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Dealing with Dog Separation Anxiety

Separation anxiety is triggered when your dog becomes upset over separation from you. Simply put, he is afraid of being left alone. What your dog is thinking is that they're about to lose their main friend and that you will not be returning, ever! It is this preoccupation that sets off the cycle.

One of the most common complaints of furparents (or their neighbours) is that their dogs are disruptive or destructive when left alone. Escape attempts by dogs with separation anxiety are often extreme and can result in self-harm and household destruction, especially around exit points like windows and doors.

What are the Symptoms of Separation Anxiety ?

After all, you know your pet better than any veterinarian can and you should be able to
 diagnose by noticing its signs and symptoms in your pet.  

Separation anxiety is not the same as boredom, which can also result in chewing, pawing, digging, and other bad behaviours. Separation anxiety can begin as a panic soon as you leave, or be brought on by boredom after an hour or two.

All puppies show some signs of separation anxiety but as time passes, most show these signs less and less and become more confident about being alone. Their worry about your being away or about their being away from “the pack” becomes out of line for a “teenage” or older dog.

Signs of separation anxiety displayed by dogs when they are about to be left alone or simply think they are about to be include: fearfulness (worry, apprehensiveness), clinginess, hyperactivity, excessive barking and yelping, urinating or defecating inappropriately, vomiting, diarrhea, salivation, depression or aggressiveness. 

Some dogs chew on door frames or window sills, dig at doors and doorways, or destroy household objects.

Some over-eat; some under-eat. Some twitch their ears, pace, pant, hide or jump and bounce about. Some dogs can be left alone for no longer than a few minutes before they start panicking and exhibiting these behaviours. 

Sometimes separation anxiety is caused by a change in your schedule that requires your dog to be left alone for longer than normal. Unidentified changes in older pets may also cause sudden separation anxiety, which can be mistaken for senility. 

Separation anxiety appears to be shared equally in male and female dogs, whether they are neutered or not. Among dogs, long nosed Shepherd-like dogs - bred for herding and guarding - as well as Spaniels and Setters more commonly display this condition. 

Anecdotal evidence showed that dogs with separation anxiety tend to be lean or thin and have periodic digestive disturbances. Veterinary advice places the age at onset in dogs at usually 5 months to two years and suggests that in its most severe form, it affects 4-8 % of pet dogs.  

What are the Causes of Separation Anxiety ?

Some puppies retain their normal early fear of being left alone. Perhaps these were puppies that were removed from their parents too young or whose mothers were unavailable. Others come from families or breeds of dogs (i.e. Dobermans) genetically prone to anxiety. Many are multi-owner dogs that bounced from one home to another, from shelter to shelter. 

This certainly explains why our Belgian Malinois Aramis, our second rescue dog, displays this behaviour after being sadly dumped at a country pound at 3 months, followed by 6 months in a shelter, then 18 months with a family who later returned her to the same shelter, probably for that reason! After only 4 months with us, we’re still working through her issues …

Certainly some of these rescue dogs were abused but only a small percentage of abused pets develop separation anxiety. Social risk factors include early maternal rejection, 
neglect as a puppy or lack of physical and mental stimulation.  

In dogs, the remission rate is fairly high – that is, a lot of pets are going to have good days and bad ones, good periods and bad periods. Some fortunate ones will cure themselves altogether with minimal help from you. Older dogs may have difficulty moving to new homes, accepting new pets, babies and new situations in general. But although we do not yet know the exact cause of separation anxiety, some risk factors are known.

Affected pets tend to belong to families that are close-knit. The disorder often develops after a stress such as death or illness in the family, a move, a new baby or pet or changes in the family structure. 

Dogs and people affected often have parents and siblings affected: if one human identical twin has separation anxiety, the other almost certainly does too. The same appears to apply to litters of dogs – although with less certainty. 

Today all that can be said is that separation anxiety results from abnormalities in neural (nerve) circuitry and/or chemical transmitters  (probably nor-epinephrine, serotonin and dopamine).

What are Some of the Therapies for Separation Anxiety ?

Non-drug therapies should always be the first approach when possible. 

