Ó2003 Canine College of California
What is Separation Anxiety?
Canine separation anxiety is a neurological distress response to: separation from the person to whom the dog is attached, high degree of uncertainty of an outcome, or the probability of punishment. In dogs with this condition, the level of anxiety is disproportionate to the inciting circumstances. In other words, dogs with separation anxiety tend to overreact. When you leave the house for the day, they think you’ll be gone forever.
In the average U.S. veterinary practice, approximately 14% of canine patients exhibit one or more signs of separation anxiety. This behavioral disease is second only to aggression. The good news is that separation anxiety is a treatable disorder.
Separation anxiety is usually seen in younger dogs and older, especially when these pets are adopted from an animal shelter or as they lose sensory perception (hearing and sight) they become more dependent on their owners and may be more anxious when they are separated or even out of view. It is not commonly seen in middle-aged dogs, although dogs that develop separation anxiety at a very young age may be at greater risk for recurrences later in life.
What are signs of Separation Anxiety?
Dogs with separation anxiety exhibit behavior problems when they’re left alone. Typically, they’ll have a dramatic anxiety response within a short time (20-45 minutes) after their owners leave them. The most common of these behaviors are:
· Distress vocalization—howling, barking, whining
· Inappropriate elimination—urination, defecation
· Destructive behavior—chewing, digging
· Anorexia/ “depression” or inactivity
· Psychosomatic/medical consequences—excessive licking of haircoat, pacing, circling
· Hyperattachment—excessive greeting behavior, constant pestering of owner
· Hypersalivation - excessive drooling, slobbering and foaming at the mouth
It’s important to realize that the behaviors that often occur with separation anxiety are not the dog’s attempt to punish or seek revenge on his owner for leaving him alone, but is actually a panic response. The dogs are not trying to “get back at you” for leaving them alone!
Why Do Some Dogs Have It And Some Don’t?
We don’t fully understand exactly why some dogs suffer from separation anxiety and, even in the same situation, others don’t. It is along the same lines as some people having a fear of heights, or being more prone to motion sickness than others. Some professionals think that separation anxiety can be linked to a dog’s “Fear imprint” period. Much like human stages of development, dogs pass through stages as well:
Birth to Seven weeks ( 0 - 49 days )
Socialization Period ( 7 - 12 weeks )
Fear Imprint Period ( 8 - 11 weeks )
Seniority Classification Period ( 12 - 16 weeks )
Flight Instinct Period ( 4 - 8 months )
Second Fear Imprint Period ( 6 - 14 months )
Maturity ( 2 - 4 years )
During the “far imprint periods” traumatic, frightening or painful situations have a tendency to cause permanent damage to a puppy’s confidence. These occurrences can contribute to the dog’s “need” to have constant companionship and separation anxiety.
Separation anxiety sometimes occurs when:
- A dog has never or rarely been left alone.
- A move to a new home
- Following a time (vacation, off-work, laid off) where the owner and dog are constantly together.
- A change in family routine (new work schedule, new school schedule, different walking/feeding schedule)
- After a “traumatic” event such as a period of time spent at a shelter or boarding kennel.
- After a change in the family’s structure (a child leaving for college, new pet or person in the home).
What Won’t Help A Separation Anxiety Problem
- Punishment is not an effective way to treat separation anxiety. In fact, if you punish your dog after you return home it may actually increase his separation anxiety.
- Spending more time with your dog. Although the behavior will happen less often, you are in fact contributing to the problem rather than solving it.
- Getting another pet. This usually doesn’t help an anxious dog as his anxiety is the result of his separation from you, his person, not merely the result of being alone.
- Giving the dog away. This is passing the problem on to someone else, and will most likely increase the dog’s anxiety in the future
How Do I Know If My Dog Has Separation Anxiety?
Because there are many reasons for the behaviors associated with separation anxiety, it’s essential to correctly diagnose the reason for the behavior before proceeding with medical or behavioral treatment.
If most, or all, of the following statements are true about your dog, your dog may be suffering from separation anxiety:
- The behavior occurs exclusively or primarily when the dog is left alone.
- It doesn’t matter is you have left for 5 minutes or 5 hours, the behavior has occurred anyway.
- Your dog follows you from room to room whenever you’re home.
- Your dog jumps all around overly enthusiastically when you come home.
- Your dog acts differently as soon as you prepare to leave the house. (Barking, sulking, guarding the door, hiding, jumping all over you)
- Your dog dislikes spending time outdoors by itself.
What To Do If Your Dog Has Separation Anxiety
For a minor separation anxiety problem, the following techniques may be helpful by themselves.
