Are some breeds of dog more prone to separation anxiety?

“You can’t teach a beagle recall” said the proud new owner, as her young beagle strained at the end of his extendable lead, ignoring her pleas to steady/ leave and ploughing all his energy into trying to reach the group of dogs at the end of the park.

There are SO many popular myths about certain breeds and what they can and can’t do. The vast majority of them make me cringe inwardly as I realise the self-fulfilling prophecy about to unfold.

Since this was a chance meeting in a park I didn’t mention that I know loads of beagles with excellent recall. Yes, they can be a challenge, but if you know your dog there’s no reason why your beagle can’t enjoy at least some off lead privileges, in the right time and place of course. The same is true for separation anxiety treatment.

Cockapoos, Shih tzus, Maltese and Whippets

As a separation training expert, there are some breeds of dog that I see more of than others. I almost always have at least one poodle cross on my separation training list, for example. Right now, 3 out of the 8 are poodle mixes.

As a scientist, I know to be careful about making false connections between cause and effect. You can’t toss a frisbee in most parks in Scotland without it landing near a “doodle” or “something – poo”. So really the only certain conclusion is that these mixes and types are hugely popular just now, so naturally I would expect to see more of them.

Other breeds that I am regularly asked to help are shit tzus, schnauzers, whippets, Maltese and cocker spaniels, as well as mixes of these. I am yet to see a Labrador or Border collie for separation anxiety and yet they are also popular breeds, and I see them often for other issues. So maybe there is more going on that simply the popularity of a breed when it comes to separation anxiety.

Nature vs Nurture and how it might affect separation anxiety in dogs

At the root of it all, different breeds have been (and continue to be) developed for different purposes. This deliberate selection of physical and behavioural characteristics will of course have an impact on how the dog copes with different types of situations.

Breeds that were developed over hundreds of generations to enjoy human companionship above all else, for example Shih tzus, Maltese and toy poodles likely have a pre-disposition to form closer bonds with humans and therefore struggle more when they aren’t around them.

Companion breeds are also likely to be better at communicating with people, or expressing their needs in a way that allows humans to pick up on them. Compare this to the behaviour profile of hunting or guarding breeds. Many of these breeds have been developed to spend a lot of time alone, in a role where showing you are worried would be a disadvantage and maybe even a risk.

It is worth considering then that some breeds are under-represented in separation anxiety cases because they are stoic, and may be quietly panicking in a way that doesn’t cause the same inconvenience as a dog that howls, soils indoors or wrecks the house.

Similarly, very active breeds of dog that also bond very closely with humans, such as the working cocker spaniel may find being home alone hard, both due to their need for long periods of mental

(not just physical!) stimulation AND their love of being with people. Cross these with a toy poodle and it suddenly maybe isn’t just an issue of cockapoos being the “in” thing!

It’s all about the individual

So, there may be some breeds that might struggle more with spending time alone. Does that mean they are destined to get separation anxiety?

I honestly don’t think so.

Being aware of your dog’s breed disposition is a useful foundation from which you can approach helping them cure their separation anxiety. If you understand where they're coming from with their anxieties, and sympathise, you are much more likely to succeed in helping them to be okay at home alone.

This is the nurture bit of the nature/ nurture debate, and of course, the bit where separation anxiety training comes in.

Life experiences can have profound impacts on the individual. If you have a dog that has been through upheavals such as relationship breakdowns, house moves, transport between countries or ill health, it is natural they might feel shaken and unsure. An older dog may develop separation anxiety as their health fails and their faculties become less reliable. They are aware they are more physically vulnerable and may need security from the owner’s presence, despite having previously been fine when left alone.

If you suspect your dog is likely to be more prone to separation anxiety, the best thing you can do is tread carefully and protect them from any experiences they might find too challenging. Training is still possible, but you may wish to consult with an accredited behaviourist or veterinary behaviourist to make sure you’re on the right path.

Dogs that are naturally more anxious from puppyhood, or those that have experienced a traumatic event may also benefit greatly from medication. Medication for separation anxiety is not a quick fix, but a way of creating space and calm, within which your dog can learn that being alone is safe.

