Dog Separation Anxiety Myths and Misconceptions

Kieran Beckles
By Kieran Beckles
Updated on 17 September 2019

Separation anxiety in dogs is a canine disorder that can leave both owner and pet feeling helpless.

The symptoms of separation anxiety include excessive barking, howling or whining, destructive chewing or digging, and defecating or urinating.

In some cases, a dog suffering with separation anxiety will look to escape at all costs, which could lead to a serious injury.

Although separation anxiety in dogs occurs when your canine is left at home alone, it can start before you go out the front door.

Dogs can learn the signs that suggest your departure is imminent, triggering separation anxiety in the canine.

Having experienced separation anxiety with my Alaskan Klee Kai, I contacted separation anxiety specialist Malena DeMartini to learn more about this upsetting canine disorder.

In the past, I’ve tried many of the remedies that are suggested online: crate your dog, fill a kong with food, play music (or separation anxiety music), get a dog camera and aromatherapy.

With mixed success, I’ve often been left feeling helpless that separation anxiety is incurable.

However, in the second part of my interview with Malena, she debunked some of the misconceptions and myths surrounding separation anxiety in dogs.

Part One: What is separation anxiety in dogs?
Part Three: Should I Crate My Dog With Separation Anxiety?

Part Four: Do feeing toys help dogs with separation anxiety?
Part Five: How long does it take to break a dog’s separation anxiety?
Part Six: How to prevent dog separation anxiety
Part Seven: How To Help New Puppy With Separation Anxiety

What are the misconceptions about separation anxiety?

There are a lot of misconceptions [surrounding separation anxiety in dogs]. It’s one of my biggest motivations to get solid, science-based information out there about what works when tackling this issue. There is so much misinformation and there are so many dog trainers and dog owners throwing spaghetti at the wall trying a myriad of different things. Every time they try something that’s not going to be effective, it makes the process longer, causes more frustration and potentially costs that much more money. As individuals, we have a limited amount of emotional bandwidth, financial bandwidth and time availability. The more you put into the not-working-well bucket, the more likelihood that you’re going to start to deplete in motivation.

Myth One

Destructive chewing can be a symptom of separation anxiety (Photo: Adobe Stock)

Destructive chewing can be a symptom of separation anxiety (Photo: Adobe Stock)

One of the biggest myths is that you – the dog owner – caused the separation anxiety in your dog. It’s shocking to me the number of people who say ‘well if you didn’t coddle the dog so much’.

A very common thread is the overwhelming feeling of guilt. Somehow they broke their dog and it’s their fault their dog has this issue.

If you don’t take anything else away from this interview, this is one of two things I want people to know: it is not your fault!

You cannot take a dog out of the box and say what are all the things I can do to make a dog have separation anxiety. It doesn’t work that way. Not only are you not causing it by giving additional affection or letting your dog sleep in your bed, but people should understand that there’s considerable research that shows a genetic marker that is associated with separation anxiety. You could do everything right and still end up with a dog that has separation anxiety.

It’s an important myth to understand whether you’re giving your dog a lot of affection, you’re letting your dog sleep in your bed or your room. Look at it this way, let’s think of the percentage of people who let their dog sleep in their bed or their room. If that was a risk factor or contributor to separation anxiety, can you imagine the percentage of dogs that would be suffering?

Myth two

A dog patiently waits for owner to return (Photo: Adobe Stock)

A dog patiently waits for owner to return (Photo: Adobe Stock)

The second equally important myth to debunk is that separation anxiety is not treatable. This a pervasive myth. If you walk into any dog park or training group, you’ll get people who are like ‘Oh your dog has separation anxiety, I’m so sorry to hear that – good luck with that’.

People feel the outcome for success is typically dismal. It’s absolutely not true.

I understand why this myth exists. Alluding back to the misinformation out there, it feels like it’s not fixable because we’re doing things that aren’t effective at resolving separation anxiety. It’s entirely fixable. If you’re a dog trainer or a guardian of a dog with separation anxiety, please flip that switch and know that it’s a treatable disorder. Success is rampant when the clients do the proper training.

