Separation anxiety (SA) is an extremely common issue that an estimated 11.5 million dogs suffer from. SA can manifest itself in many different ways, including, but not limited to destructive behavior, urinating and/or defecating in the house, excessive salivation, eating or drinking excessively, not eating or drinking at all, excessive vocalization (howling or barking), fearfulness/worried/apprehensive look as you are getting ready to depart, clinginess, hyperactivity, and depression or aggression when about to be left alone.
What Are The Signs
What is destroyed and where the destruction takes place is important. Many dogs destroy objects and there are different motives for this destruction. Dogs with separation anxiety target objects that have your scent on them, such as remote controls, phones, socks, shoes, pillows, and underwear. The stronger the scent, the more likely a target the object will be. Common locations for destruction include doorways and windows.
A big red flag for SA is when an adult dog, that was previously house trained, begins to have accidents in the house when left alone. The key here is that the accidents happen when he is alone. Medical causes need to be explored, but usually medical causes will cause inappropriate elimination at other times as well.
It is extremely important to note that these dogs are not being spiteful. They are not destroying things and soiling your house because they are angry that you left them alone. They are literally having panic attacks and are not able to control their reactions to those panic attacks. Spite is not an emotion that dogs are capable of, only humans are capable of this. If you think your dog is being spiteful you will be more likely to get angry with him. Anger will cause more stress and confusion and will make things worse.
Separation anxiety can be highly variable. A dog can exhibit signs of SA when left totally alone, or if just one family member is not present. SA can develop when there is a sudden change in your schedule (i.e. teachers who have been off all Summer and suddenly return to work in the Fall), or if you are just a little late returning home (i.e. home at 7:30 vs 6:00). SA can also be idiopathic (cause unknown) and dogs that were left alone their entire lives can no longer be left alone. Other causes/risk factors include a traumatic event (house fire, burglary attempt, etc), severe thunderstorm, or fireworks, “SPOILING” your dog, dogs rescued from shelters, laboratories, and those that have spent extensive time in shelters or with a home bound person. Genetics also play a role and shy/timid dogs tend to be predisposed to developing SA.
What To Do
So, what can we do to help our dogs with SA. The first place to start is where I start ALL of my behavior modification, with deference. You need to teach your dog to defer to you by having him sit and look at you for everything that has value to him. You need to be consistent and have him defer to you for everything, food/feeding, treats, love/affection, grooming, going outdoors, coming indoors, having his leash put on, being invited onto the sofa or bed, playing games, playing with toys, etc… Anything and everything! Having your dog defer to you helps to facilitate an overall relaxed state of mind and helps to decrease anxiety. Next, start rewarding your dog every time he is relaxed. We tend to be very good at saying “no!” when our dogs are doing something wrong or something we do not like, but when they are lying quietly we tend to leave them be. Make a point to go to your dog and quietly praise him for being relaxed. Reinforce what you want!
The mainstay of treatment involves desensitizing your dog to your departure cues and counter-conditioning using gradual departures. Dogs read body language extremely well. Your dog knows which days you are going to work and which days you are staying home. He is very well aware of your routines. We can use this to help desensitize him. On the days that you are going to work, try to mimic the routine you have on your days off. The time you leave may be something you cannot help, but you can wear “days off” clothes to exit the house and then change into work clothes at work. The same applies for days off, mimic your work day routine, and then stay home. Also, begin to do various things you would do if you were leaving. Grab your keys randomly through out the day and make sure he hears them jingle, then continue to do what ever you were doing. Same thing with coats, pocket books, shoes, etc… Try to mimic your departure routine and components of the routine throughout the day.
Counter-conditioning using gradual departures involves teaching your dog to be alone for gradually longer periods of time. I cannot stress enough the importance of going slow with this. How fast this gets accomplished is not the goal, having your dog be relaxed during this process is. Be aware of your dogs state of mind and do not forget to reward even the most tiny hint of increased relaxation. If you find your dog becoming stressed while practicing gradual departures, STOP! Go back a duration that did not cause stress, and end the exercise for the time being.
Start counter-conditioning using gradual departures by having your dog sit and stay for a few seconds, go to him and reward with whatever motivates him (a treat, toy, etc… and always praise). Gradually increase the length of time that he stays. Start with 5 seconds, then 10, then 15, etc… An increase of 5 seconds at a time may be too much for your dog. If that’s the case, increase the increments 1 or 2 seconds at a time. Next, begin to have your dogs stay while you take a step backwards, then 2 steps, then 3 steps, etc… See the pattern here? Next, take steps to the right, then to the left, and continue in this manner until you can begin to leave the room you guys are in. Leave the room for only one second to begin, then 2, then 4, and continue to build on that. Eventually you will be walking out of the front door during this exercise. However, you may not be able to just open the door and step out without your dog becoming stressed. Your may need to start with just touching the door knob, then just jiggling it, then just turning it, etc… Remember to reward between each step for relaxation. Continue this process until your dog can be left alone for about a half an hour.