- First make sure it is not your return the dog is anxious about! When you come home, greet your dog in a warm and friendly way - whatever devastation greets you. (This can be very hard to do!) Despite the fact that he looks guilty when you yell/swear/show him the mess your dog does not know why you are cross. He does know that coming home seems to make you cross, and this may be why he is anxious about you going out! Just this change alone can sometimes work wonders.
- Enroll your dog in a basic obedience class – not only does learning obedience commands build your dog’s confidence, but the “stay” command is an invaluable tool for teaching your dog that when you leave, you will come back.
- Make sure your dog is getting more than enough exercise. Taking your dog on a hour run before you leave will help them be more relaxed. As we well know, when you’re exhausted, you don’t have energy to worry.
- If you’re crating your dog, make sure the crate is in the room where you and your family spend the most time with the dog – a room that is comfortable and familiar.
- Keep arrivals and departures low-key. Ignore your dog for five minutes before you leave and five minutes after you come home. Then calmly pet him. If you crate train, crate your dog 10 minutes before you leave and leave them in the crate for 10 minutes after you get home. When the dog is released from the crate, ignore dog for another 5 minutes (it is okay to take the dog outside to potty)
- Leave your dog with an article of clothing that smells like you, but something you don’t care if it gets ripped up - an old tee shirt that you’ve slept in recently, for example.
- Make the dog less dependent on your continued physical presence; If your dog follows you everywhere (even to the "smallest room") when you are at home, you cannot expect to leave him for an hour or more when you go out without causing him distress. Slowly begin to prevent the dog following you about in the house - casually shut the door behind you when you go out of the room. Don't make a big fuss about this and after a few seconds, open the door and return. If the dog has been good, praise him quietly. The aim is to be out of the room so briefly that he doesn't have time to bark or chew. Do this for literally a few seconds only at first, increasing the time very slowly.
- Establish a "safety cue"--a word or action that you use every time you leave that tells your dog you’ll be back. Dogs usually learn to associate certain cues with short absences
- If the dog sleeps in your bedroom, gradually move his bed out onto the landing, say six inches a week. Leave the bedroom door open at first, then gradually shut it.
- Distract him while you are out. Keep an indestructible toy (Kong) which your dog only gets when you are out; this gives him something to do with novelty value, and hopefully helps to distract him away from your furniture and floors. Give it to him as you go, and pick it up as soon as you have finished greeting him on your return.
- Leave the radio or TV on
For More Severe Cases Of Separation Anxiety:
You need to help your dog to “practice” being alone. The following steps will help your dog to remain calm during departures and short absences through a process called “desensitization” .
- Begin by engaging in your normal departure activities (getting your keys, putting on your coat), then sit back down. Repeat this step until your dog shows no distress in response to your activities.
- Next, engage in your normal departure activities and go to the door and open it, then sit back down.
- Next, step outside the door, leaving the door open, then return.
- Finally, step outside, close the door, then immediately return. Slowly get your dog accustomed to being alone with the door closed between you for several seconds.
- Proceed very gradually from step to step, repeating each step until your dog shows no signs of distress (the number of repetitions will vary depending on the severity of the problem). If at any time in this process your actions produce an anxiety response in your dog, you’ve proceeded too fast. Return to an earlier step in the process and practice this step until the dog shows no distress response, then proceed to the next step.
- When your dog is tolerating your being on the other side of the door for several seconds, begin short-duration absences. This step involves giving the dog a verbal cue (for example, "I’ll be back.'), leaving and then returning within a minute. Your return must be low-key: either ignore your dog or greet him quietly and calmly. If he shows no signs of distress, repeat the exercise. If he appears anxious, wait until he relaxes to repeat the exercise. Gradually increase the length of time you’re gone.
- Practice as many absences as possible that last less than ten minutes. You can do many departures within one session if your dog relaxes sufficiently between departures. You should also scatter practice departures and short-duration absences throughout the day.
- Once your dog can handle short absences (30 to 90 minutes), he’ll usually be able to handle longer intervals alone and you won’t have to work up to all-day absences minute by minute. The hard part is at the beginning, but the job gets easier as you go along. Nevertheless, you must go slowly at first. How long it takes to condition your dog to being alone depends on the severity of his problem.
In The Mean Time:
We know that there are no sure fire “quick-fix “ solutions, so what can you do with your dog until they’re more comfortable?
- Leave your dog with a friend, family member or neighbor.
- Take your dog to a dog day care facility or boarding kennel.
- Take your dog to work with you, even for half a day, if possible.
- Hire a dog walker to take your dog out to the dog park or on little jaunts around the neighborhood
- As a last resort, you may consult your veterinarian about the possibility of drug therapy. A good anti-anxiety drug should not sedate your dog, but simply reduce his anxiety while you’re gone. Such medication is a temporary measure and should be used in conjunction with behavior modification techniques.
Canine College of California
“Turning Pests into Pets”
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