddenly turned and looked back at me in terror. She tried to run back to the car, but I held her tight. Then she began nipping at my sleeve and clawing at my arm–anything to try to hang onto me.
My heart was breaking for her. I just wanted to hold her and somehow tell her it was ok, and that I would return. Most of all, the desperation in her eyes really got to me! And suddenly, I didn’t want to leave her either!
Dog’s Adjust Better than People
But, I soon came to my senses. We had gone through this several times before, and Charlotte always had a good time once she got used to the idea. Both dogs were pretty content and happily tired when I picked them up at the end of the day.
I handed off their leashes to Tiffany who managed to get them through the gate and into the back play yard. Tiffanie came back and we chatted a bit, all the while listening to the mournful wailing and howling of my two dogs. Thankfully, the howling stopped after a few minutes when I lowered my voice, so they could no longer hear me. Pretty soon we heard normal barking and happy yapping as they ran around the lot chasing other dogs. Whew! They were adjusting.
The first time I took Charlotte and Georgia back to K-9 Country Club after adopting them, Charlotte had this same reaction but not as severe. At first, I was concerned the girls thought I was going to abandon them there just like their first Mom. But then I noticed a similar reaction when I took them to their very friendly dog groomers. The groomers had a very large pen that all of the dogs could run around in before and after their baths; it was kind of like a play date. Yet, they didn’t want me to leave them.
The same thing happened at the vet, although that is a bit more understandable. They would always try to hide by ducking under my legs as we waited in the lobby. Even Georgia got a little anxious when at the vet! It seemed that the longer they lived with me and the more we bonded, the more important I became to them. I was their new Mom now, their number one human!
What I learned about dealing with separation anxiety–both mine and my dog’s
After my own experience and through tips from trainers, here are some things I learned to manage separation fears:
- Keep the goodbye short and quick when dropping them off or leaving them at home.
- Say the same short goodbye phrase to them each time. I always say, “I’ll be back!”
- If leaving them overnight, take their bed if possible and a familiar toy or your socks or something that smells like you.
- Don’t scold your dogs, but also don’t coddle them or prolong the goodbye.
- Make everything seem normal, and not like a big deal when leaving or coming back.
- Make sure your dogs have everything they need at the kennel or when you are gone such as access to a place to potty, fresh water, some form of entertainment, and a safe environment.
- Check in with your own feelings. Dogs can pick up on our emotions and react to them.
- If the anxiety is severe, consider taking your dog to a vet or a good behavioral trainer. Kendall Curry posted a great article on PetMed, August 2, 2019, How to Help Your Dog with Separation Anxiety.
I also learned that newly adopted dogs should not be boarded for at least three months after adoption. This gives them a chance to settle and feel more secure. And if possible, it is best to get a house sitter or family member to stay with them if at all possible. This will help reduce their panic and anxiety about being abandoned. See my post, “How Soon Can You Board a Rescue Dog After Adoption? for more information about this.
My Own Grief
I do believe that dogs remember people, places, and situations. And that might be part of Charlotte’s reaction to going back to her old kennel. (See About Us.) Dogs have what is known as associative memories. They remember places, people, and situations through association with certain things that serve as reminders. However, new memories can replace the old, and dogs do not seem to have the same long-term memory capacity as humans. The frequency of repeated new experiences seems to speed up the healing process. My hope is that by taking them to the same kennel several times on a regular basis, they will be reassured that I am always coming back.
Because dogs tend to live more in the present moment than people, they seem to adapt fairly quickly and easily to new positive environments. This is something that Tiffany pointed out to me, and I found a lot of comfort in that thought.
I am also learning to deal with my own feelings of leaving my dogs at the kennel. Many years ago I found it necessary to hand over my 6-year-old Beagle sisters to my ex-husband and his very nice fiancee`, when I left Arizona to attend seminary in California. My husband and I had raised them from pups, and we were both very attached to them. My goal was to eventually have the Beagles live with me again, but the seminary housing rules changed after I arrived and pets were banned from student housing. So, they stayed with their Dad who took very good care of them.
But it broke my heart! I never really got over missing my two beloved Beagle pups. To this day, separation anxiety–mine and my dog’s is a real thing!
The Difference in Breeds
Another factor is the difference in breeds. Charlotte and Georgia had a Pug mom and a Cattle Dog dad. Pugs tend to love everybody and are fairly happy-go-lucky. Cattle Dogs are a little more high-strung and very protective of their territory and people. Thus, Georgia who has more of the Pug personality will easily engage with other people and just have fun. Charlotte is much more intense and protective of her most important resource–her human Mom!
When breed personality is part of the issue, get a good trainer. I engaged with three different trainers who each helped me with different problems, some of which were specific to the breeds. Since my dogs were a mix, it wasn’t always clear which breed personality I was dealing with. But Charlotte’s Cattle Dog gene seemed to be coming out in the form of guarding her resources and being attached and protective of her human.
So one of the things that helped was to address her reactive impulses through daily training for the basic commands. This gave her a little more confidence, focus, and reassurance that she could trust me and it provided a regular routine. But, we still have a long way to go since she already had 6 years of impulsive, anxious behavior. And, her Mom requires a lot more training as well!
At the end of the day, all is well
It is now evening and the girls are back home. They seemed very happy when I picked them up. No signs of trauma. Just a very satisfied look on their faces reflecting a fun-filled day of hard play! They were eager to jump back into the car and they calmly looked out the windows as I drove toward our house. Carrots and dinner were waiting for them when we arrived home and they lapped up their meals with great enthusiasm!
The good news is that our separation anxiety–mine and my dog’s, is not severe. We have all benefited from new positive memories and strong bonding experiences. These two sweet dogs have healed my heart and have been a great blessing in my life. I hope they feel that way as well!
Be sure to see more about raising rescue dogs in my post, How to Comfort and Heal a Rescue Dog.