How to avoid choosing a breed that is prone to separation anxiety

  • When choosing a dog breed, try to see past the claims of “easy to train”, “clever”, “good with kids” etc (these are applied to pretty much every breed by their enthusiasts anyway) and do research into what the breed was actually intended for. By this I don’t mean a quick google (this is probably the worst way to research dog breeds), I mean actually get out there, talk to owners and meet dogs that are living the life they were bred for. Meet others that are succeed as pets without presenting with behavioural issues.
  • Seek out people who are willing to share their NEGATIVE experiences and regrets too. What didn’t work and why? This goes for all aspects of behaviour and expectations for the dog you want to share your life with.
  • Be honest with yourself. Huskies are gorgeous, but if you only have time for a big walk on the weekend they aren’t for you. If you fancy a cockapoo but work away from home for more than 40 hours a week, you might be better off choosing a less sociable or more aloof breed, or rescuing an older dog that is used to having less close contact time with people and can be happy home alone.
  • There’s a temptation to try and prove you're “good enough” for the breed/ breeder/ individual dog. It feels good if the club seems like an elite bunch. But like dating, the truth will out in the end and this is a relationship that will last for a lifetime, so you want to get it as right as you can from the start!

Finally, and above all else be ready to train! Whatever your dog’s breed and background, they are going to face challenges and since you control all aspects of their life, they will rely on you to help them deal with things.

Separation anxiety is incredibly tough on both owner and dog, however regardless of your dog’s breed, avoiding and even fixing separation anxiety is completely possible. Please don’t be like the beagle owner and think that there’s nothing you can do to influence your dog’s experiences and behaviour. Where there is a will there is a way, as they say!

How to help a dog with separation anxiety

Separation anxiety causes so much stress and upset, and yet despite the inconvenience and expense, most of the owners coming to me for help have one major question:

“How can I help my dog overcome their separation anxiety?”

I find it so heart-warming that despite all the difficulties the owner is facing – their number one priority is the welfare of their beloved pet.

There is no quick cure for separation anxiety in dogs, and I feel very strongly about being honest about this from the start. If you do see a trainer advertising a quick fix, please be aware that they will be using methods which punish your dog – using fear, intimidation or even pain to try and suppress separation behaviours (such as barking, chewing, house soiling) – but this will not treat the root of the issue.

Treating separation anxiety properly isn’t about finding that one single fix, it is all about the little things you do to help your dog feel more happy, safe, relaxed and ultimately, for them to stop worrying about being left. No one can do all of it straight away, so my best advice is do what you can, and be kind to yourself and your dog!

Here are my top 5 tips for accelerating your separation anxiety training:

My top 5 tips to help a dog with separation anxiety

1. Be understanding: your dog is in crisis and needs your support. As a person who gets easily stressed, I sympathise with the whole range of emotions you may feel as a result of your dog’s separation-related behaviours.

Anger at destroyed furniture or treasured possessions, extreme stress over big bills for day care or vet care, the guilt of knowing your dog is unhappy when you’re gone, and the total overwhelm of trying to find a solution and feeling like you’re failing all take their toll and that is completely natural.

The thing is you have lots of options, but your dog does not. They are not choosing to do these things – they are DRIVEN to do these things by a brain that is set to panic mode when you go. Understanding that your dog is doing their best, just like you can help you start to see that you really are in this together, and will need to work together to overcome the problem.

2. Suspend absences: the physiology of stress and panic play a huge role in your dog’s behavioural development. In an ideal world, once you recognise your dog has separation anxiety, you will never again leave them for longer than they can cope. If you are thinking “impossible!”, I get it and I am with you. But please keep reading!

Why is it important not to leave your separation anxiety dog alone? Well, first of all, if you don’t leave them, they won’t panic and so the problem behaviours you have been seeing won’t happen. This sorts out the short-term problems of destruction, howling, toileting etc.

Most importantly though, the part of the brain that is keeping tabs on “scary” scenarios such as being left, will get some time off and as we were all told again and again at school – “if you don’t use that bit of your brain it will stop working”. Well, this is one situation where that is exactly what we want!

If you can’t stop leaving your dog completely, that is okay. Rather than going “cold turkey”, try to leave them less each week. Enlist the help of family, friends and neighbours if you can, as many dogs will be okay to go out on a walk or hang out with someone else – especially if that person has tasty treats!

