Treating Our Dog's Separation Anxiety
A few weeks ago, I posted on Instagram stories that Oliver's separation anxiety had reached its peak and that Sam and I were in the process of experimenting with some different ways to cope. I received a ton of messages from you all about your own dog's behavioral issues, questions about what we were trying, and helpful tips. If you've been following along for some time now, since we jumped over from AEE, you probably know our Chinese sharpei Oliver fairly well. We've had him since he was 8 weeks old (he's 5 years now) and, as first-time dog parents, we have gone through many trials and tribulations with him. From him being attacked twice at 1 year old, to eye surgery, training classes, and beyond. I've talked about each season of our life with Oliver on the blog/social media quite a bit.
Oliver has had behavioral issues since he was bitten, so we have struggled when around crowds of people, other animals, or loud noises. We also crated him very briefly when he was a baby before he was potty trained. With that being said, he has always had "good weeks" and "bad weeks" with his accidents at home. We never could figure out exactly why - as it seemed that our day to day routine never changed much.
That is, up until a couple months back when Sam started traveling heavily for work during the week. It is the first time since we got Oliver that Sam has been away from home more than a few days at a time. The first few days that it was just me coming home, Oliver seemed ok, just confused and would wimper a bit while he looked at the door. Then, his behavior started to gradually get worse (aka: accidents every day, wimpering, clawing at the door, pacing, barking for no reason). After a week or so of dealing with this constant behavior on my own, I finally cracked. 20 minutes into cleaning up Oliver's accidents on that particular day, I slumped down onto the kitchen floor and bawled my eyes out. And I truly mean bawled. I stayed on the kitchen floor, crying more than I had in a long time. I was exhausted, too - working 10 hour days, taking him on long walks, making dinner, cleaning the house, working on the blog, overwhelmed with obligations, missing Sam, and worrying sick about what I was doing wrong as a dog mom.
It wasn't Sam's fault, either; he never liked to be away from home, but we both know that when works calls, there's no discussion. I called Sam on our walk that night, after my major pity-party, telling him we NEEDED to find a solution, and it was going to be now. Bailing out on my blog work, I finally pinpointed Oliver's symptoms online that night through several hours of research - I had always thought that he had separation anxiety (which I thought all dogs had), but it was never truly confirmed until now.
Symptoms of separation anxiety in dogs: urinating, defecating, barking, howling, chewing, digging, destruction, escaping, pacing, coprophagia. Common causes: change of guardian or family, change in schedule, change in residence, change in household membership (ASPCA).
I researched all of the options on every website, forum, and blog that Google would pull up. I had originally thought that we would need to slowly reintroduce him to a crate but, with his symptoms and general behavior over the past 4 years, it was brought to my attention that this could make him much worse and even unhappier.
When Sam got back home the following day to spend the weekend with us, he brought a large "baby gate" from our local pet store, Chamomile dog treats, and a Thundershirt. He installed the gate to confine Oliver to only our small living room (two couches and a window) where he spent all of his happy time already. He was now blocked off from the only spot that he would have accidents - near the door that we used most. After putting the gate up, we totally ignored it and him while he checked it out and walked through a few times. We brought his favorite "friends" (stuffed animals), food and water, treats, bed, and toys into his new space so that it would be the source of happiness in our home. Initially, we left the gate door open while we were with him, only closing it at night, and for short periods of time spent in the kitchen making dinner. Thankfully, when we introduced this new system to him, it was an extra long weekend home for Sam, so we were able to do it very carefully and slowly with a lot of attention. We started with 10 minutes, then 1 hour, then 4 hours, and so on. It was shocking to me that the same dog that seemingly could only hold his bladder for 5 minutes once we walked out the door, could now go a full work day with zero accidents.
We also started using a Thundershirt, a tight-fitted "shirt" that is well-known to help treat dogs with separation anxiety. "ThunderShirt works by applying a gentle, calming pressure around your dog's torso. It's like a “hug” and relaxes most dogs." I read on their website that over 80% of dogs respond positively to it and that this alone can treat dogs with separation anxiety. I was unconvinced but, decided that anything at this point is well worth a shot. For the next few days, we served Oliver treats on his Thundershirt so that he would associate it with positive feelings. When he wasn't looking, I would sneak a tiny treat inside so that when he checked it out next he would sniff around and find it. When we finally put the Thundershirt on, he did not resist at all or seem to be uncomfortable wearing it. We honestly got the impression that he truly liked the tight fit of the shirt (and probably the smell of treats, too).
Lastly, just to top things off, we decided to try out Chamomile treats that someone at the dog store recommended. You are supposed to give your dog 1 treat per day, about 30 minutes before you leave them for an extended period of time. He really, really loves these and now looks forward to them every morning before I leave for work. We've also been giving him one on the weekends if we are taking him to an event where we know people will be around which has helped with his social anxiety as well. He actually curled up to total strangers and was letting them pet him when we went to a crab feast 2 weekends back. Sam and I looked at each other from across the party with the craziest expressions when this happened (LOL).
I'll be honest, when Sam first brought home this trio of "tricks" for us to try, I was not sure that any of them would work (we were definitely labeling it an "experiment"). I have always categorized Oliver as unique and very high-maintenance, and truly did not think that we would ever go a full month without his "accidents" or anxious behavior. To this day, I am shocked that this system has worked for us. Sam travels for work now more than he ever has since we've had Oliver. And, beginning on the day that he brought these items home, Oliver has had ZERO accidents, has been significantly calmer, and seems like a much happier dog. I wish we had done this waaaaay sooner; it makes me so sad to think that Oliver may have been depressed before and that's why he was acting out so badly. We think that the combination of the stress from Sam being away, and the need to "protect" our full house before we installed the gate was overwhelming for him. Now that he is confined to a much smaller, more positive space, along with the combination of the Thundershirt and chamomile treats, he is honestly like a new dog. Like, for real. Who replaced our manic, pissed off sharpei with this sweet angel?
You guys, I know this post has been looooong and I truly appreciate you if you've made it this far but, I wanted to share every single detail of Oliver's journey with separation anxiety and how we are currently treating it. When I was a scared and sad and hopeless dog momma out there on the big internet, I needed articles like this to remind me that I was not alone. Some of these things may work for your dog and some may not but, if this can help one pup feel comfortable in their space while they're alone, it was well worth it.
*P.S. - this post is not sponsored in any way; this is simply what has worked for us.
Does your dog suffer from separation anxiety? Have you tried any of these products? Let me know what has/has not worked for you!
xo Anna Elizabeth