by Dr. Elizabeth Ellis, DVM
Separation anxiety is a true and troubling condition for many of our pet dogs. It occurs when a dog is overly attached or dependent on humans. When separated from their owners, dogs with separation anxiety become anxious and distressed. They demonstrate behaviors related to that distress such as vocalization, destruction, drooling, anorexia, excessive licking, attempts to escape, house soiling, or depression. These dogs tend to be attached to their owners like Velcro, craving constant human touch and following the human from room to room. The troubling behaviors they exhibit while separated from their owners can lead to angst to all involved.
Separation anxiety does not have a single cause. Some dogs are upset because they are separated from the human they are attached to, while others are upset because something provoked fear or anxiety while they were alone. Finally, some dogs do not have true separation anxiety but are simply upset because of their situation while their owners are absent—particularly at their confinement to a crate, basement, or other small location. Separation anxiety is noted more commonly in adult dogs adopted from a shelter, geriatric dogs, and dogs living with a single owner. It can sometimes be confused with other medical or behavioral conditions, so a veterinarian needs to examine the pet prior to making a formal diagnosis.
Treatment for separation anxiety is largely behavioral modification, sometimes in conjunction with medications. It can be a time intensive and lengthy process. The first step is training your dog to relax while in your presence. Pick a spot such as his bed, room where he’s fed, or place where he rests as the area in which you will teach your dog to rest alone. Begin with very short periods of down, stay in this location, rewarding calm and relaxed behavior. Work your way up to 30-minute periods in which you tell your dog to settle, down, or stay in his relaxation location and leave the area. Continue rewarding relaxed behavior during these separations by giving your dog treats and appropriate attention at the end of these sessions.
Avoid inadvertently rewarding your pet by giving attention when they seek the attention. For instance, if your dog follows you around and noses you to give him a treat, ignore him. Wait until he lays down and relaxes then approach him, give him a good rub down and some treats. Use a consistent command word, such as relax or settle to reinforce this behavior and create a positive association between calm, relaxed behavior and treats or attention from you. When your dog is able to comfortably relax in his location without being able to see you, you are ready to move on.
The next step of behavioral modification is to desensitize your dog to you leaving. Dogs are in tune to clues you are leaving such as you putting on your coat, collecting your purse or briefcase, and the sound of you picking up your keys. These clues will incite anxiety so we need to detach these clues from you actually departing. Start by settling your dog in his relaxation location then put on your coat, grab your keys, and open then close the door without actually leaving. Reward your pet for calm behavior (such as staying on the bed with no panting or whining) with treats or petting. If he displays anxiety, ignore him and put away your coat and keys. Repeat this preparing to leave scenario without actually leaving the house two to four times daily. After a period of time, your dog will stop associating you putting on your coat, grabbing your keys, and opening the door with you actually departing.
Once your dog can settle and relax on cue and does not become anxious in association with your leaving cues, you can train him to learn true departures should not cause anxiety. Prior to any lengthy departure, exercise and play with your dog. This starts your dog off tired and feeling as if you have provided adequate attention. Fifteen to thirty minutes prior to your departure, get your dog settled in his relaxation location, give the command to settle (or whatever word you have chosen to associate with relaxed behavior), then completely ignore him. You may offer your dog some additional distraction for the periods in which you are preparing to leave and in your absence. This can include leaving the TV or music on and giving a high-value food reward such as a peanut butter stuffed Kong or toy filled with regular dog food he must work at to obtain. When you actually depart, your dog should be out of eyesight, relaxing quietly and distracted with a toy or treat. You should not say goodbye, as this brings attention to your departure.
At first, keep the time in which you are gone very short (seconds to minutes) and then gradually work up to a longer period of time. When you return home, do NOT greet your dog, but instead ignore him for another 10 to 15 minutes. Give him attention only after he has completely relaxed and is not seeking attention. He will learn that the sooner he calms down, the sooner he receives attention. Departures and returns should not be exciting or stressful but instead neutral events. During the entire behavioral modification process, be mindful that your dog’s misbehavior is based on anxiety, and not spite. Also, be sure not to discipline or punish him for these behaviors as it will only lead to heightened anxiety and an exacerbation of his actions.
While behavioral modification is the ultimate treatment, pharmaceuticals may be necessary during the process. The first and most readily available is DAP® (Dog Appeasing Pheromone) which is a synthetic scent that is emitted from a plug-in diffuser or collar. It mimics the pheromone secreted by mother dogs to their puppies, reassuring them all is well. It has no side effects; however, it may not be overly effective for some dogs. There are also two oral medications, Clomicalm and Reconcile, which are the only FDA-approved medications for canine-separation anxiety. These require a minimum database of lab work and can take up to 30 days to see results.
Separation anxiety can be a difficult condition. With an accurate diagnosis and behavioral modification, sometimes in conjunction with pharmaceutical intervention, you can help your dog gain independence and calmly accept time away from you.
Dr. Elizabeth Ellis, DVM, appears courtesy of Aspen Ridge Animal Hospital in Lakeside.
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