3. Talk to your veterinarian: sooner rather than later. There is a huge range of expertise amongst vets, so try to ensure you have a vet on your side who will listen, and who understands what separation anxiety is and more importantly what medications are available to support your separation anxiety training. 

I don’t know any owners who say they wished they’d waited longer to get pharmaceutical help with their dog’s separation anxiety training. Many, however, say they wished they’d tried anti-anxiety meds sooner. A good vet will understand that meds and behaviour training go hand in hand when treating separation-related behaviours, and will help you make the right choices to support your dog.

4. Spread the love & promote happiness

Spending quality time with your dog and engaging their brain and body with fun activities, games and stimulating toys promotes the production of “happy hormones”, enhancing your dog’s wellbeing and helping them feel safe, secure and relaxed. This won’t “cure” their separation anxiety, but it will give you a much better starting point for separation anxiety training. I see many clients who have been on exactly the right track with their training and it hasn’t worked – because their dog needed to unwind and feel safe and happy FIRST!

As nice as it is to be the centre of somebody’s universe, I think we can all agree obsession isn’t healthy! Spreading the love and good times across more than one person will ensure your pup doesn’t see you as the only source of awesome! If you have more than one human at home, try to spread meals, treats, playtime and walks evenly between caregivers. If your pup is hyper-attached to one person, try shifting the balance so that the majority of good things come from another person instead.

If you’re a one-human household, try to get friends and family involved in walks, treats and other things your dog enjoys, or find a caring dog walker or home day care who can get on board with your separation anxiety training and give your dog some special treats and walks that they wouldn’t get with you!

5. Get some expert advice and support

One of the things I hear again and again from my clients is that they find it incredibly confusing trying to pick their way through all of the conflicting advice. It comes from neighbours, friends, family and of course the huge volumes of information we can access online.

There’s good information out there, but also lots of incorrect, outdated and just plain bad advice. What works for one dog may not be appropriate for another dog, or may even make them worse. It is essential that you understand WHY some things will work for you and others won’t so that you can make the choices that will advance your training.

The thing to remember is that good training has good science behind it. If trying to understand the science makes your head sore, or you simply don’t have time, then find a qualified behaviourist to help you. Not only will this person take the hard work out of putting together a training plan, but they will also provide much-needed emotional support and help you realise that you are not alone, that you didn’t cause this problem and you can fix it!

Preparing your separation anxiety dog for fireworks

It’s that time of year again, the season so many pet owners dread as they prepare to pull out all the stops to protect their pets from the anxiety and even terror that many will experience at the sight, sound, and smell of fireworks!

I recommend everyone works on preparing their dog for fireworks season each year (check out the Dogs Trust’s brilliant sound therapy programme here). Even if your dog has previously been fine with fireworks, it pays to check in with them and make sure they will still take it in their stride. Age, ill health, changes in circumstance, and life events can all mean your dog may be more fearful at certain phases in their life so never take it for granted that they will be fine.

If you have a dog with separation anxiety, however, it is even more important that you prepare them and have plans in place to protect them as much as possible from the anxiety fireworks can cause.

Why is it more important to prepare separation anxiety dogs for fireworks?

  1. Your dog already has an anxiety disorder. This means that they are much more likely to find other stimuli anxiety inducing and to show a more extreme reaction to fireworks.
  2. Anxiety works at the chemical level on your dog’s brain and body. Severe stress, or repeated stressful exposures can cause long term or even permanent problems with the way your dog reacts to stressful stimuli and how well / quickly they can recover.
  3. If you have been working hard at your separation training, the last thing you want is to lose all that progress because your dog has panicked at fireworks.

Put simply, the fewer over-threshold experiences your separation anxiety dog has, the better and the more able they will be to progress through separation anxiety training.

How to protect your separation anxiety dog during fireworks season

It pains me to say it, because I know just how many adjustments the owners of separation anxiety dogs already make to keep their pets calm and happy. There’s no way around it though, fireworks season calls for extra care, changes to routines, changes to your home set up and even changes to medication regimens and daily walks and activities.

