Understanding Separation Anxiety in Dogs
Clinical Separation Anxiety in dogs is rare. Phobias and suspicions developed during puppyhood or from traumatic experiences during a dogs life are more frequently the culprit for what is now liberally being labeled Separation Anxiety.
A study at UC Davis indicated …. that separation problems are caused by frustration related to the dependency on the owner. There can be other mitigating factors, but the conclusion reads that results do not support the theory that early separation from the dam leads to future development of separation anxiety. Hyperattachment to the owner was significantly associated with separation anxiety; extreme following of the owner, departure cue anxiety, and excessive greeting… may help in the diagnosis of Separation Anxiety in a clinical setting.
Dog Trainers have contended all along that separation anxiety is almost wholly an owner created sensitivity to departure or abandonment, if even for a short time. The contention that there are other separation-related problems I personally feel are extensions of the root cause.
Recognizing Separation Anxiety or Anxiety related Behaviors in Dogs:
Separation anxiety in dogs is observed through a variety of behaviors; whining at the departure of the owner, frustration-prompted escape behaviors when left in a crate or other sources of confinement, destructive behaviors or even self inflicting injuries in attempts to either escape or self-pacify in the absence of the owner. Often dogs with separation anxiety are reluctant to leave their owners for any reason, to eat or to sleep, following them throughout the house and whining when they leave even for a moment or two. There is a distinct difference between the destructive, brat behavior of a dog allowed too many liberties in the home and a dog who displays needy, anxious behaviors when left alone. Dogs suffering from separation anxiety often display over-exuberant, frantic greeting behaviors, even if you have only left his presence for a moment. Such dogs are usually uncomfortable being left alone outside for any length of time, especially if you are home.
Anxious behaviors are often seen in dogs removed from institutionalized environments, like kennels, shelters, rescues or even pet stores, where they move from environments rich with the companionship of other animals (even if that companionship is no more than a riot of noise and scents) to a secular environment as a single animal in a home full of humans.
Separation anxiety is most frequently observed in dogs from shelters, aged dogs, or dogs which have experienced dramatic change in their environments, like the death of a principal caregiver, or given to a new home.
A dog who displays noise phobias is most often likely to also demonstrate behaviors linked to separation anxiety. Often a noise is the catalyst for anxious behavior. Dogs that fear thunderstorms fall into this category.
Preventing Separation Anxiety in Dogs:
The destructive behaviors of an anxious dog are costly and devastating, causing untold numbers of dogs dying from the ingestion of articles consumed during an episode, let alone the damages to the household and its contents. Very few people have the degree of commitment or knowledge necessary to help alleviate that anxiety, but all are capable of preventing it to begin with.
In no particular order, as these things apply to puppies, young dogs and adult dogs whether they are crate trained or not, you can begin conditioning your dog to prevent separation anxiety by:
- Rule out organic, physical problems that may cause your dog to react in an anxious way. One good example are dogs that have even minor stomach upsets often become frantic if left in a crate when they have to relieve themselves. What starts out as a minor illness can often lead a dog to be traumatized by the experience of not being able to eliminate outside of an area he normally keeps clean.
- Gradually preparing him for periods of being alone from one minute to one hour before leaving for any time longer. Start this when you are home, so you can reinforce appropriate behaviors while you are there to supervise them! See our Crate Training Tips article for ideas.
- Crate training your dog, and crating him in advance of your departure.
- Provide him with things to occupy his time in your absence, whether he’s crated or not.
- Supplying him with these things in advance of your departure, whether he’s crated or not.
- Don’t make a fuss over him before you leave the house, car or other place you may leave your dog, including boarding kennels and day cares! Casually ignore him or practice behaviors incompatible with separation anxiety before you leave, like a prolonged stay or even the WAIT! command.
- Change your departure rituals so your dog is not being cued by any ritualized behavior you perform each time you leave. Carry your keys frequently, place them in different locations, wear your jacket in the home, enter and leave the house throughout the day, increasing the intermission between when you exit to when you return.
- Practice ‘leaving’ while you are home. Leave him for a few moments while you go to the mailbox, out to the garage, or just into the yard.
- Do not permit your dog to monopolize your affection.
- Give your dog his own place to sleep and rest, not your furniture or bed.
- Supply him with ample exercise when you are together, each day, every day, rain or shine. There are great ways to increase your dog’s physical activity without ever having to leave the house if the weather prevents comfort for your pet or yourself!
- Don’t make a bug fuss over him when you return home either! Simply go about your business and control his behavior so he is not mauling you for affection. Make him sit quietly, or lie down for a moment or two before taking him outside. Save play time for later. Don’t go home and throw a wild party for your dog the minute you arrive. Get about your human business before you attend to the dog’s activities.
- Keep feeding schedules, potty breaks and play or activity times as strictly as possible. Not adhering to a schedule often leads to the creation of separation anxiety in some dogs. Small dogs and young dogs often suffer from hypoglycemia if left to go without food for prolonged periods of time. It is advisable to offer food at least twice a day to prevent this, and possibly it’s effect on dogs who become anxious through biological changes brought on by hypoglycemia.
- Train your dog to respond to basic obedience commands, like Down, Sit and Stay. Teaching him to go to a location specific to him, like a dog bed, crate or mat is also helpful in generating self confidence and self control in your dog.
Helping a Dog with Separation Anxiety
If you have acquired an adult dog that is demonstrating any of the behaviors associated with separation anxiety, following the tips above will be useful in helping to counter-condition the stressors associated with the onset of these behaviors. Work to discover what triggers are occurring and begin to desensitize those triggers with more pleasant associations.
If your dog begins to get nervous at the sight or sound of keys for example, carry them with you during opportunities not normally associated with your departure and have them visible or audible to the dog during feeding times and other pleasant occasions. If the trigger is dressing, engage the dog in another activity away from you while you dress or put on shoes, coat or hat. Occupy him with a favorite bone as you pretend to prepare to leave then go sit in another room until he discovers you. Repeat these things as often as possible to help discourage behavior that leads to separation anxiety.
Exercise is always important; a tired dog can’t make mischief if he’s sleeping! Engage your dogs’ mind as well as his body when you are together. Train him to use his nose to locate favorite toys or provide him with toys that dispense his meals as he plays with them. Teach him to retrieve and make him a useful companion that facilitates your departure by getting your things.
Recently, there has been an increase in the use of drugs for the treatment of phobias in dogs. Much of the research is less than promising with respect to drug therapy being successful in the absence of behavior modification or training. Often the drug therapy takes weeks or months to show any demonstrable effect and the discontinuation of the drug usually causes a return to old behaviors.
Behavior modification and training is vastly more successful than just the use of drug therapy. Drug therapy in conjunction with behavior modification and training was declared more successful with the most resilient of cases. Although just training itself will not cure the anxious dog, it goes a long way in facilitating the coping skills necessary to control, avert and prevent anxious behaviors when used simultaneously with behavior modification.
If you are struggling with separation anxiety in your adult dog, seek the professional help of a reputable trainer to help guide you.
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This opinion is the exclusive property of Linda I Kaim of Lionheart K9 and is the culmination of extensive and careful research coupled with anecdotal evidence gleaned from decades of handling thousands of dogs. Although some may disagree with the findings, the deliberate application of these methods on dogs brought to me exclusively with diagnoses of separation anxiety, have been remarkably successful with their rehabilitation, time and time again.
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