TOP #11: How to Deal With Separation Anxiety in Dogs ft. Michele Dixon

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Many pet parents will have to deal with separation anxiety in dogs – it's one of the most common issues where dog owners still can't understand the exact causes of it, or how to alleviate its symptoms in their pets. However, it is still very important to find ways to help your dog with this behavioral problem and not just ignore it in hopes that it'll go away.

In this Theory of Pets podcast episode, I talked with Michele Dixon, who is certified animal health and nutrition specialist working at Petcurean, a dog food company focused on every canine's specific and individual needs. Michele comes from a dog training background, and during this conversation offered a lot of great tips, tricks and advice on how to deal with separation anxiety in dogs.

On a podcast episode a few weeks ago, we discussed how to sooth anxiety in dogs using music, and this time we're covering a variety of other methods, including training methods and products that are very effective and work for most dogs. You'll learn how to not only soothe the symptoms but also completely treat this behavioral problem.

Listen to the episode in the video above and find the full podcast transcript below. For more, visit this episode’s post on the official Theory of Pets website.

How to Deal With Separation Anxiety in Dogs
(raw podcast transcript)

How to Deal With Separation Anxiety in Dogs

* To read just the interview transcript, please scroll down below.

This week I wanted to talk to you guys about separation anxiety in pets.  Now this is something that we see very commonly and especially this time year kids are going back to school, things are starting to kind of pick up as that happens, there is Fall sports and the holidays are coming so we're out shopping or we're visiting family and friends and our dogs are being left alone, and cats as well can suffer from separation anxiety.

Our pets are being left alone for longer periods of time and that's when a lot of people start to notice that their dog is either…a new dog has separation anxiety or a pet that they've had for a little while maybe as they age are getting a bit of separation anxiety when their family's gone.

So this week I talked with Petcurian Health and Nutrition Specialist Michelle Dixon, and Michelle gave me some tips and tricks about separation anxiety and how to deal with it.  She talked to me about things that we should be looking for to notice it in our pets, obviously severe cases, dogs can cause harm to themselves, they'll chew on themselves, they may try and escape the house or the yard and do harm to themselves and that stuff is pretty easy to notice, but more mild cases some of the signs are a lot less extreme and there might just be said panting or some pacing, things like that.  And even though it's not extreme even though your dog is not causing harm to himself you still need to be very mindful of it because it's something that is making your pet comfortable.

If you're gone say to work and your children are gone to school and maybe nobody's at home with your dog for 10 hours a day, for 10 hours a day your dog is uncomfortable and that's not anything as owners that we even want to think about, that's something that breaks our heart thinking about our dog pacing or panting, you know not being able to just rest and relax when we're gone.

That's what our pets should be doing, maybe chewing on some of their toys or playing for a little while, but being able to rest and relax and enjoy that quiet time while they have it to themselves.  And then obviously the family comes home and there's a lot of loud noises and playing and stimulation so during those hours when they're alone they should be able to be happy and enjoy themselves.  And if you're noticing signs of separation anxiety in your dog then he's not enjoying himself the way that he should be while you're not at home.

So again I spoke with Michelle Dixon and she is the Health and Nutrition Specialist at Petcurian, which is a pet food company that I will leave a link to their site in the show notes on our website, TheoryofPets.com.  If you're listening to this on iTunes or another format, you can go ahead and jump on our website you can see the show notes and get Michelle's information as well as Petcurian's information and anything else that she speaks about during the interview, things like that are linked to everything, so you can get all of that right on our website in the show notes.

And when you're on our website if you could just take a quick minute to leave a comment or a question, you can do that by typing or you can leave a recorded message for me. I respond to all the comments, I listen to all your comments, some of them I may in future shows so be aware of that if you're recording one.  And also if you would just take a couple of minutes to jump on iTunes and give me a review, the more reviews that I get the faster I can grow the podcast and the more outreach I can have to the pet industry to speak with experts like Michelle.  So if you guys can take the time to do that I would really appreciate it.  So here you go with the interview.

Interview with Michele Dixon

Samantha:  Can you just start by giving me a little bit of background about yourself kind of and how you got into the veterinarian field?

Michelle:  Sure.  So I'm actually the Health and Nutrition Specialist for Petcurian.  I've been with Petcurian for about 13 years now.  Very fortunate to be able to have my dream job working with animals helping people solve issues.  I also did a dog training apprenticeship so my world is really revolved around animals and helping animals.  So I'm really fortunate to be able to have that passion in my life to be able do something the way that is helpful for people.

