Separation Anxiety - Laura Pakis
The term “separation anxiety” is often misunderstood. True clinical separation anxiety is not common. Consult your veterinarian to get a correct diagnosis.
What is it
Separation anxiety in dogs is the fear or dislike of isolation, which often results in undesirable behavior. Separation anxiety is one of the most common causes of canine behavioral problems.
If your dog follows you around room to room, becomes anxious even if a closed door separates you, dislikes spending time alone outdoors, and acts depressed or anxious when you are getting ready to leave the house then your dog may have minor separation anxiety.
If, however, you are having destruction of property (especially around doors or windows), howling and barking, urination and defecation then it is probably severe separation anxiety. Prescribed drugs are sometimes used as a temporary measure along with the behavior modification program. Severe cases require a behavior modification program and desensitization to being alone. This usually takes a very long time.
When left alone, most dogs find a familiar spot and go to sleep. However, a dog suffering from separation anxiety will become extremely anxious. Separation anxiety occurs when a dog becomes distressed over the absence of other pack members, human, or canine. Not understanding where you or your family has gone or if you will ever return. Your dog’s way of expressing anxiety over your absence may include chewing, barking, salivating, urinating, defecating, vomiting, self-mutilation or escape behavior such as chewing through walls, scratching through doors, busting out of cages or digging under fences (if left outdoors). In some cases, the dog simply gets sick, perhaps due to some form of depression.
Often it is the exits and entrances to the home that the dog targets for destruction. The destruction is not an attempt to seek revenge on the owner for leaving but is actually a panic response. It can be compared to humans suffering from panic attacks, so even if the physical signs are not obvious the psychological stress can be severe. To help your dog overcome this normal response we need to progress gradually and slowly to minimize the stress. Your goal is to help your dog accept separation without stressing in the first place and to remain calm during prolonged separation.
What can cause it
Dogs need to be properly conditioned to being left alone. Separation anxiety can sometimes happen when:
Giving a dog too much or the wrong type of attention can lead to such stress related behaviors. In some cases the constant attention and petting a dog receives when its owners are home make the stress worse when they are absent. Examples include:
These actions can make the dog too dependent and create neediness. This neediness cannot be fulfilled when the dog is alone. If the dog is experiencing stress when left alone, he will do things that he should not do. It is important to keep a balance, so that the dog does not feel as alone when you are gone.
Ways to treat it
Treatment for separation anxiety varies from dog to dog. Here are some things you can do to assist in the modification of this behavior or the prevention of it.
Crate your dog
Crating your dog during your times of absence has two positive results. First, a dog who is confined to a carrier or crate cannot do damage to your home. Secondly, when properly introduced a crate will act as a safe, comfortable den where the dog can relax. Limiting his movement also acts as an anxiety reducer for most dogs.
A dog who has to be physically manhandled into the crate has not yielded to you the authority to place him there. You've merely shoveled him in there with no "buy in" from the dog. I always teach the dog to load himself on command, and in so doing, the dog learns to confer upon you the authority to determine what space his body shall occupy. That is called submitting to the leader and teaching the dog to do it voluntarily has huge payoffs.
dogs who self injure, the best success for crate training is to train them to
go in and out of the crate without any physical prompts. It seems too simple
but it seems to work quickly with dogs who self injure when confined.
Should the dog start barking, hit the crate with a pan or spoon without saying a word (as if to create thunder). Repeat that at intervals if the dog does not give it up. DO NOT let the dog get too worked up. If the loud sound does not interrupt and startle the dog into stopping the unwanted behavior then lift one end of the crate an inch or two and bounce the crate up and down a few times. Again, don't say anything or tie the correction to you in any way. Just make the behavior un-rewarding.
To begin, lure and prompt to get your dog to go in and out. When the dog appears calm about doing that then up the ante and let the dog see you put rewards inside the crate and close the door. The dog should recognize the treat inside the crate and the dog on the outside. When the dog is really "fussing" to get in open the door and let the dog in. Repeat and alternate dog in crate with food in crate (dog and food separated by crate door) until the dog is able to remain in a calm state.
process is usually one that can be accomplished in a day (about four 20 minute
sessions). This technique works very well, especially on the really frantic
Some dogs prefer to be in a room next to a window and some do not. Some dogs feel safer in a plastic walled crate and some prefer a wire crate. Find out what works best for your dog.
Turn on a radio or television
Turn on a radio or television in a room you are often in, the bedroom is usually a good choice, and close the door. The dog will hear the human voices from your room and may not feel so alone. Stick to an easy listening station so as not to excite the dog or use the animal planet channel. Some clients tape record their own voices and play the recording in place of the radio or television program. Dogs know the sound of your voice all too well. And remember, since the dog is most anxious just after you leave, a one-hour recording will probably suffice. It will buffer outside noises and make the house seem less empty. Also leave a light on if it will be getting dark.