In some dogs, all that is required is to place the dog in a smaller space or a “crate”, where they can feel secure when you leave. If the dog panics when crated, don’t force it as this will make the situation worse. Crating can be a simple “fix”, but I would try positive reinforcement techniques and medications before I resorted to “crating” my own dog. 

Positive reinforcement teaches your dog that he does not have to be fearful and panic when left alone and that being alone is not such a bad thing. We do this by rewarding desirable behaviour and ignoring bad behaviour.

Besides positive reinforcement, another term that is thrown around a great deal is “Cognitive Behavioural Therapy”

This has four components: 1) recognizing anxious feelings in your pet, 2) reassurance in anxiety-provoking situations, 3) developing a plan for coping with the situation, and 4) evaluating the success of coping strategies and behavioural therapy.

Here are some practical steps you can take to minimise separation anxiety. All attempt to teach your dog that he does not have to be frightened and panicky when left alone and to lessen his dependency:

1. Teach your dog as many commands as possible. Your pooch should be able to “sit” “relax” and “stay” on command while you stroke and reassure him. One of the best ways to accomplish this is to join a group obedience class. 

Each member of your household should participate in a “take charge” way because it is impossible to have happy, well-adjusted family dog if family members are below it in the “pecking order” (social order). The point of this training is teaching anxious dogs to relax and give them confidence. Practice these exercises in various rooms of the house and outside. Give out praise and chew treats liberally.

2. Find a room in your house that is not easily destroyed. 

Place the dog in it with some of his favourite toys and stay with him a while. Then leave and shut the door promptly without fanfare. When you return, a few minutes later, give him a pat and his favourite food treat. Over days, repeat this; but each time stay away a little longer. You may even leave the radio or television on. (The technical term for this is Graduated Exposure or desensitisation)

3. Dogs know when you are thinking of leaving long before you do. 

Perhaps it is because you put on your shoes, pick up your purse or car keys or put on your work clothes. If you can determine what the clues are that you give your dog, you can try to desensitise him to these clues by repeating them frequently but not leaving and by giving him a treat and praise when he behaves well. When you have made progress, make your departures quiet and quick. (The technical term for this is Contingency Management or unlearning)

4. In some pets, you can reduce dependency by spending less time with them for a training period of several weeks or months. That means less eye contact, less verbal praise and less comforting, less commands and less scolding. During these periods the dog should not be allowed to sleep in your bed or bedroom. While doing this, never “reward” unwanted behaviour by making a scene, scolding or interacting with the pet. 

Always be mellow with your pet – mellow people tend to have mellow pets. The purpose of all this is to make the pet more self-reliant. (The technical term for this is Response Prevention)

5. There are mixed thoughts about the benefit of having a companion dog for your dog

Some say this may help the situation and others say it will make the problem worse.

6. It really helps to work with a qualified animal behaviourist who has specific experience with separation anxiety in dogs because it is fairly easy to make things worse by being too zealous, too harsh, or too shy with your pet.

Other Strategies

Do not make your departures a big production by hugging your dog because you are guilty about leaving. This only makes the problem worse. Instead try leaving through a back or side door as departures should be quick and quiet. The whole family should ignore the dog 20 minutes before you leave and 20 minutes after you get home.

Your dog needs vigorous exercise once or twice a day. A good plan is to take him for a walk or jog an hour or so before you leave for work and then give him 20 minutes or so to calm down before you leave.

What Are The Medications Used To Treat Separation Anxiety ?

Drug therapy should not be used until you have attempted some of the non-drug therapies listed above. 
However preliminary research suggests that selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRI’s) may provide effective treatment of separation anxiety disorder and you should discuss the latest treatments available with your vet.

When separation anxiety is successfully treated, you will notice other changes in your pet. They will usually be less tense and depressed, and more enthusiastic and carefree.

Try to be content with small improvements and don’t expect a total makeover. This does not mean that love, patience, training and/or medication can’t improve your dog's situation. 

It might also help if you understand that your dog's earlier traumas might be partly responsible for their current psychological issues. Many pet owners - as we did - feel only guilt and frustration. There is really no reason to feel that way so try not to.

No guarantee is stated or implied in this article and if you follow any of the advice in it, you do so at your own risk. If you ever feel that you, your dog, or others are at risk because of your dog, please seek the services of a professional dog trainer.

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