Here are some of the adjustments that can help your separation anxiety dog through fireworks season:

  1. Plan to stay home. Since you have a separation anxiety dog you’re probably shouting at me now about exactly how many weeks and months you’ve already been staying home. But I need to say it anyway just in case. For obvious firework dates (Nov 5th and Hogmanay here in Scotland) plan to stay home throughout the day and night. If your dog has a preferred human who they feel more secure around, plan for that person to be home. If they need the whole family, get everyone to plan a night in. Be extra present for your dog.

2. Chat to your vet about meds. Yes, that’s right, meds. Not supplements, or herbal remedies. This isn’t the time to try CBD because it helped your mate’s Jack Russell chill their beans. There are tried and tested, licensed meds to help dampen your dog’s stress response and help prevent them going into full panic mode. If our dog is already on medication for their separation anxiety, you can still chat to your vet about whether another, short acting (situational) medication might help or find out if adjusting the dose of their current medication is an option.  If your dog panics at the sound of fireworks, meds could stop that panic and save you and your dog a lot of distress.

3. Set up a den area well in advance & reinforce your dog for choosing it. This one thing can make all the difference. I get it, it’s a hassle and your living room isn’t that big anyway, but get creative! It is only temporary and if it prevents a training set back then it is worth it, in my opinion. Try to insulate the den area against sound and flashes of light from fireworks and spend bit of time training your dog to enjoy relaxing in there with a log lasting chew. This is a license to build a blanket fort and cosy up in it with your dog, what’s not to love (a crate will also work, if your dog likes crates)?! With a bit of planning and preparation it is even possible to hide the fact fireworks have even happened too (I’ve seen it done!).

It is common for people to put the TV on to hide fireworks sounds, but perhaps more effective is pairing the den time with something that more effectively masks sound – a white noise machine or a couple of radios playing classical/ jazz/ reggae can work wonders and become a normal part of the den routine  rather than a potential cue that something is “wrong”.

4. Change your dog’s routine before bonfire night. Whatever night you are expecting fireworks, you will need to change walk times, toilet times and potentially mealtimes to ensure your dog doesn’t need to go outside after dark (at least until after midnight when it should be safer). Change can be upsetting, so gradually phase the changes in a few days before. This way your dog will be more likely to take things in her stride and be more resilient if there is an unintended exposure to fireworks. If your dog is not used to spending time on lead it is a good idea to practice this too, or invest in a long line that you can keep hold of. Sadly many a canine life has been lost after an unexpected firework has caused them to bolt.

5. Set up activities that make your dog feel good. I don’t think there is such a thing as too much enrichment for dogs. They get such a kick out of exploring, using their noses, jaws, tongues and paws that any opportunity to do this boosts wellbeing (engaging in these behaviours releases endorphins – “feel good” hormones). Scent games such as “find it”, snuffle mats, stuffed KONGS, long lasting chews, Licki mats – anything that keeps your dog relaxed and happy – are great choices both for exercising your dog at home during fireworks season and to give them emotionally positive behavioural options on firework night itself. Use your dog’s food allowance or reduce this and supplement with higher value treats if you are worried about weight!

6. Be ready to pause separation anxiety training. You can’t teach someone to swim while they are drowning, so if your dog does have some panicky/ over-threshold experiences during fireworks season, be ready to take a little time off training. A day or two may be sufficient but let them tell you when they are ready. Being left home alone when you were recently terrified for your life is a big ask, and one that most of us would not agree to. Fill training time with enrichment or fun training activities instead – boosting those happy hormones and your dog’s confidence will help them recover more quickly.

7. Remember, whatever happens it is not your dog’s fault. Panic, fear and anxiety are not behavioural choices. Your dog’s reaction to fireworks is a result of a deep and very real sense of danger. They have no way to understand what is happening and with such sensitive noses, eyes and hearing what they are perceiving is likely hundreds, if not thousands of times more intense. Please be patient and understanding with them and take time to comfort them if they “ask” for it.

Quick fixes for separation anxiety in dogs

If you’ve read any of my articles, or indeed if you have been researching dog separation anxiety for any length of time, you have probably already received the message loud and clear that there are no quick fixes for separation anxiety.

It is human nature though to be curious and to hope that somehow you might be one of the people who gets an easy win. In our desperation to help our dogs, the idea of a quick fix can seem incredibly alluring. This is especially true if the source seems credible – a trusted friend for example or a well-regarded trainer.

