Malamutes with Separation Anxiety

Malamutes are a tough breed, but their need for a healthy balanced pack - and not getting it - is probably the single most common reason for neurotic behavior in a Malamute. Separation Anxiety is one of the most frustrating problems you can have with a dog and is quite common in Malamutes. I feel this is because there are so many people out there that have them that should have a small lap dog they can dress up and pamper instead .Separation anxiety is more often than not, caused by an over protective, obsessive owner.When you make a dog too dependent on you, worry about things you need not worry about, continually take things away from the dog (for no good reason), excessively crate or don't crate a dog when you should, fret about his food, behaviors and everything else - the dog becomes an anxious neurotic mess. The anxiety he feels makes him want to be closer to his "pack" (you) which in turn reinforces the anxiety (through the overprotecting and obscessiveness of the owner). Not what you wanted to hear right?

Dog Separation Anxiety is very large problem for an estimated 10% of all puppies and older dogs - I'm not sure how Malamutes fit into those statistics but I bet it's high because I get a lot of emails from owners whose dogs are destructive, anxious and difficult to live with. Ironically, it's probably not the dog's problem - it's owner caused. Often the dog is left for long periods of time - or rarely left alone so that when they are - they freak out. Separation Anxiety is also the major reason dogs end up in animal shelters. Why? I think it's because we have started treating dogs like PEOPLE and they are not .Malamutes are a primitive breed - with all of their instincts and intelligence intact. The are not content to be treated like a pretty possession. On the other hand, in many cases they have been given too much freedom, too soon, and expected to somehow magically know the rules and expectations you have for him. Separation anxiety is not an easy fix, mainly because you must change YOUR behavior first and act like a leader - confident, in control and providing enough mental stimulation for an extremely intelligent dog.

Signs of Separation Anxiety

A typical dog who has it shows a lot of stress when alone and may.....

  • Howl, bark, or whine
  • Have indoor "accidents" even though he’s housebroken
  • Chew things up, dig holes, scratch at windows and doors
  • Drool, pant, or salivate excessively
  • Pace, often in an obsessive pattern
  • Try to escape

Let’s take a look at separation anxiety from a dogs perspective. You are the most important thing in a dogs life - you are his pack. Dogs are very sociable creatures and thrive on company. Many dogs would spend every waking moment with you, following you around, waiting on your every breath. Unfortunately (or fortunately) the Malamute is not one of them. While they respect and love their pack and hold it in the highest regard - they are an independent breed. They need the occasional time alone to ponder the universe and chill alone chewing on a bone or taking a nap. As puppies they are usually underfoot, but you will discover as he matures he will need some "alone time" where he'll go off to his crate or a corner and just chew a bone, sleep or relax. It's necessary to his mental health. Malamutes are always thinking - and they need lots of mental stimulation. But they also need down time once they mature. While the Malamute needs good direction and rules - it does NOT need someone hovering over him every minute of the day fretting about whether his dog food is damp enough and worrying why he didn't finish dinner. Obsessive-compulsive people drive a Malamute literally crazy! While he needs and wants to be with you as an equal, a partner, a friend - he does not want you hovering. (and I do not equate hovering with training which is something else).

When you do this you make him neurotic. He begins to feel varying degrees of distress and anxiety when he finally does have some time alone. He becomes confused, vulnerable, doesn’t know where you are going, why he can’t be with you and if you will be coming back to him because without your neurotic hovering, he's lost. It would be much better that he learned being alone is good - relaxing - comforting. He needs to learn this from you, his owner. It is normal behavior for a dog to be with his pack - but he is also an adult and should be able to handle time alone without you. Adult dogs "in the wild" will go off and hunt alone, explore alone, sometimes just hang out alone. He learns this as a puppy when Mom leaves the den and the pups are on their own for short periods. The problem becomes when you start to empathize and feel sorry for him (poor doggy, can't live without me). You start treating him like a baby. He becomes a spoiled child. You start giving him everything he wants when you ARE there. He acts up when you leave him, so you stop leaving him. Often doing things that are beneficial to YOU the owner, but that do nothing for the dog. This appeases YOUR anxiety when leaving, but does nothing for his. In reality, it makes it worse. Why? Because now in a dog's eyes you are just plain acting weird and are not very confident and alpha-like. All dogs come and go from the pack, but if you have to baby him, give him treats, apologize or explain that you're leaving - the Malamute is intelligent enough to wonder "what the heck is that all about? Am I being abandoned FOREVER?" and his anxiety grows.So he chews your floor just like you might chew your nails when anxious.

