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Separation Anxiety

The term "Separation Anxiety" is used to describe or explain destructive behavior associated with the fear of being left alone. There are mild forms of separation anxiety, which can generally be treated with behavior modification exercises; and there are severe cases, often requiring medication. We will discuss the symptoms and some common behavior modification techniques here.

Reading the signs

There are several different behaviors that could signal separation anxiety. Some dogs will eliminate in the house when you leave, even for short periods. Dogs that are left outside will dig giant holes in your garden, or tunnel under a fence. Some dogs will whine, howl or bark constantly beginning at your departure and continuing until you return. Still others will exhibit a wide range of destructiveness, chewing on anything within their reach. This can include the occasional throw pillow, the trim around the door, the curtains or blinds taken right off the windows, the entire sofa, the linoleum floor, electrical cords, his tether and your deck and siding (if left outside), etc. These behaviors certainly could be a sign of separation anxiety, but they could also indicate something else.

If your dog is exhibiting any of these behaviors, you will first want to explore all the reasons that may explain the questionable behavior. The first step in assessing and treating any behavior problem is always to rule out a medical cause, so visit your veterinarian. Some other causes of inappropriate elimination could include intestinal parasites, urinary tract infection, kidney problems, boredom, digestive upset, house-training confusion and anxiety. Inappropriate vocalizing, digging and chewing could indicate boredom, territorial protectiveness, digestive upset, parasites, pain, attention-seeking or anxiety. It is important to recognize that there could be a reason for a dog's problem behaviors other than separation anxiety. Here are some questions which can help in your assessment (from Dogs are from Neptune by Jean Donaldson © 1998, Lasar Multimedia Productions):

  1. Does she seem anxious when you are getting ready to leave her alone? The tip-offs are restlessness, salivation, pacing, shadowing you around, etc.

  2. Is there a prolonged "relief" type greeting when you come home? Most dogs greet their owners excitedly after absences but dogs with separation anxiety are even more intense. Often their greeting doesn't subside and they are still excited minutes later.

  3. Does [she] have a history of vocalizing or destructiveness when alone? Is she a clingy type?

  4. Are the accidents only occurring in your absence or is she sneaking any in behind your back when you are home? If she is also making mistakes when you are at home, this would point towards a health problem or housetraining regression, not separation anxiety."

The next thing to consider is the dog's diet, as some nervous behaviors could be caused or intensified by poor nutrition or low-quality ingredients. For dogs with behavioral issues, a super-premium food with no non-digestible ingredients (like by-products or corn) and no chemical preservatives is recommended. Easy digestion of quality food can only help your dog's behavior.

According to Dr. Lore I. Haug, DVM, MS, DACVB, CPDT, CABC, specialist in Companion Animal Behavior with the Dept. of Small Animal Medicine and Surgery at Texas A&M College of Veterinary Medicine, there are primarily three distinct manifestations which are commonly referred to as separation anxiety. "So all these dogs have separation related distress, which I then break down into several subcategories: true pathologic separation anxiety, isolation distress and frustration-induced distress." True separation anxiety is when the behavior occurs anytime the dog's owner is absent (so the behavior is not better if someone else is home with the dog). Isolation distress in much more common, and refers to the behavior occurring when the dog is totally alone. Frustration-induced distress has more to do with the environment the dog is kept in than the fact that he is separated from anyone. Recognizing which category your dog falls into can help you better understand his sensitivities and work to ease his distress.

Once other causes have been eliminated and you have identified your dog's individual source of stress, there are exercises which can help to manage and modify the dog's behavior. The following are just some tips and tricks which have worked for others, please recognize that each dog is an individual and what works for one may not work for others. If your dog is experiencing separation distress of any kind, consult a behavior consultant for help in developing a personalized program for your dog. For a behavior consultant in your area, visit http://www.iaabc.org. If you think that your dog may need medication to ease his anxiety, you will want to find a veterinary behavior consultant who is familiar with the different anti-anxiety drugs, as well as behavior modification programs. For a listing of Board Certified Veterinary Behaviorists, visit http://www.dacvb.org/about_us/services/.