Samantha:  Yeah that's great.  So talking about the topic of separation anxiety, what is separation anxiety and why should pet parents be concerned about it as an issue with their animals?

Michelle:  Yes, separation anxiety is actually a condition where animals exhibit signs of distress by increased anxiety particularly when they're left alone.  They should be concerned about it because it does create unhappiness in the pet and you're certainly not bringing out the best relationship that you can have with your pets, and then it can also create a lot of stress for the pet parents as well.

Samantha:  Absolutely, I know as pet owners we want the best for our pets, not just physically but emotionally as well, so that pleads into that.  And what are those …if a parent may be concerned that their dog's having some separation anxiety issues, what are some of the physiological or behavioral signs that they should be looking for?

Michelle:  Yeah, some of the signs that you'll see would be howling, panting, soiling in the house, and there are some cases that soiling in the house can actually be stress diarrhea.  You'll see chewing, ripping and shredding of items, pacing the house is a big one, and escaping their yard is also really common, and oftentimes it's done without a thought of self-preservation, it's sort of done in a way where it's like “I just have to leave,” and it's a point of anxious leaving mechanism.

Samantha:  And if maybe that dog would cause injury to himself or something like that if he was trying escape because of any anxiety issue.

Michelle:  Yes, they'll even do injury to themselves by chewing and ripping and shredding of items, you'll see it with door jambs in particular you know where their teeth get injured, bloody gums, that sort of thing.

Samantha:  Trying to get out of the house.

Michelle:  Yeah.

Samantha:  Do you think there are certain animals or breeds of dogs that are more prone to separation anxiety than others or is it just kind of a random thing?

Michelle:  There are certain breeds that are more prone to separation anxiety, it's really important to have some thought and question if you're interested in the specific breed of dogs because each breed has their own specific idiosyncrasies.  So yes, ask a lot of questions and do your research and reach out to other people who might have that particular breed to see if they've experienced any sort of idiosyncrasies such as separation anxiety.  The other thing is that for each rating and tip for you and your pet is the best medicine, temperament separation anxiety, so this ensures that you set yourself up for success by using prevention testing for that particular breed of dog.

Samantha:  Great I know and I advocate a lot for that on our site as well just to do your research and know what you're getting into.  I think a lot of people think about adopting a dog and they think about I want a small breed or a large breed and kind of what they want them to look like but they don't put as much thought into those different idiosyncrasies of different breeds and you know some are easier to train, some are harder to train, if you have a breed that's prone to issues like separation anxiety you could be in for a lengthy amount of training that's going to be very time consuming, and so you want to make sure that you have time set aside for that.

Michelle:  Yeah definitely, most definitely.

Samantha:  Is separation anxiety fairly common in pets?

Michelle:  Yeah you know it's something that we rarely talk about…but now it's right up at the top of the list as one of the most common behavioral disorders in dogs in particular.  You'll hear about it at the dog park, it's common conversation in dog-training circles and with pet owners in general.  It's likely due to the fact that in the past animals were rarely left alone during the day, and of course now it's the norm where both people in the house they're working and the children are away at school, and they do have children, so it's pretty normal for dogs to be left alone whereas in the past they weren't really left alone that often.

Samantha:  Sure.  Is it something… is it a condition that you see in cats as well?

Michelle:  Sometimes you see it in cats and they're a little bit more…in their behavior but they do demonstrate security with urinating in the house, they're …with not having time…it's really important to make sure that you're spending time, good quality time with an animal…

Samantha:  Sure.  So you mentioned a little bit about training as a treatment.  So it can be treated and completely gotten rid of or is it something that kind of is always there and you just sort of have to work with it for the life of your pet?

Michelle:  I think it really depends on the pet, how responsive the owner is to the situation and how…sort of the history of the pet and how adaptable they are.  The best thing that you can do in any situation like that is prevention, it can go a long way and set your pet up for success by starting early.  You know you can consider leaving the home for short periods of time and gradually start increasing this, this can be really effective for the prevention of separation anxiety.  When it gets into treating it you know some tips and tricks, having your pet in a …of leaving could be most helpful and this kind of flurry of activity that happens when you're exiting the door, ensuring that your departure and arrivals are calm and change…casually walking into the room, and then when returning wait …before greeting your pet.  There's also toys that help to keep your pet's mind off of that departure and doggy day care would be a good option for longer absences.  I'm sure about cat day care but I'm sure they probably…

Samantha:  I'm sure somewhere they have it.

Michelle:  Yes I'm sure they do.  That'd be great provided the cat would like that.

Samantha:  And I know there are also some products on the market, the Thundershirt obviously pops up, but there are certain products like that that are supposed to help dogs with anxiety.  Do you recommend any particular products or just stick with the training?