I personally feel owner anxiety and over protectiveness is the reason for most Malamute separation anxiety. However, once in awhile you can connect the anxiety to a specific event,such as a major change in routine. Say you suddenly start working long hours, or a beloved family member dies and you are emotionally distant for long periods of time. If everything you do is extremely predictable, then it may be unsettling to a dog when things change. Being predictable is not the same as being consistent in discipline. You must always be consistent in discipline, but you should also never have such a stiff routine your dog becomes dependent on it or changing that rigid routine will create anxiety.

Sometimes the tendency for separation anxiety will increase after a vacation or bout of unemployment. This is because perhaps you have spent excessive amounts of time with the dog. If that's healthy time, the dog will enjoy it and not have a problem when you go back to work. If the dog is never alone, sleeps on your bed, goes with you EVERYWHERE, gets excessive extra treats because of your insecurity and guilt, such that he becomes spoiled rotten, that is not healthy. When you go back to work the dog may become anxious and distressed. Malamutes rescued from animal shelters tend to have a highly disproportionate amount of Separation Anxiety, probably due to the loss of their original pack. If you continue to feel sorry for him, instead of treating him like a full member of your pack (and expect him obey the rules and privileges that go with it), he will never become grounded in the new pack.

And lastly, a dog might experience a traumatic event that causes sudden anxiety. Star was quite shaken after the first time she heard a gunshot up close while we were on vacation in a strange place far from home - after that she was never quite comfortable with loud sharp noises.My first dog Buddy became scared of thunderstorms that way. Lightning hit a power line outside a window while I was at work. This is not true separation anxiety but anxiety caused by a traumatic event, though it's similar and may be mistaken for Separation Anxiety. Scientific research has discovered that some separation anxiety results from abnormalities in neural (nerve) circuitry and/or chemical transmitters in the brain’s basal ganglia (probably nor-epinephrine, serotonin and dopamine)and may have a genetic component. If an entire litter seems anxious, this may be one of the causes.

How Does Dog Separation Anxiety Manifest Itself in a Malamute?

Pacing or circling
Destructive Behavior
Panic Attacks
Tail and foot chewing
Loss Of Appetite
Excessive Salivation
Wild eyes (fearful)
Jumping Through Windows
Digging indoors
Inappropriate Urinating
Pooping in the house (and some Malamutes always seem to do it on the bed for some reason)

How can I tell if it's Separation Anxiety?

    Your Malamute may have Separation Anxiety if:
  • Your dog gets really worked up and anxious when you are preparing to leave the house. Things like picking up a car keys or putting on a coat can trigger the behavior.
  • Malamutes will often "dig" at doors or baseboards trying to get "out"and have been known to chew through walls.
  • Your dog engages in inappropriate behavior only when you are separated such as urinating inside, relentless howling and destructive chewing and clawing.
  • Your dog follows you everywhere you go and immediately becomes distressed if he can’t be near you- such as when put in a crate or another room while you are still home.
  • When you arrive home a dog is over the top with his greeting and takes more than a few minutes to calm dow nand seems nervous most of the time.(pacing, whining, staying excessively close to you)
  • Your home is a shambles when you return (couches shredded, floors destroyed)

Separation Anxiety is NOT:

  • Howling because he wants to do something you don't want him to do and is upset (Superman does this quite often!)
  • Any behavior that could be described as manipulative (and Malamutes do a lot of these)
  • Excessive activity - being "hyper" (more likely due to just a need for more exercise)
  • Escaping when you are home (boredom or just need to do something)
  • Digging in the yard
  • Being a picky eater
  • Toy destruction (normal Malamute behavior)
  • Home Destruction (it could be he's just not ready for so much freedom yet or has not been trained properly)
  • Howling (it may just be a lonesome, "I miss you" howl)

So what do I do about it?