Behavior Modification Exercises

  • Whenever possible, prevent the bad behavior. This may mean using baby gates, a crate, or even utilizing a doggie daycare or pet-sitter. When it does happen, bring as little attention as possible to the undesirable behavior.

  • Make sure your dog gets enough vigorous exercise and has some good stimulating toys when he is left. One of the best toys out there is the Kong® and I recommend that you have three or four of them. The trick is to stuff the Kong® with peanut butter, bananas, yogurt, cottage cheese, canned dog food, etc. and then you FREEZE it. You will give your dog a stuffed, frozen Kong® before you leave, and possibly leave one or two more around the house so he can find them and stay busy. The reason you freeze it is so it takes an hour or so to get all the stuff out. By the time he is done with all that licking, he'll be exhausted! Associating your departure with something wonderful like this is called counter-conditioning.

  • Systematic Desensitization to being alone. You need to teach your dog that there is no reason to be destructive when he is left alone. Remember to leave a Kong® or two with your dog when you leave. If you are confining him in a room or a crate, you will need to get him used to the room or crate while you are home. For example, if he only goes to the basement when you leave, then it doesn't feel like part of the home. Spend time in his safe-place playing with him, feed him there; put him there for a few minutes several times each day when you won't actually leave the house. After a week or two, you can put him down there and just go outside and walk around the house and come back in. The next week start the car, but don't leave. Then drive around the block. We're gradually building up to him being left alone. You will also want to practice your 'getting ready to leave' routine many, many times each day when you don't actually leave. Grab your keys, put on your coat; turn on the radio… What ever you do to get ready to leave, except you won't be leaving. Then, after a week or two you'll go out the door, and come right back in. Then you'll walk around the house; then start the car… Move slowly to avoid regression.

  • Do not allow yourself to have big emotional good-byes when you leave. Almost as important is to have a rather low-key greeting when you return as well. Just slip out the door and slip back in. Come all the way into the house, take off your coat, and THEN say hello to your dog. Try counting to 100, that way you'll have something else to focus on. He should also earn your attention at other times as well. If you notice he is following you around the house, re-direct him to do something else (like lie down, or go get a toy) for a bit. Basically, encourage him to be a bit more independent when you are home, so he won't feel so lost when you are gone.

  • Consistency. Everyone needs to be on the same page. The DOG needs to learn that he is part of a human family and we need to teach him what the social rules are in the human world. Dogs adapt, that's what we bred them for. Humans on the other hand, do not make good "alpha wolves." We will never act like a dog as well as a dog can act like a human. That said, he is also NOT a human. When guessing what he may be feeling and/or thinking, remember that he does not possess some common human emotions (like anger or spite). Do not put human traits on him, that is a lot to live up to, and it really sets him up for a failure.
Once again, there are more components to a modification program which depend greatly on each particular dog. Seek the help of a behavior consultant to help develop a program for your unique situation. One final note, taken from The Dog Who Loved Too Much by Dr. Nicolas Dodman, BVMS, MRCVS (©1996 Bantam): "Owners can compound their dog's separation anxiety by empathizing too much. Firm but supportive leadership, providing clear direction, can go a long way toward reconciling this behavioral problem."

Michelle L. Douglas, CPDT, CDBC owns and operates The Refined Canine in southern Connecticut. She lives with her husband Matt, their son and three very spoiled Shar-Pei. Michelle has been involved with the Shar-Pei breed since 1993 and has been training dogs and their families professionally since 1997. The Refined Canine offers group classes, private lessons, and behavior modification programs, all using positive reinforcement techniques. Michelle has been featured in The New Haven Register and The Connecticut Post newspapers, has been a guest on Pet Talk on Southern Connecticut Cablevision's channel 12, and most recently, the Chaz and AJ morning show on 99.1 FM WPLR. If you have any questions, you can visit Michelle's website at www.refinedcanine.com or e-mail her at refinedk9@yahoo.com.

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