Separation Anxiety in Dogs
No one knows exactly why some dogs develop separation anxiety and some don’t. It is estimated that nearly 14% of dogs suffer from separation anxiety which is an inability of the pet to find comfort when separated from family members. Dogs with this condition tend to become anxious and exhibit distress behaviors shortly before or after their guardian leaves the house. These behaviors can include destructiveness, barking, and/or house soiling. When the owner is home, dogs tend to follow them around from room to room and go berserk when they get home.
Symptoms of separation anxiety include destruction (chewing, digging, scratching) of objects and/or doors where family members exit, urinating or defecating in the house when alone, barking and/or howling, escaping from his confined area, and pacing or walking in a fixed pattern.
Sometimes it’s difficult to determine whether a dog has separation anxiety or not. As a rule of thumb, separation anxiety is more likely if symptoms only happen when the dog is left alone. However, some common behavior problems, medical conditions or medications can cause similar symptoms. For example, house soiling can be caused by incontinence, incomplete house training or submissive/excitement urination. Juvenile destruction, boredom, and excessive barking in response to various triggers can also explain some of the same symptoms.
Trying to determine if your dogs suffers from separation anxiety is kind of difficult if you are not at home! Its a good idea to set up a video camera to observe your dogs behaviour when you are away. Also speak with your vet about your concerns. If it is determined that your dog does have separation anxiety, it’s important to begin some type of behavior modification. If your dog has a mild case of separation anxiety, counter-conditioning might reduce or resolve the problem. Counter-conditioning is a treatment process that changes an animal’s fearful, anxious or aggressive reaction to a pleasant, relaxed one instead. Over time, the dog learns that whatever he fears actually predicts good things for him. Counter-conditioning focuses on developing an association between being alone and good things, like delicious food. To develop this kind of association, every time you leave the house, you can offer your dog a puzzle toy stuffed with food that will take him at least 20 to 30 minutes to finish. For example, try giving your dog a KONG® stuffed with something really tasty, like low-fat cream cheese, spray cheese or low-fat peanut butter, frozen banana and cottage cheese, or canned dog food and kibble. A KONG can even be frozen so that getting all the food out takes even more of your dog’s time. Be sure to remove these special toys as soon as you return home so that your dog only has access to them and the high-value foods inside when he’s by himself. Keep in mind, though, that this approach will only work for mild cases of separation anxiety because highly anxious dogs usually won’t eat when their guardians aren’t home.
Moderate or severe cases of separation anxiety require a more complex desensitization and counter-conditioning program. In these cases, it’s crucial to gradually accustom a dog to being alone by starting with many short separations that do not produce anxiety and then gradually increasing the duration of the separations over many weeks of daily sessions.
Desensitization and counter-conditioning are complex and can be tricky to carry out. Fear must be avoided or the procedure will backfire and the dog will get more frightened. Because treatment must progress and change according to the pet’s reactions, and because these reactions can be difficult to read and interpret, desensitization and counter-conditioning require the guidance of a trained and experienced professional. For help designing and carrying out a desensitization and counter-conditioning plan, consult a Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist (CAAB or ACAAB) or a board-certified veterinary behaviorist (Dip ACVB). This type of counter-conditioning occurs in two steps. Step one addresses pre-departure cues that cause anxiousness before you leave, and step two is graduated departures/absences where dogs are exposed to very short departures that gradually increase.
Sometimes medications can be an option, especially for severe cases of separation anxiety. ALWAYS consult with your veterinarian before giving your dog any medication. Some dogs are so distraught by any separation from their pet parents that treatment can’t be implemented without the help of medication. Anti-anxiety medication prescribed by your vet can help a dog tolerate some level of isolation without experiencing anxiety. It can also make treatment progress more quickly.
Below are some steps to take to help address your dog’s anxiety :
- Exercise your dog well before you leave. A tired dog has less energy with which to be anxious and destructive. End exercise sessions 20 to 30 minutes before you go, so he has time to settle down.
- Five minutes before you leave, give him a well-stuffed Kong to take his mind off your imminent departure.
- Make your departures and returns completely calm and emotionless. Do not make a big deal of coming and going. No huggy/kissy “M0mmy/Daddy loves you” scenes. If he gets excited and jumps all over you when you return, ignore him. Turn your back and walk away. When he finally settles down, say hello and greet him very calmly.
- Defuse the pieces of your departure routine by also doing them when you are not leaving. Pick up your car keys and sit down on the sofa to watch TV. Dress in your business suit and then cook dinner. Set your alarm for 5 a.m. on a Saturday, then roll over and go back to sleep.
- Mix up the pieces of your departure routine when you are leaving, so his anxiety doesn’t build to a fever pitch as he recognizes your departure cues. We are creatures of habit too, so this is hard to do, but can pay off in big dividends. Eat breakfast before you shower instead of after. Pick up your keys and put them in your pocket before you take your dog out for his final potty break. Put your briefcase in the car while you’re still in pajamas. Make the morning as unpredictable as possible.
- Explore alternative dog-keeping situations to minimize the occasions when you do have to leave him alone – doggie daycare may be suitable for some dogs, but not for others.
- Remove as many other stressors from your dog’s world as possible to help him maintain his equilibrium in your absence. No choke chains, shock collars, physical or harsh verbal punishment (especially in connection to his anxiety behaviors).
There are also some things NOT TO DO.
- Punishment. Do not punish you dog. Anxious behaviors are not the result of disobedience or spite, they are a panic response. Punishing the dog will only make a bad situation worse.
- Another dog. Getting your dog a companion usually doesn’t help an anxious dog because their anxiety is the result of their separation from you, not just the result of being alone.
- Crating. Your dog will still engage in anxiety responses inside a crate, and they may urinate, defecate, howl or even injure themselves in an attempt to escape.
- Radio/TV noise. Leaving the radio or television on won’t help (unless the radio or TV is used as a safety cue).
- Obedience training. While formal training is always a good idea, but again, separation anxiety isn’t the result of disobedience or lack of training.