To help you in your efforts to help your separation anxiety dog, I’d like to share my thoughts on three of the most commonly touted “quick fixes” out there.

“Crating your dog will cure separation anxiety”

Barely a week goes by when I don’t see someone recommend crating your dog as a cure for separation anxiety. But like many quick fixes, it is good to take a moment and think about why this might appear to work.

The one thing crates do very effectively is limit behavioural options. A crated dog can’t chew on your furniture, will hold his bladder and bowels to avoid soiling his sleeping area, and – if out with human earshot – can bark and cry all day without anyone being any the wiser.

It is a sad truth that many dogs with separation anxiety are crated or confined, and it may therefore appear the problem has been solved. But ultimately the problem isn’t the unwanted behaviour, it is the underlying anxiety. More often that not crating does not fix anxiety and can even cause an escalation into all out panic. I often suspect that those dogs that have been “cured” by being crated, never actually suffered from separation anxiety but were maybe engaging in a bit of mischief whilst home alone!

If you’re not sure, and you do try crating your dog as a cure for separation, make sure you use a camera or video call app to watch them in real time if they are crated or confined. This way you can make absolutely sure that your pup is calm and relaxed, and not just anxious but out of behavioural options.  If your dog does appear distressed (barking, whining, panting, digging or trying to chew their way out), you should go back to them immediately, to prevent further emotional trauma.

“Stop separation anxiety with an anti – bark collar”

Anti-bark collars work by applying an aversive stimulus to punish a behaviour. We need to be very clear about what this means. Your dog performs a behaviour and then a stimulus is applied that is uncomfortable or upsetting enough that it discourages them from performing that behaviour again. Whether an electric shock, vibration, spray, or other “stimulus”, in order to be effective, the punishment must be highly distressing in order to effectively supress the behaviour.

I’m sure you don’t need me to spell it out, but just in case: stopping barking does not cure separation anxiety. They are two different things, albeit they are of course related.

If you do attempt to use an anti-bark collar to fix unwanted behaviours, you need to be prepared to cause your dog fear and / or pain (note – many manufacturers of these devices will use words such as “stimulus”, because it sounds nicer, don’t be fooled!). Given that your dog is already very distressed when left alone – does this seem like something that will work in the long run?

We can’t fight fear with more fear. It’s not only unethical but scientifically, it just doesn’t work.  It may address the short-term issue of barking, but you will almost certainly see further unwanted side effects (including potentially dangerous aggressive behaviours) as their mental health unravels. Imagine the most fear-inducing situation you could be in (spiders? Zombies? Needles? Flying?)  and then imagine wearing a collar that shocks you or sprays you in the face every time you try to ask for help. Would you become less afraid of that situation, or more so?

If you really feel you can’t solve the problem without using the anti-bark collar, please reach out for the help of an accredited dog behaviour expert. They won’t judge you, but will be able to guide you away from the anti-bark collar and towards more friendly and effective treatments for your dog’s separation anxiety.

“Leave lots of treats and food & your dog will learn to love being left”

This is another common piece of advice that unfortunately won’t give you a quick solution to your dog’s separation distress.

A dog that is anxious or panicking is in no mood to eat. Think about times when you have been anxious or scared. Often, not only do we not feel hungry, but the very thought of food can also make us queasy.

This is because when the body goes into distress mode, all systems that are not linked with immediate survival are paused or bypassed. There will be time for eating later – but only if we survive the current threat to our survival and wellbeing.

If you have tried leaving your dog with tasty treats or a meal, only to find they don’t touch a single morsel until you get home (at which point they start gobbling it all up!) you have witnessed survival physiology in action already. Some dogs however, will eat when left despite being distressed. If you have a very food motivated dog and are unsure, watch them on a camera when you leave them with food and look out for signs of stress in their body language and overall demeanour.

Just to confound things, this isn’t to say you can’t try using food in your separation training. High value food and treats can also be really useful in training puppies and young dogs to spend time alone – but only if they haven’t already developed a fear of being left. Pair introducing very short absence (a few seconds at a time) with a high value chew or stuffed KONG, but make sure your pup knows you are leaving. Building this gradually over time can help dogs that have never been left to learn that it is nothing to worry about.

So, there you have it! My take on three quick fixes for separation anxiety that maybe aren’t as black and white as they first seem!