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Dog Behaviour >>SEPARATION ANXIETY

Separation anxiety is a fairly common owner complaint.  I believe it is more common than reported as many owners don’t recognize it.  So, what are the signs of separation anxiety? They include:

  • Accidents that occur only when the owner (or sometimes when one person that is most bonded to the dog) is away.
  • Destructive behaviours such as ruining doors, wrecking furniture, chewing objects, scratching at gates etc.
  • Shivering, shaking, drooling, as the owner is getting ready to leave and/or in their absence.
  • Following behaviours before an owner leaves.
  • Vocalizing.

Often, these dogs are quite needy and show some signs of anxiety when you are home.  Watch for attention seeking behaviours such as the dog that wants to sit on your feet, puts his/her head under your hand, searching for you if he/she realizes you are out of site, whining or barking or misbehaving to get attention/punishment.  All of these are signs that your dog is a little needy!

Videotaping the behaviour can help your veterinarian or behaviourist diagnose the problem.  Storm phobias, noise phobias, barrier frustration, and lack of kennel training, are other behavioural issues that can look very similar.   While parts of the behaviour modification process for these issues overlap there would be some differences.

Do not punish dogs that are showing signs of anxiety and do not use bark collars on them.  They are not being spiteful or purposely wrecking things, they are having a panic attack.  Punishment will worsen the anxiety!  They don’t look guilty when you come home, they are simply reacting to your frustration or anger when you find a mess or if you are expecting a mess.  Please trust me on this one…. I’m a professional.

The article that follows this discusses the details of the behaviour modification process.  I would suggest reading this through to get an overview.  Once you’ve done this, start the “Leadership Training” method and use a down stay on a mat as your default behaviour.  Also read the “Preventing Behaviour Problems” and “Fun Things to Do with Your Pet” to get ideas on ways to increase exercise and mental stimulation.  Increased exercise is very important.  It gives them outlets for excess energy and provides a calming effect. Once these are going well then proceed to the exercise in the article below where you desensitize to departure cues and departures.

Some new and unique therapies are being looked into currently and are encouraging.  I’ve noted some website references below. 

  • The Anxiety Wrap is based on human psychology and may have some benefit.
  • Calming music may have benefits and may mask sounds of you leaving or cover up sounds that might be causing anxiety.  Try any human relaxation cd or classical music on low volume or purchase a cd for pets.  Play this at times when you are home and sit and read a book and ignore the dog so the music will be paired with calming exercises. 
  • Doggie DVD’s may provide a distracter.  Again, read a book and play the video when you are home first so it will be associated with calmness.

In general, I think that most behavioural problems do not require medications. But with separation anxiety, if the problem is severe, your dog may be at risk of serious injury.  Also, many owners simply cannot follow recommendations on not leaving the pet home alone until the behaviour is retrained.  For many dogs they simply are in such a state of anxiety that they cannot learn.  If you ever had a scary teacher, think about how much you learned from the teacher versus the textbook at home.  I did use medications for Buddy and it wasn’t until the medications started working that I saw quicker and more dramatic improvements in his behaviour.   The goal is to get the pet on medications to reduce the anxiety, modify the behaviour and then wean them off the medications.  Many never require medication again.  All medications can have side effects and I’m not really comfortable that these medications are good for long term use.  Dogs going on medication require a full work-up before starting and often monitoring while being used.  Most medications take one to two months to work and often we start at a low dose and work up.  Note, medications without behaviour modification rarely work as well.  There is no magic pill so unfortunately, work will be involved.  It can be both frustrating and rewarding at times.

Having been through this with my own dog I understand the challenges you face.  Please contact me if you need questions answered, want emotional support or for a consultation if you live locally.  I found that Buddy had lots of ups and downs in the process so don’t give up please!

Websites:

Note:  I am not endorsing these products or sites, just simply giving you a reference I’ve found.  If you try these products it is at your own risk.  If you have any feedback on products or sites I’d love to know so that I can improve my site. 

Please continue reading below.  Thank you for your interest and I wish you good luck.