First, heal thyself. If you are being obsessive about the dog, you are making him a nervous wreck - admit it and get help for yourself. People that are constantly under stress invariably pass that stress down to the dog who cannot verbalize his worries and concerns - so he manifests them by chewing the floor or ripping moldings off the walls. If a Malamute becomes so stressed that he is "shivering", biting himself (some dogs chew their tails or legs down to bare skin) or other stressful behavior the stress has become quite severe. This is seen quite often in show dogs that travel with handlers, or spend a lot of time crated in unfamiliar surroundings. It also happens in dogs that are left for excessively long periods of time (more than 7 or 8 hours every day). Dogs are social animals, and to be alone THAT much is difficult unless they are old and sleep allot anyway.

Most dogs will deal with their separation anxiety appropriately if given the proper "tools". They will chew their toys and bones. When a dog is stressed his natural instinct is to chew something. If he has nothing appropriate to chew he will chew furniture, walls, or even himself. First and foremost, give a stressed dog something appropriate to chew. Chewing relieves doggy stress and helps him cope. Some people have found success with the "Thunder shirt" or "DAP spray/collars" which provide a natural calming effect.

Just because your Malamute is eating your house does not necessarily mean it's Separation Anxiety. It may simply be a case of too much freedom too soon and a lack of adequate supervision when you are gone. Malamutes need lots of guidance, and slow measured amounts of freedom in the home. If your home is a disaster zone, it may just mean you're not supervising well enough or you need to use a crate to control puppy or even adult chewing urges when you're gone.

Some times it is possible to improve without medications, sometimes they are helpful to initially get a handle on things. For some Malamutes, just crating them or confining them to a smaller space where they can feel secure when you leave is all that's needed. If the dog panics when crated, don’t force it the dog. This will make the situation worse. In that case you need to get creative. Put him in a room he has been pretty reliable in, and likes, such as a laundry room, with lots of safe toys. You don't want to put him in a room that he is typically anxious in. For example, we've had dogs that did not like the basement - and found it very anxiety provoking to be left there. But to be left in a bathroom - well, that was ok. Know your dog! It's also good to use Positive Reinforcement with any method you try. If the dog is not fond of a crate, start small and give treats and meals in it. Hand out special new toys there. That makes the crate a positive experience, and hence your leaving and his going to the crate is also a positive thing. Positive reinforcement teaches the dog that it does not have to be fearful and panic when it is left alone.Holy and Riggs never liked crates - both would break out within minutes of being confined. Using a lot of positive reinforcement worked wonders with Holly - she now loves her crate and goes in it even when she doesn't have to. Riggs still isn't fond of them with the door closed, but likes to hang out with the door open. Because he's reliable in the house, we humor him so he's never crated. Positive reinforcement is a technique used that rewards desirable behavior and ignores bad behavior. An excellent book on this is Don't Shoot the Dog, by Karen Pryor. It works on kids and spouses too!

Besides positive reinforcement, another method used is “Cognitive Behavioral Therapy”. This has four components: 1) recognizing anxious feelings , 2) reassurance in anxiety-provoking situations, 3) developing a plan for coping with the situation,4) evaluating the success of coping strategies and behavioral therapy. By reassurance I do NOT mean hugging, cuddling, appeasing. This is the worst thing you can do. That is just going to reinforce the fear and make things worse. In my opinion this method just reinforces the fear of many anxious dogs - but I mention it because it might help some. A better way to reassure a dog is with a firm, calm voice or pat. "It's OK, Ralph...lets do something else". Not "Ohhhhhh poor Ralphy...Mommy's here....".Even a Separation Anxious Malamute would see that as license to take over the world and would start rubbing his paws together planning world domination. If you want to do something comforting, you might try the thundershirt or DAP to help comfort and calm if it seems appropriate.