Prepare a "bye-bye" chew toy
Get a "kong" and fill it with goodies such as dried liver pet treats, beef jerky, peanut butter, cheese or other things your dog really likes. Keep it hidden and take it out when you leave each day. Place it near your dog just before you close the door. When you arrive home put the kong away. The kong only comes out when you leave. We are attempting to distract your dog with something that he will find interesting enough to concentrate on other than you leaving. Hopefully, your dog will appreciate the kong so much that he will look forward to it coming out in place of getting upset with your leaving.
Change your exit pattern
With most dogs, the hardest time for them is immediately after you leave. Their anxious (and sometimes destructive) behavior occurs within the first hour after they are left alone. It will be your job to reshape your dog's behavior through reinforcement training. Maintain a calm presence around the dog the last 30 minutes before you leave the house so as not to excite the dog and possibly induce stress. Leave the dog out of the crate, put your coat on, and walk to the door and leave. Come back in immediately. Greet the dog calmly. Tell the dog to sit. When the dog sits, reinforce this behavior with praise or a treat the dog enjoys. Wait a few minutes and then repeat the exercise, this time remaining outside a few seconds longer. Continue practicing leaving and returning over the next few weeks. Always remember when returning to greet your dog calmly and command the dog to sit before offering a treat.
Also, do your pre-departure activities without actually leaving. For instance, pick up your keys and watch television, put your coat on and wash the dishes, or wear your work clothes while you read a book. Do anything but leave the house and do this randomly and continue whenever you can. Do only one exercise at a time and keep it brief. Your dog should begin to learn that coats or keys mean nothing at all. The important thing to remember is to not do these exercises within an hour of you actually leaving.
Catch the dog in the act. Set up situations where the dog thinks you are gone but you are hiding in the house. Do your normal “leaving home” routine. If you need to go as far as having someone drive your car out of the driveway then do so. When the dog acts out then run in the room, correct the dog, and return to your hiding spot. Once the dog has settled down and is behaving then “return home”. Either wait until the person with your car returns or open your front door and do your normal “return home” routine and praise the dog.
When it is time to leave--just leave
Do not say "good bye" to the dog with hugs and kisses. In fact, ignore the dog for five minutes before you go. Paying too much attention will make the dog feel more insecure when the attention is abruptly withdrawn.
Learning to spend time alone
You can help the dog learn to be comfortable away from you. This process will help teach the dog that it is ok to be left alone! It must be done slowly, paying careful attention to the dog’s behavior. The dog must not display anxiety at anytime throughout the progression. This exercise can be performed during times when you are relaxed and sitting down for a period of time such as watching television or reading a book. Perform these exercises during commercials or in between chapters.
It is important to NEVER TELL THE DOG TO STAY! You want the dog to decide to stay on his own. Once the dog ignores each activity then you may proceed to the next activity. Each activity may take several days or even weeks.
- When a commercial comes on simply stand up. If the dog gets up with you sit back down. Continue standing up and sitting down until the dog ignores your activity or the commercial is over.
- Stand up and take ONE step away from the dog and chair. Return and sit back down. Do this until the dog ignores you.
- Continue this process until you can walk all the way around your chair without the dog getting up.
- Once the dog ignores your laps around the chair then start moving around the room.
- Now step out of the room (ONE STEP) and immediately back in. Once the dog accepts your disappearance without response you can begin to increase the length of time you are out of sight. Do this slowly and gradually.
Diet and exercise
Diet, walks, and the home environment also play a role in preventing stress in the dog. Below are some suggestions for easing the dog’s stress. It is imperative that a dog receives positive, quality attention.
A dog that is lacking exercise is more likely to have stress and tension. Tiring a dog out with a long walk, a good run, or play goes a long way in reducing stress.
Obedience helps to structure the dog’s life. Practice a minimum of 15 minutes a day strictly on obedience and enforce any command you give the dog so the dog’s world remains black and white. This way the dog will know his boundaries.
Practice long down-stays and sit-stays so the dog learns to control himself while you leave the room.
Whether the dog has minor or severe separation anxiety, one of the most effective tools in your toolbox is the PLACE command. This command teaches dogs self control which an anxious dog needs to learn. Contact an Acme Canine professional trainer for more information on this command.
Be a strong leader. When a dog has a strong leader, it has a calming effect on dogs. The dog feels safe and taken care of. In the absence of a strong leader, the dog feels obligated to assume that position in the social hierarchy of the family pack. Since a leader must control all that goes on, the dog’s inability to control your leaving causes the dog stress and anxiety. Obedience training is the best, organized method of establishing yourself as a strong leader.
It is important to remember that the dog is not bad or trying to make life miserable-although it sometimes may feel that way! The dog is the victim of a disorder that can be treated. Prognosis for recovery is excellent if you are willing to spend time working with the dog.
Griggs, Janet. “Desensitizing a dog to being left alone.” Agility 4 Fun. 2007 <http://www.agility4fun.com/pdf/separationanxiety.pdf>
Holland, C.C. “How to treat separation anxiety.” Dog Watch. September 2005
“Separation anxiety.” Dumb Friends League. 1999 <http://www.ddfl.org/tips_dogs.htm>
Last Updated: Thursday, May 13, 2010