Why are some dog trainers afraid of taking on separation anxiety cases?

Black and white Alaskan Klee Kai Skye (Photo: lifewithkleekai / Instagram)

Black and white Alaskan Klee Kai Skye (Photo: lifewithkleekai / Instagram)

Typically, what we hear is stuff a kong, use a crate and remove a certain amount of attention or create a removal of over-coddling.

There’s a lot of discussion about the learn-to-earn concept stating something like “unless the dog is lying on his bed, I’m not going to give him attention”. There are some strict condition rules when to give the dog affection in the general literature.

There are also other supposed ways to treat separation anxiety such as lots of exercise and enrichment. If exercise and enrichment fixed separation anxiety, I wouldn’t have a job! It’s not widespread or common knowledge regarding the very detailed gradual incremental steps [to tackle separation anxiety] and how to implement them. That treatment protocol and training knowledge must be broken down enough so that owners know how to use it.

I used to say, ‘can’t hurt, might help’ about a lot of the more innocuous suggestions like using a thunderwrap or increasing obedience behaviors. Now I think about it as, ‘can’t hurt, might help, but really, could kind of hurt’. These types of suggestions are not going to hurt a dog or make a dog go backwards in his training but it might deplete some of the emotional, financial and time availability bandwidth.

Is there still a prevailing attitude in the dog world that separation anxiety can’t be cured?

Alaskan Klee Kai Copper (Photo: @lifewithkleekai / Instagram)

Alaskan Klee Kai Copper (Photo: @lifewithkleekai / Instagram)

It’s really about getting the right information out there. Dog professionals, whether it’s behaviorists, trainers or vets, shouldn’t go above their pay grade, is the best way to put it.

If you’re really not sure how to systematically work with separation anxiety, maybe you should not work with that case or you should postpone working with separation anxiety until you feel confident and comfortable with how to proceed.

Separation anxiety training should be a very hands on and smooth process; it is important to be able to direct the client succinctly as opposed to ‘today we’ll try a Kong, tomorrow we will try crate training or we’ll do a stay exercise’. It should be systematic.

Who is Malena DeMartini?

Malena DeMartini is an expert in separation anxiety in dogs. With nearly 20 years of experience working exclusively on separation anxiety, Malena has encountered hundreds of cases. Based in the San Francisco Bay Area, Malena continues to be innovative to find better ways to treat the condition and support clients.

What is Malena DeMartini’s background in separation anxiety?

In 2001, I was doing all manner of behaviour work – everything from aggression to recalls and so forth.

Very early on, I got my first separation anxiety case. I thought, ‘Oh my gosh, I’m a very green trainer so I don’t know if I should take this on’.

The dog owner said she had talked to seven different dog trainers and all of them had refused to take her on so she didn’t know what to do. I said I wanted to be fully transparent with her and that I do understand the principles of separation anxiety but I haven’t done it before. So I said I’d help her but if I was in over my head, I’d call someone else.

We worked on the separation anxiety with her dog Guinness. After a short bit of time, we were very successful with his separation anxiety. Word spread like wildfire that I had success with a separation anxiety dog so I started to get a ton of referrals. People didn’t like working with separation anxiety.

The second case I took crashed and burned. From that point forward, I set out to research, trial and error and was very transparent with every client, letting them know that I didn’t have the perfect solution but I’d work with them in every aspect to make progress.

It went on for several years as I learned what works and what doesn’t work. Over time, I found a successful direction to go. It quickly became my passion! But I do always say that separation anxiety chose me, I did not chose it!

Further information

If you would like to learn more about Malena, you can visit her website

Do you suspect your dog is struggling with separation anxiety? Malena is offering helloBARK! readers the chance to avail of a special discount code for her online self-paced course for dog owners. For more information, contact [email protected]

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