BLACKWELL’S FIVE-MINUTE VETERINARY CONSULT CLINICAL COMPANION

SEPARATION ANXIETY TREATMENT PROTOCOL

  • During treatment for separation anxiety, it would be best not to allow your dog to experience anxiety during your departures. So, apart from the very defined and controlled training departures, your dog would not be left alone. Doggie day care or taking your dog to work are options for people that must work outside the home. If you are unable to avoid anxiety-ridden departures, you should make a clear distinction between “safe” training departures and other departures that will most probably evoke the anxiety. The most effective way to do this is to leave the dog in different locations for the training versus nontraining departures. Alternatively, a sound cue can be used to differentiate training from nontraining departures.
  • Most dogs become anxious as you go through preparations for departure. Therefore, you must work on desensitizing your pet to your predeparture cues. List your predeparture cues (e.g., pick up keys, put on shoes, etc.) that trigger anxiety in your pet. Then start to perform these randomly when you do not intend to leave. Do not overwhelm your dog to the point of eliciting anxiety; just do a few a day at an intensity level that your dog can handle.
  • Many dogs with separation anxiety are very attached to their owners. Making them more independent is a useful adjunct to the treatment plan. To increase your dog’s independence when you are home, do not allow your dog to follow you everywhere. For example, instead of sitting right next to you while you are relaxing at home, have the dog sit a few feet away from you. Or when you get up to go to the bathroom, don’t allow the dog to follow you. To achieve this gradual independence, you can use sit/stay commands, tie-downs (a leash attached to a sturdy piece of furniture), or close doors. The key is that you want to progress gradually enough so that you don’t elicit the anxious response from your dog. If you do happen to progress too rapidly and your dog exhibits anxiety, just return to a comfortable level and progress more gradually.
  • If you are using a crate during training departures, you first want to acclimate your dog to being in the crate when you are at home. Do one to two sessions per day. Start by putting your dog in the crate with a tasty treat and then sitting in the same room for a short period of time (a few minutes) perhaps reading a book. Release your dog from the crate. Gradually increase the duration of the sessions until your dog is comfortable in the crate for 30 minutes when you are in the room. Then start to leave the room, initially just for a very short period. Gradually increase the duration of your room departure until you can be elsewhere in the house for
    30 minutes while your dog is comfortably resting in the crate. How quickly you progress will depend upon your dog. You do not want to elicit anxiety (panting, whining, barking, escape attempts, destruction, etc.) from your dog.
  • If crate training your dog is not possible, train your pet to settle and relax in a safe location. See the Tranquility Training Exercises handout for more details. Scroll down on this page to find them: http://www.drlianamawer.ca/dog_fearful_tranquility.html
  • When you must leave, keep departures and returns low key. Ignore the dog for 5–10 minutes prior to ALL departures and whenever you return. Always take your dog out for an elimination opportunity prior to your departure.
  • Exercise is important for the health of any dog. Try to provide daily exercise for your dog, ideally prior to your departures.
  • On training departures only, present the dog with a new signal or cue or leave them in a novel location. This can be the radio or television left on, spraying air freshener, or ringing a bell. Always use the same signal on all planned departures.
  • Give the dog a delicious but long-lasting food item to consume in your absence. Toys stuffed with food work best.
  • Departure Desensitization: This is the critical part of the behavioral modification program. You need to start with short departures and gradually increase their length. A videotape of your dog during a departure can help you to see the length of departure that is “safe”—the amount of time that you can be absent before your dog starts to show signs of anxiety. Most dogs become anxious very shortly after the owner’s departure. When you start to actually leave the home, you should start with safe departure times and then gradually increase departure length. An example of a departure schedule is 1 minute, 1 minute, 1 minute, 3 minutes, 2 minutes, 3 minutes, 4 minutes, 5 minutes, 5 minutes, 1 minute, 5 minutes, 7 minutes, etc. There is an occasional shorter departure so that your dog doesn’t start to anticipate your departure length. Of course, the departure schedule needs to be tailored to your dog. You may find that your dog needs fewer or greater number of trials at each departure length. Usually, after you have successfully completed the first 30 minutes of departure, you can increase the departure lengths by greater increments (1 hour, 1 hour, 1.5 hours, 1.5 hours, 2 hours, etc.). Remember that your dog can hear your car and knows if you have truly left. Even during the 4-minute departures, you will have to actually drive away! When your dog has achieved relaxation at a departure duration that is typical of your routine departures, your dog has successfully completed the program and should be left in the training departure location for your routine departures.
  • If at any time your dog exhibits anxiety or you return to find signs of destruction/ elimination, then you have progressed too quickly. Return to a “safe” departure time and progress more gradually.
  • Never punish your dog for behavior that has happened in your absence. This behavior is a result of anxiety, and punishment will probably make your pet more anxious.
  • Vary the time of day that you practice planned departures.
  • Progress through the schedule of planned departures gradually. Do not increase the time away in a regular progression and never increase the time if the dog has engaged in any separation-related behavior while you were gone.

This handout may be reproduced without written permission.

Authors Drs. Horwitz and Neilson