Some other methods that may help:

Teach a dogs as many commands as possible. Your pet should be able to “sit” “stay" and I use "chill" on command. The bigger vocabulary he has, the better he can understand you. And he WILL understand. Malamutes are very intelligent and capable of understanding hundreds of words and sentences. I once counted and Penny knew over 300 words...and those were just the ones I remembered! I could even put them together in simple sentences and say something like "I go by bye, back hungry time" and she understood (and I probably didn't need to use baby talk!).

Obedience classes are also excellent for teaching a Separation Anxious dog to be confident - because that's what they really need - confidence. Obedience gives them a firm handle on what is expected of them, increasing their security and confidence. Each member of a household should participate in a “take charge” way because it is impossible to have happy, well-adjusted family dog when family members are below it in the “pack order". Do the exercises in various rooms of the house and in the yard. Give out praise effusively and hand out treats liberally.

Find a room in a house that is not easily destroyed. Place the dog in it with lots of his favorite toys and hang out with him there for awhile. Then say, "gotta go", with a pat on the head and leave and shut the door promptly without fanfare. When you return, don't rush to let him out...wait a few minutes, then open the door and give him a pat and his favorite food treat. Over days, repeat this; but each time stay away a little longer and sometimes take some time after you've returned to let him out so he doesn't expect to be released immediately (instead he will learn to just wait until you put your keys down, get a snack, look at the mail - and THEN release him). This is an alpha thing - alphas do what THEY want first, not what their subordinates want.

Sometimes a radio or television playing is helpful but be careful about electrical cords.

Dogs know when you are thinking of leaving long before you do. I think sometimes they even read minds! Perhaps it is because you put on a shoes, pick up a purse or car keys or put on certain clothes. If you can determine what the clues are that you give, you can try to desensitize him to these clues by repeating them frequently without leaving. Give him a treat and praise when he behaves well. When you have made progress, make a departures quiet and quick.

Some feel that diet might play a part in separation anxiety. You might try different foods to see if that makes a difference. Some feel feeding a raw or BARF diet helps in this regard.

In some pets, you can reduce insecurity by spending less time with them. This does not mean isolating the dog outside in a kennel!!!! That is not a solution for anything and will make him even more desperate for your attention. What it means is less eye contact, less verbal praise and less comforting, less commands and less scolding. Stop allowing the Malamute to sleep in a bed or bedroom. Ignore him once in awhile and do what YOU want to do - quit having your life revolve around him (yes, some people do that)! While doing this, never “reward” unwanted behavior by making a scene, scolding or interacting with the pet. Always be relaxed with the dog - relaxed people have relaxed dogs. Neurotic people have neurotic dogs. The purpose of all this is to make the dog more self-reliant.

There are mixed thoughts about the benefit of having a companion for your Malamute. Some say this may help the situation and others say it will make the problem worse. While I can't vouch for other breeds, this often helps with a Malamute. Stormy howled incessantly while her family was at work until they got her a companion. While one Malamute can seem like too much sometimes, it often helps to have a companion if only a cat. But don't do it if you are totally overwhelmed with the behavior of the dog you have now. Get the most important behavior problems under control first, before bringing another animal into the house. If the Malamute is young (under 8 months), even a cat can be a good companion for a Malamute (don't try this with an older Mal unless you know it loves cats!). I would not recommend a rabbit, ferret, bird or other edible however...though Riggs has made friends with our Bunny, it's a supervised relationship. Note that for many dogs who have bonded strongly with people, having another dog (or other pet) around will not be sufficient, and might cause even more anxiety if the other dog is a bully or too dominating or if one dog is overly possessive of it's people or toys.

Be careful not to make things worse by being too zealous, too harsh, or too shy with a pet. They pick up on your emotion and if you are stressed, that's not the time to try and "fix" anything. Fix yourself first.

Try to make interactions with a dog on your terms, not his. You pet him, treat him, or play with him when you want, and not when he asks for it. See the Free Lunch program....

