By Emily Gantt
Published: 11/24/2021, edited: 11/24/2021
Dog boarders want their clients to feel at ease in their presence. Unfortunately, being away from family members can be very traumatic to some dogs.
If you’ve ever boarded a dog with separation anxiety, you know how heartbreaking the ordeal can be. Dogs with separation anxiety may pace, whine, become destructive, and even refuse food. Some dogs even try to escape, which is obviously extremely dangerous.
Thankfully, there are ways to help your boarding client conquer their separation anxiety. We’ll address the causes and symptoms of separation anxiety and provide some tips for caring for a dog with this condition.
Understanding separation anxiety is the first step to helping your boarding clients overcome it. Separation anxiety usually stems from a past traumatic experience that took place when the dog was away from their loved ones. Examples of traumatic experiences that can lead to separation anxiety include:
The symptoms of separation anxiety can vary considerably from dog to dog and are often mistaken for behavioral problems. Some common signs of separation anxiety in canines include:
Now that you understand the causes and symptoms of separation anxiety let's discuss things you can do as a dog boarder to address it.
Anxiety wraps or calming vests are a popular solution for thunderstorm phobia in dogs, but did you know these may relieve the symptoms of separation anxiety too?
Companies market anxiety wraps under many different names, but they're all essentially compression garments. These garments wrap around the dog's midsection and chest, providing soft, consistent pressure over the body like a warm embrace.
One study found promising evidence that anxiety wraps can decrease the severity of separation anxiety in dogs. While the wraps didn't help with pacing or vocalizations, the study group that wore the wraps had slower heart rates and were less likely to display hypervigilance.
Pheromone therapy is a homeopathic remedy that may help dogs deal with stress and anxiety. Pheromones are chemical signals that animals emit from their sebaceous glands. Pheromones are essential to canine communication. Dogs even have a special organ (the vomeronasal organ) that has only one function: to detect these chemical messages.
Dogs release several types of pheromones, each serving a different function, from attracting mates to identification purposes. One of the most interesting pheromones dogs release is the dog appeasing pheromone (DAP), which, true to its name, elicits feelings of contentment in dogs. When lactation begins, mother dogs soothe their offspring by excreting DAP from their sebaceous glands.
DAP is also the pheromone scientists replicate to create synthetic pheromone calming products for dogs. During pheromone therapy, a dog's vomeronasal organ interprets these synthetic chemicals as the real thing and elicits a calming response (or at least, it's supposed to).
The scientific community is split on whether pheromone therapy is effective for separation anxiety in dogs, but it's worth a try if you're running out of options. A comprehensive study of hospitalized dogs with separation anxiety found that dogs given pheromone therapy had improved appetite and showed a decrease in anxious behaviors like excessive grooming, circling, and watchfulness.
But not all studies on pheromone therapy have had positive results. A separate study on the use of pheromone therapy to calm shelter dogs found no improvement in anxious behaviors in dogs given DAP spray.
Pheromone therapy is available in many product types, including aerosol sprays, infused collars, and diffusers that release periodic bursts of pheromones into the air. As a dog boarder, you may find that pheromone sprays and diffusers are a better fit for you since you can use them on multiple clients at once.
Desensitization is arguably the most powerful tool to combat separation anxiety — that is, if it’s used correctly and consistently. Desensitization requires a lot of diligence by the pet parents and dog boarder, and all parties must work together for it to be effective.
The first step to desensitizing a dog to departures is eliminating the fanfare surrounding hellos and goodbyes. Making a big deal out of goodbyes with enthusiastic hugs, kisses, or praise puts dogs in an emotionally charged state and can worsen separation anxiety.
Ask pet parents to keep drop-offs short and sweet without emotional exits. Have pet parents ignore the dog for 5–10 minutes before departing or greeting them to make these events less meaningful.
Another helpful desensitization tactic pet parents can try at home is to perform mock departures without actually leaving. Dogs pick up on their parents' departure cues and may start exhibiting anxious behaviors before their parent even reaches the door. Departure cues like grabbing a jacket, packing a lunch, or putting on shoes can send dogs into a panic.
Pet parents can break these associations by performing their departure routine without leaving the house. Instruct pet parents to go through their normal departure routine and then just sit down on the couch. With regular repetition, this should desensitize the dog to those emotional triggers.
Sometimes, dogs with separation anxiety just need something to occupy their mind. Treat toys will be your best friend when trying to keep a dog with separation anxiety busy. Fill a Kong with peanut butter and liver treats for an interesting taste and texture that will entertain the pup for hours.
If your boarding client can't seem to figure out treat toys, check out this article on training a dog to play with a Kong. Snuffle mats and paced feeders can also keep dogs engaged while they eat their regular meals.
When looking around for items to preoccupy your client, steer clear of toys that are easy to destroy, like plushes, rope toys, or plastic chewies. If the urge to become destructive strikes, these toys can pose risks for choking and gastric obstructions.
Make sure you're meeting your client's exercise needs too. Regular walks and playtime can decrease stress levels and give the dog the mental and physical stimulation they need to get their mind off their parents.
The sound of calming music may also help dogs cope with separation anxiety. Studies show that classical music can lower stress levels and curb the anxious behaviors of dogs in kennel environments. Try playing instrumental tracks like soft jazz or classical music for your doggy client to see if it soothes them. Be sure you set your stereo to a low volume so as not to startle them.
If your boarding client has severe separation anxiety, you may need to talk with their parents. Some pet parents may not realize their pet is exhibiting symptoms of separation anxiety in their absence. Explain the symptoms their dog displays during boarding visits and suggest they seek help from a veterinarian or animal behaviorist.
Vets can offer at-home training and tips to manage mild cases of separation anxiety. For more extreme cases, especially those where the dog engages in dangerous behaviors like self-harm and escape attempts, the vet may recommend medication. Animal behaviorists will observe the pet’s behavior and create an individualized treatment and training plan to help address the separation anxiety.
We know that caring for a dog with separation anxiety is tough. Head over to our support page for more tips for caring for your canine clients.
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