Can a dog with separation anxiety ever be ok in a shelter?

I have on occasion, wondered, “what if my separation dog ever ended up in a shelter?” I doubt that’s going to happen. A lot of things would have to go wrong. But it enters my head when I see, as a volunteer, the impact of shelter life on separation anxiety dogs. My own dog Percy would never cope, I conclude.

This is the point at which I remember to stop worrying about things that might never happen.

Shelter life

But, sadly, separation anxiety is a common problem in shelters. And, according to the research dogs adopted from shelters are more likely to have separation anxiety than those adopted from say, breeders.

Did shelter life cause the separation anxiety or was the dog relinquished because it had separation anxiety? It can be hard to tell.

For one, owners aren’t always open about the reasons for relinquishment. One study suggested that owners “tended to under-report certain behavior problems if they believed the information would be used by shelter staff to match dogs to appropriate homes.”

On top of that, separation anxiety often goes undiagnosed. So the owner may not say the dog has separation anxiety even is it does. Hence why it's so hard to call.

For dogs with separation anxiety, the isolation of shelter life can be debilitating.

Surely there’s little to be done when a dog who can’t bear to be alone ends up being alone in a kennel?

Well, a perhaps the cause isn’t as lost as it seems. At my shelter, we’ve been trialing some new protocols. None of these will fix our dogs’ separation anxiety. But we might limit the damage caused by shelter life. And maybe, just maybe, we might help prevent their separation anxiety getting worse.

chocolate lab looks at treat
Tex, the rescue Labranot

Here’s our 7 step plan.

1. Work out if it truly is separation anxiety

It’s common for many shelter dogs to show separation-related behaviours. Dogs often bark and chew in their kennels, and separation anxiety isn’t always the cause.

At my shelter, our first task is to work out if these separation-related behaviours are due to boredom/pent-up energy. Or whether they are due to fear of being alone.

Sad to say, we usually find out the hard way. The bored dogs give up. The anxious dogs persevere.

It’s heartbreaking to hear them from our office. They are relentless. And the only thing that ever seems to stop their behaviour is the arrival of a human.

I talk to my clients about this when they ask “How do I know if it’s separation anxiety”. I ask them whether their dogs persevere or give up. The answer that usually comes back is “They don’t ever give up”.

2. Look for a quieter space

We encourage lots of volunteer-dog interaction. While this is helpful for most of our dogs, it's not always great for separation anxiety dogs.

We find traffic doesn’t make anxious dogs feel better. It’s almost as if seeing people without those people coming to them is too hard. They want company, not passers-by.

For this reason, we always look for quietest space we have. We don’t want lots of people walking past the dog’s kennel, in view but not accessible.

3. Emphasize exercise and enrichment

Exercise and enrichment are both critical to addressing separation anxiety. Neither cure separation, but they are both brilliant for the cause. 

We focus on getting all of our dogs the exercise and enrichment they need, regardless of the presenting behaviour problem. This can make a big difference to their quality of life while they’re with us.

4. Consider medications

Medications can make a big difference to separation anxiety dogs. Medications such as SSRI can take several weeks to act though. And it’s not always easy to get the right dose. Starting the process as soon as we can matters.

As such we get our vets involved right away with any suspected separation anxiety case. And if the vet recommends, we get the dog on medication immediately.

5. Find hang-outs in the shelter for them

Whenever possible, we get the separation anxiety dogs to hang with us. More often than not, these dogs don’t have issues with dogs or people. So it’s easy to get these pups on desk duty or assign office tasks, i.e., lying at our feet under desks.

6. Assess foster options

Getting the dog into a foster home seems like a no-brainer doesn’t it? In fact, we used to struggle to find fosters for separation anxiety dogs. Our fosters are amazingly committed, but the commitment it takes to be there 24/7 for a separation anxiety dog is on another level.

What we now do is take a “team” approach to fostering. Our separation anxiety dogs get what we call a “Foster Crew”. One person takes the dog into their home. But a bunch of other people help out.

This means if the foster needs to do normal stuff like go to the store, have a social life, whatever, another member of the Foster Crew steps if.

Like most rescue dogs, separation anxiety dogs start to decompress in a home environment. But what’s crucial with anxious dogs is we’re not making their condition worse. This is the risk associated with leaving them isolated in a kennel.

We also encourage fosters to do gradual exposure training. That might sound futile. Isn’t the goal to get the dog adopted which means moving them to a strange new place?

But just getting the dog used to exposure training can be a bonus. If adopted the new owner will need to continue the training. So getting the dog a head start on the training can’t harm and might help.

7. Think differently about regular protocols

We encourage lots of volunteer interaction with our dogs. Walking past the kennel? Throw treats under the door. Entering the kennel? Come armed with goodies. This is a sensible approach for our regular dogs. Volunteers always having treats builds up a fabulous connection in the dogs’ minds that people equal amazing things.

But if you think about it, with separation anxiety dogs, if amazing things only happen when someone comes to the kennel then their anxiety about someone leaving is compounded.

People arriving = bad things stop, good things. People leaving = good things stop, bad things start.

What we do with anxious dogs is encourage more in kennel play. Ideally, we’d like them to have puzzle feeders in their kennels. This weakens the connection that people are the only source of anything exciting.

But as you’ve no doubt discovered with your own dog, anxious dogs often refuse food when they’re on their own.

So our volunteers hang with them. Play with them. And generally try to make our anxious dogs know good stuff happens in the kennel as much as it does outside the kennel.

We also encourage calmer greetings by volunteers. Again, we’re trying to minimize the contrast between “Here on my own sucks. People arriving is amazing”.

And we get volunteers to do a treat spill as they leave. If the dog could speak it might say “okay, so when they leave I get treats. Hmmm…I like it when they leave”.

We also get volunteers to work “go to mat” in the kennel using tasty rewards. This helps the dog build up a positive association with their bed. If nothing else, the dog might love its bed, even if being confined is stressing him out.

But the big question, who would adopt a dog with severe separation anxiety?

You’d be surprised. These dogs are often the sweetest pups in all other regards. And they “present” well to potential adopters.

We are 100% upfront about the dog’s condition. And we grill the adoptees about how they plan to deal with not leaving the dog.

We stress life will change. And we send them away with tons of ideas for how to lead their lives while still addressing the dog’s anxiety.

Luckily there are fabulous adopters out there. They are often people who work from home who are happy to take on a sweet-natured pup who doesn’t have too many other issues.

It’s true some separation anxiety dogs are going to be harder to adopt out. But we never see separation anxiety as a barrier to adoption.

As one of my clients said to me, there’s really nothing quite like the love you get from a separation anxiety dog. Many adoptees go on to experience this love. And the dog never looks back.

What about you? Would you ever consider adopting a separation anxiety dog? Or have you done it? I’d love to know.

If your dog has separation anxiety, contact me for a free consultation.