Michelle:  Yeah the Thundershirt they've done quite a bit research on and it seems to be fairly effective based on the research and I've certainly seen it being used a lot, and dog…again, it can be very effective.

Samantha:  Great.  And then the other thing I know some veterinarians will recommend it is a treatment with medication and that's kind of a controversial thing I think in the veterinary field but also for pet parents, some parents don't want to medicate their dog for anything that's not completely necessary, would you recommend treatment for a severe case with medication?
Michelle:  Yeah, I think a vet exam at the very beginning is always a good idea because there are some issues that can look a lot like separation anxiety…or can create separation anxiety so it's a good idea to definitely consult with a vet.  A veterinary behaviorist might be a good option; medication is something that you would discuss for sure with the veterinarian, but you know animal behavior consultants as well as maybe trainers are well versed in methods for reducing or alleviating the symptoms of separation anxiety so if you're prepared with your questions and keep a chart of the incidences as they happen sometimes that could be your best method for ensuring that you're going to have success in treating it.

Samantha:  Yeah, one of the things that I was actually going to ask you was what pet parents should be looking for if they do decide to work with a trainer, and that's a great tip to record incidences and maybe what your dog's doing.  Sometimes when you go, whether it's to a vet or to a trainer and you want to say so much but it's kind of overwhelming and you maybe forget some things or can't remember right then the things that you wanted to say.  So that's a really great tip to just write down some of the things that you want to talk about and some of the things that maybe your dog is doing and that you want help with.

Michelle:  Yes and what the dog is doing as well as what you are doing at that time.  The incidents have a pattern normally that is followed and so because dogs are so good…and cats too are so good at chewing systems, keeping track of what you were doing just before you were leaving the house is a good indicator of how you might solve that scenario.

Samantha:  Oh wonderful.  And there are trainers that are skilled in working with pets with separation anxiety, so that would be…I know you touched on that briefly… but that would be your recommendation to just ask questions and make sure that you're working with somebody that has some experience in that area?
Michelle:  Yeah, sure ask them what their training methods are and what their success rate is always is a good option.

Samantha:  Definitely. And then I know some people think that they just need to re-home a dog if they like work for long hours or if they frequently travel and don't take their pet with them.  I think that would be like a last resort kind of thing I guess, but would you ever recommend that?  Do you think that there are dogs that just…it's just not treatable for whatever reason that their separation anxiety is going to be severe no matter what you do?
Michelle:  Yeah.  Owning a pet you know is a huge responsibility and it requires such time investment.  You know re-homing a dog with separation anxiety may increase the issue cause it's not uncommon to see separation anxiety in particular with dogs that have been rehomed …but rehoming a pet with separation anxiety can have its challenges but it's best to discuss this with someone who's knowledgeable about behavior and then they can guide you and they can also guide the potential new owner so that they know what they're up against…

Samantha:  Oh great advice.

Michelle: …yeah sometimes it can be greatly successful particularly if you have a retired couple that are home all the time, they're willing to take the responsibility on and understand what is required of them to make sure that the dogs have the best most comfortable life.

Samantha:  Absolutely.  That's all the questions that I have, but is there anything else about anxiety or any of the things that we discussed today that you'd like to say more about?
Michelle:  Yeah. I just think prevention is the best medicine, it's common for us as humans to want to respond to our pets in the way that we would respond to each other, and  prevention by ensuring that when you leave the house that you're calm, that you're not making a big fuss before you leave and that when you come in the door that you're not creating a lot of adverse excitement when you come in the door is probably the two things that you can do to really prevent separation anxiety from happening, and preventing…having to rehome your dog or in some cases euthanasia is explored by people, so we just want to see that happen.

Samantha:  Again I just need to thank Michelle for coming on and speaking with the me today.  I think that separation anxiety in pets is something that a lot of pet parents aren't educated about, it's something that people don't really think about when they are thinking about adopting an animal and it's something that I think we really need to increase education about because it is something that's becoming more and more common.

It can be a very serious issue especially if the situation is mild and you let it go untreated and you don't help your dog and work with him and train him.  So I really want to thank her for coming on and helping to spread the word about pet anxiety more and educate our listeners about it, and if you guys have any questions again jump on our website, it's Theoryofpets.com. You can either type your questions or record them and ask any questions that you might have.

If you have any comments or anything that maybe you think that Michelle could answer for you, I would be happy to reach out to her and get that question answered for you.  And as I mentioned in the beginning I may use some of those recorded comments or questions in future podcasts so just to be aware of that when you do that.