It’s National Dog Day!
So I thought I would devote my post today on separation anxiety in dogs and how we came through it on the other side. BINGO was our foster dog that we adopted just three months ago. One of the biggest things we had to go through as new fur parents was dealing with BINGO’s issues as a rescue. Separation anxiety in dogs is quite common and it can take on many different forms.
For us, BINGO would bark obsessively for hours when we would leave – and it didn’t stop. We would record him to see what he did while we were away and he would bark non-stop. For anyone who has dealt with separation anxiety in dogs, you know how incredibly stressful it is when your pet is in distress.
BINGO didn’t get destructive but he had a real fear of being abandoned and he was scared to be left alone. Crating him made it even worst. For the first two months we didn’t have much of a social life. Paul and I had to take turns going out because BINGO was clearly traumatized from the month he spent living at the shelter and the time he spent on the street as a stray. He didn’t know how to play with toys or take to dog treats, so I wonder if he was crated and ignored for much of his early days.
We’re no pet experts, so I definitely recommend talking to your vet or dog trainer for professional advice, but here’s what we tried and what eventually worked:
1) Pheromone Spray for Dogs
We bought this Sentry Calming Spray for Dogs which can help for separation anxiety in dogs by using pheromones that mimic what the mother dog would emit to calm your pup. First off, it was expensive. $17 for a 1 oz aerosol spray. The lavender and chamomile fragrance also irritated my allergies – so if you’re spraying a pet bed, do it outside if you can. I wish this worked for us, but I think BINGO was too high strung for this product.
2) The Thundershirt
The Thundershirt for dogs wraps around your pet and makes them feel confident by applying gentle pressure by the way it wraps around him or her. It looks like a T-shirt and makes your dog feel like they are in a constant hug.
The Thundershirt calmed BINGO down, but it didn’t solve his separation anxiety or stop him from barking non-stop. I could feel his heart rapidly beating and when we put it on, he would chill out after 5-10 minutes. The only thing is that the shirt is $40 and I don’t love putting it on him when it’s hot outside. I think I would only use this on long car trips or during fireworks when BINGO is on edge.
Just to break things up a bit and to give us a day-off, we would put BINGO into half-day day care so he could get used to being away from us, but see that we would come back for him. Interestingly, he didn’t bark at daycare because he was with other people and dogs. Though he stuck more with the humans then he did with the dogs.
I think this definitely helped, but holy cow – $35/day got expensive fast. We limited this to one weekend day a week to give BINGO a bit of exposure therapy of being separated from us in a safe environment.
4) Timed Training
This worked but then didn’t work all of a sudden. We would practice leaving for 5 minutes, then 10 minutes and worked our way up to almost an hour without BINGO barking. We would come back every time, wait 15 minutes and leave again.
If he barked, we would correct him, if he didn’t bark for the alloted time, we would reward him. Then one day we would be gone for 15 minutes and he would start barking non-stop again (I left my home phone on speakerphone, called my cell and put it on mute). He started to regress. We were told to let him bark it out – but he would go on for an 1-2 hours. So to save ourselves and our neighbours, we moved on to the thing I was resisting the most…
5) The Bark Collar
We chose this Citronella Spray Collar that releases a gentle mist whenever BINGO would bark. This WORKED. BINGO learned within about four sprays not to bark once he was sprayed in the face. The collar was $80 and it wasn’t mean or inhumane. It was the equivalent of spraying a mist of toner on your face. If you’re dealing with separation anxiety in dogs, this collar with lots of training and trial runs is worth trying!
We would start by leaving him for 30 minutes at a time and working our way up to 3-4 hours away. He didn’t bark, but he was still scared to be home alone. The spray collar saved us from driving our neighbours crazy (we live in a stacked townhouse). We’ve since stopped using it and BINGO doesn’t bark in a panicked way when we leave. Which brings me to….
It’s been 3 months since we first got BINGO and after 8-10 weeks he’s begun to trust us and see that we come back. I underestimated how traumatized he truly was when we first got him. For us, BINGO just needed some time to fully adjust to his surroundings and to us. He is so incredibly smart, that I can only imagine how scared and confused he felt when his last owner either lost or abandoned him (he had no tags and no microchip).
7) Obedience School
I enrolled BINGO in an 8-week beginner obedience class which helped to socialize him with other dogs and build his confidence. I think this helped with our bonding as well, which let us earn his trust. I definitely recommend it – we did this class through Petsmart and great for separation anxiety in dogs.
8) Overnight Boarding
Another major breakthrough for us was putting BINGO into boarding when we went away. Paul and I booked this trip to Napa before we adopted and we had to put BINGO into a pet hotel for the weekend while we were away. It was hard for us and tough for BINGO (he peed in the lobby when I dropped him off – he was so scared) but it did help him.
On day 1, he trotted around in circles looking for us. By day 3, he began to relax a bit. By the time I picked him up, he seemed almost surprised to see us. We had come back! Being at doggy camp was really good for BINGO, he was forced to be without us, but again saw that we came back for him. After boarding him, he seemed more independent from and didn’t need to be glued to us as much.
9) The Buddy System
My friend Jessica would bring over her dog Peppers for a few puppy sleepovers while she was away. BINGO + Peppers are now best friends and I credit Peppers for teaching BINGO how to be a dog. When we left both of them home alone, BINGO would not have his bark collar on and he wouldn’t bark. Peppers had a calming effect on him and they would both nap on our lounge chair together while we were away. Because Peppers didn’t bark, BINGO didn’t either and he felt safe because he wasn’t home alone.
10) The Kong + Other Toys
We tried stuffing this Kong toy full of treats to keep BINGO occupied when we left. We would hide treats for him to find, but BINGO was so freaked out that he didn’t go near his Kong. He wouldn’t eat or drink either. He was just paralyzed with fear. I do still recommend the Kong. When we would come home, that’s when he would relax, play with his kong, drink water and eat. It would occupy him and keep him busy.
A well-exercised and tired-out dog makes for a less anxious dog. We made sure BINGO got 3-4 walks a day. A long walk in the morning, one at lunch, one mid-afternoon and a long one at night helps with separation anxiety in dogs. Paul would even skateboard and run with BINGO to wear him out. This definitely does help! We always walk him before we leave so he can use the bathroom and feel ready for a nap after we go.
In the end, I think it was a combination of the things above that worked for us. He no longer barks because he thinks we left him behind. He’s ok with us leaving because he know we are going to come back – we just had to prove it to him over time. BINGO is less fearful. Dealing with separation anxiety in dogs is trying, but I am so amazed at all the progress BINGO has made.
Have you had to deal with separation anxiety in dogs or cats? What worked and didn’t work for you?