Get a dog used to a getting-ready-to-leave cues, like picking up keys and jacket. Go through these actions repeatedly when you're staying home, without actually leaving. If a dog has already learned to associate his fears with a departure cues, it will take a lot of repetitions before he'll relax. I usually tell them "Crates!" and the ones that are expected to be in them when we are gone (usually the younger, not as trustworthy dogs), are expected to go to them. The only one I have to chase around the room these days is Simone....:-) Try to make a arrivals and departures very boring and low-key. Don't make a big fuss over saying hello and goodbye. Be very casual and up-beat. (not always easy as you're chasing Simone around the house!) Never make leaving a big deal.. This only makes the problem worse. Try leaving through a back or side door. Not like you are sneaking out - like you are casually going outside to do something. Departures should be quick and quiet. The Family should ignore the dog 20 minutes before you leave and 20 minutes after you get home. Ideally you can take him for a long walk before you have to leave him for longer periods (such as going to work). A lot of Malamute owners find this lessens the destruction they face upon returning.

Give a dog more exercise. A dog can sleep most of the day if he's tired enough. Increase the Malamute's exercise. Don't forget mental exercise, like many toys, training, exploring new places, encountering new smells, and social interaction with other dogs. Taking a dog to a park or day care where he can run and play with others (if he's good with other dogs - not all Malamutes are).

Give a dog something to do while you're gone! What does a dog do all day? When I was working I set up a webcam just to see what they did all day. BORING. They slept....jumped up and looked out a window....slept....jumped up and looked out a window.....slept.....Give your dog a hobby to go with his job! Make getting food closer to what he'd do in the wild. Leave him his dinner in the form of Raw bones, stuff a Kong or a hollow prepared bone, fill up a Buster Cube or Roll-A-Treat, and scatter the dog's food in the grass or hide several chew treats around the house for him to find (though this might be dangerous with a Malamute as he'll expect treats to be everywhere and just might tear up your house to find them). Shadow learned that in one of his homes - the kids left food all over and till the day he died he was always snooping into places he didn't belong looking for food. Know your dog.

One of the best pieces of advice I've heard is don't draw attention to forbidden objects just before leaving - in other words, don't straighten up or point out the items that you don't want the dog to chew. Do that when the dog isn't in the room. I would also add don't even THINK of them. If you do they will invariably read your mind and when you leave his attention will go immediately to the object. NEVER punish a dog afterward a bout of destruction - it won't help and may just increase his anxiety next time. It's better to show him a better way to deal with it, or give him an alternative behavior such as the Kong or lots of toys. He probably won't even connect the punishment with what he did to cause the destruction.

Make sure you're not expecting too much from your dog. People are notorious for thinking young puppies can hold their urine for longer than they can - setting them up for anxiety when the person leaves. Consider the age and reliability of your dog. Some dogs can hold it 12 or more hours...others are only good for a couple of hours.If the dog can't hold it long enough (puppies), consider a laundry room with wee wee pads/newspaper/towels and a crate for sleeping until he's old enough to hold it longer.

Consider taking the Malamute to doggie daycare or to a friend's house for supervision if a puppy (or to work or on errands with you), so that he is not actually alone, while you work on teaching him to deal with being alone. Remember, dogs are pack animals that want to be with others. It's HARD for a puppy to be alone for extended periods every day.

Some more ideas...

Try and figure out what starts the dog's anxiety. Is it when you put on your shoes? Change clothes? Pick up a keys? Practice doing that action, over and over again, until a dog is no longer anxious about it. You don't need to talk to a dog or do anything else special while you're doing the activity. Do it exactly as you would if you are going out - in fact THINK about going out (sometimes I think our dogs pick up on our thoughts more than we do!). Many times have I had them get all excited when I walked into a room just thinking I am going to go to the store later so I think your thoughts matter. When your Malamute is no longer anxious when you put on shoes, move to the next step in the sequence. Repeat often. Your goal is for him to go "ho hum" and go lay down out of boredom.