In a perfect world, your dog should NEVER be left alone during the treatment process. For those of use that work all day, doggie daycare, pet sitters, neighbors, friends, and family can help to accomplish this. If you are lucky enough to have a job that allows you to take for dog to work, take advantage of that. Also, ask your boss if he/she would be willing to help you out with treatment and allow you to bring your dog to work with you on a temporary basis. It can’t hurt to ask!
Crate training your dog can help, but ONLY if he views the crate as a happy place. Crating your dog without addressing the SA will not help your dog and may actually make things worse. However, if your dog has a positive association with the create, and knows that time in there is meant to be spent relaxing and sleeping, the crate can be an asset during this process. I will cover crate training in a separate post.
There are many things that can be done through out the day during your day to day interactions with your dog that can help this process. The following are general rules that can be employed to help decrease anxiety and begin to create a normal bond (as apposed to the abnormal pathologic bond that is the culprit here).
- Do not allow your dog to follow you everywhere. He is not following you everywhere because he loves you sooooo much. He is following you because he panics when you are not around. So, if you are watching TV and need to go to the kitchen to get a glass of water, tell your dog to stay BEFORE you get up to leave the room. Do not allow your dog to follow you out of the room. If he does, walk him back to the spot where he was when you told him to stay, and start the process over. Teaching stay gradually before hand is important here. It is too much to expect a dog that does not know what stay means to stay in a room while you leave for a couple of minutes. Tether him to something in the room if you have to (not long term and only while he will be supervised), but do not allow him to follow you everywhere.
- You should be the one who initiates all interactions. If your dog approaches you in an attempt to solicit attention, he must do something (sit) in order to earn that attention. Looking cute doesn’t cut it! You being in control of everything will lessen the anxious state of mind that he is living in because he no longer has to make decisions.
- While sitting on the couch (or anywhere else for that matter), do not allow him to drape himself over you or be right next to you as if he were attached. On the floor, near you is okay, but not touching you.
- Do not allow him to sleep in your bed. In the same room is fine.
- Play tug-of-war and let him win. This will help to build confidence. If he starts to growl, you may have gone too far and it’s time to back off.
- Ignore your dog for 15 minutes before you leave and after you return home. Many of us feel bad that we are about to leave our dog alone all day and want to give him extra special attention before we leave in an attempt to convey to him that we love him. All this does is get him excited and then we leave him in this excited state of mind. Obviously this is the opposite of what we are trying to accomplish. The same applies when returning home. We are happy to see our dogs and we interpret the EXCITEMENT as joy to see us. Don’t get me wrong, they are happy to see us, but most of what you are observing is conditioned excitement, NOT happiness and joy. Do not encourage this behavior. Wait until he has calmed down, then share affection.
- Give a long lasting treat before your leave. A Kong toy filled with frozen canned food can be a great distraction and can actually begin to form a positive association with your departure. Nylabones with small holes drilled in them and then rubbed with peanut butter also work well. Buster Cubes are also great for this situation. Some dogs are too stressed to eat in the owners absence, but some are not.
- Exit the house from a different door.
- Get puzzles for your dog to keep there minds busy while you are out.
- EXERCISE, EXERCISE, EXERCISE, EXERCISE!!!!! It is unrealistic to expect to have a dog and not exercise them on a regular basis. It is best to exercise your dog IN THE MORNING when you are fresh and have more patience and energy. Think about it, if you try to take your dog for a walk at 6-7PM after a long day at work, are you really going to have the drive and patience to do it properly? He’s be cooped up all day and is raring to go, and you are tired and want to relax. This is not a good combo. Wake up and hour earlier to do the right thing by your dog, you will both benefit from it. Oh, running around in the back yard does NOT count
These GENERAL RULES are to be taken IN CONTEXT. This means that I do not think having your dog on the couch with you, snuggling while you watch TV is a bad thing. The same applies for being in your bed (my dogs sleep with me). However, if we are dealing with a dog the has an abnormal attachment to you, who will be having panic attacks all day every day while you are gone, we need to decrease the strength of this pathologic attachment. It may make you feel good to be sooooo needed, but your dog is the one that will suffer because of it.
Separation anxiety is a common and very frustrating problem for millions of dogs and their owners. Follow my advice and you will be on your way to having a more happy, content, and relaxed family member. For dogs that have had this issue for years and years, medication can be the difference between success and failure. It’s just that simple. Some people are not going to have the time or patience to handle the intensity of this program for very long. Medications help to level that playing field. Also, as in humans, anxiety inhibits learning. Medications like Prozac, Valium or Xanax often have a stigma associated with them. Do not allow a “fear of being judged” or a judging state of mind for that matter, to stop you from doing all that you can do for your dog. Take the personal point of view out of the equation. Allow good medicine and science to do all that they can do to help. Thanks for reading :-).