When you've worked through a whole getting-ready-to-go sequence and the dog is finally relaxing, it's time to move to the first absence session. Up to now, a dog with separation anxiety has associated absences with intense anxiety. The dog has to now learn to associate absences with a lack of anxiety, or calmness. You and the dog will practice being apart from each other for very short periods of time - no more than the dog can handle - and you will gradually practice longer and longer times. Walk out the door, shut it behind you confidently (no looking back or internal anxiety on your part allowed!), lock it, and then turn around, unlock it, and come back in. Don't make a fuss over the dog. When a dog is not anxious, lengthen a absence. Repeat until a dog is not anxious. Think of the errands you need to do while you are doing this (just in case he's picking up on your thoughts). Continue with this process, gradually increasing the length of time you are gone but keeping the actual time random (you don't want him anticipating your return after a set time). Gradually increase the average length of time until it's about how long you would be gone normally. Yes, that means you will NOT be able to really leave the dog alone in the "safety zone" for longer than you've successfully practiced.

I really prefer you never use drugs - but some dogs become so frenzied and upset you just have no other option. Before you go this route get a second opinion - what you may be considering "nervousness" may be nothing at all. We had a pup once that was quite attached to his owner. The owner was a neurotic mess and imparted all his stress upon the dog saying the dog had separation anxiety, nerves, and a host of other psychosis. To make a long story short, it was the owner that was having panic attacks, not the dog, upon leaving. Once he left the dog settled down and fell asleep but he was convinced the dog panicked every time he left- so he never left - which made the problem worse. Get a second opinion. You may be putting your neuroses on the dog! (though we all hate to admit it!)

Preliminary research suggests that selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRI’s) may provide effective treatment of separation anxiety disorder and other anxiety disorders in pets. Neither tricyclic antidepressants like Elavil nor benzodiazepines such as Valium have been shown to be more effective than placebos (in other words they're useless) although some veterinarians do prescribe them. We have used Acepromazine occasionally on dogs that have had severe anxiety due to storms or when a bitch is in heat (some boys just lose it...). It works, but you almost have to give it before the stress is out of control - which is almost impossible to do. Start with the smallest dose possible and work up to a dose that works for the dog with the help of your veterinarian. If you give it early enough, in anticipation of the anxiety you know will happen, you often can use less of the drug. At more than minimal doses, it causes loss of coordination (dyskinesia) and loss of mental acuity - they will wobble around like a drunken sailor so make sure they are in a safe place (no stairs). Sometimes you can use small doses of Ace to desensitize a very upset dog while you work with them to alleviate the Separation Anxiety through the above methods. Another more natural solution some have found success with is "Rescue Remedy". It's a herb mixture. You put a couple of drops on their tongue to quell anxietywhile you work through the training methods.

Ideally, you'll find a balance and a solution. The best solution is one that works for everyone and sometimes that's just using practical methods to get the dog to feel secure. Shadow had severe separation anxiety when he was returned to us the 2nd time - he would not go outside after 8:00 pm fearing we would leave him outside overnight. It took several months of treats and a matter of fact attitude to fix. He had to learn to trust again - and get over the neuroses caused by a previous owner. If you can use it (and it's not part of the anxiety response), I still think the best solution is a sturdy dog crate - we've found Airline crates are best in alleviating anxiety because they are more den like. However they are easier to break out of so if house destruction is the problem, that's probably not the best kind of crate for the situation. In that case I would recommend a heavy metal crate with something over it and on the sides to make it more "cave-like". Don't use a blanket because a Malamute will just pull the entire thing through the bars and you'll have to cut it into pieces to remove it.

Most of all work on your own attitude. If you are anxious,the Malamute will be. Be confident, alpha-like and he will take his cues from you and feel safe and secure - even if he was "separation anxious" in a previous home. Yes, there will be an adjustment period. Careen successfully alleviated Dawson's separation anxiety in just a few weeks with her common sense approach and alpha confidence. That's the best solution for a dog that is fearful for ANY reason - be it thunderstorms or separation anxiety or anything.

An excellent article and first person story on how a dog with severe Separation Anxiety was helped.