Separation Anxiety and Our Dogs

The modern trend is to treat our dogs as members of the family. We love to include them in our everyday activities, take them with us on vacation, and so much more. We tell them, “I’ll be back shortly; be good” on our way out of the house and give them big cuddles when we arrive home again, at the end of a long day. They are a source of great pleasure, love and companionship. And, to them, we are their family, their carers and their best friends.

This is all good and well, but there is a growing trend here. Our dogs depend on us for companionship and company. As a result, many dogs become anxious and distressed when they are separated from their owners, even for a very short period of time. This anxiety can lead to destructive behaviours. Unfortunately, these issues can damage the relationship between pets and their owners.

Behavioural problems that can be exhibited because of separation anxiety can include digging holes, chewing, drooling, and excessive barking, even when the owner is home. Urinating and defecting in inappropriate places is also common, along with refusing to eat, attempting to escape and general depression.

Signs of anxiety in dogs can be seen from only a few weeks of age. Your veterinarian may notice a problem during routine puppy vaccinations or check ups, or you may become aware of difficulties later in your pet’s life. If you notice signs of anxiety, no matter what age, you should contact your veterinary clinic. There are many different ways to combat these issues.

The first step in treating anxiety is to rule out other problems. Lack of exercise and stimulation can cause the same symptoms as anxiety in pets. Boredom is an extremely common problem in many breeds, and one that can be easily rectified with a bit of time and creativity. Regular walks, swims or runs at the off-leash dog park are a great place to start. Even half an hour a day can reap rewards. Children make excellent motivators for play time, and simply running to fetch a ball can provide enough stimulation for some dogs to get them through a day alone. If this is not possible, professional dog walkers are available to excise pets during the hours that owners are away from home. Stimulation can also be provided through toys, chews and treats. Kongs can be filled with kibble to provide a challenging but rewarding activity for dogs. If your dog won’t play with a kong full of dry food, try some peanut butter. Another option is to create treats by filling a container or toy with kibble and water and freezing it overnight; this will provide several hours of entertainment and is also cooling during the summer months.

Creating a safe space for your pet to retreat to will allow them to always have an area they feel secure and comfortable in. This is known as crate training. The space can be created in a cozy dog crate, box or hidey-hole that allows your pet enough space to move around in, but still provides shelter from the outside world. This enables owners to establish clear boundaries for their pets, by encouraging them to retreat to their crate when they need a sense of safety and normality. Changes to the crate should be avoided wherever possible, and the crate should never be used a punishment. Feeding meals in the crate and allowing pets to sleep there, even when owners are home, will encourage a positive association.

Behaviour modification training can be used for dogs of all ages and stress-levels; however, owner’s should be aware that it is a gradual process that can take months to show results. Advice from a veterinarian should be sort before commencing training, but the idea is simple. The process involves re-training the dog and changing the behaviour of the owner, so it really does take a close bond to be effective.

Behaviour modification training for separation anxiety involves three distinct components. The first aims to prevent the anxiety from escalating by decreasing the unease associated with the owner’s departure. To do this, the dog’s perception of departure cues (such as picking up the car keys, putting on a jacket and saying goodbye) needs to change. This involves teaching the dog that the routine associated with leaving the house no longer predicts being alone. To accomplish this, the owner must work closely with their dog to decrease their response to the stimulus by repeatedly exposing the animal to the departure cues without actually leaving. This is known as habituation. An example of this technique involves the owner picking up their keys and putting them in their pocket/handbag as they would if they were going out. When the dog reacts by approaching the owner, whining or otherwise expressing symptoms the owner should ignore the dog and carry on with what they were doing before, but should not leave the house. Over a period of time, the dog will begin to relax and eventually even disregard the departure cues altogether.

The second step is to change the animal’s negative perception of their owner leaving to positive associations with being alone. This is known as counterconditioning and involves teaching the dog that good things come their way when their owner is out. To do this, owners can offer dogs special toys and treats that they love when they leave the house, but when they arrive home again these toys and treats are immediately removed so that the animal only has access to them when they are alone. Another example is to feed all of the pet’s meals inside puzzle toys such as Kongs that will keep the animal occupied for the first half an hour or so after the owner leaves. These toys can be offered to the dog as the owner is leaving the house in the morning for work. By teaching the dog to associate the owner’s departure with treats, food and other favoured things the anxiety associated with the departure is replaced with joy. It should be noted that this aspect of the training may not be effective for dogs that suffer severe anxiety as they often do not eat or play when they are alone.

Lastly, desensitisation is used to gradually reduce the extreme reaction that is expressed by the animal when they are left alone. This is done by initially eliminating the cause of the anxiety altogether. Thus, the pet is not left at home alone at all during the first few weeks following the diagnosis and commencement of training. Options to prevent this situation include hiring pet sitters and dog walkers to ensure the animal has company at all times, a friend or family member looking after the dog while the owner is at work, or the owner simply taking their pet with them when leaving the house. From there, the animal is very slowly reintroduced to being left at home alone. The owner should gradually start to leave them home alone; at first for only a few minutes, and then an hour or so each time, until eventually the animal can be home alone all day without issues.

Behaviour modification can be very effective in treating dogs with separation anxiety, but it is really important to note that ‘traditional’ methods of training, which focus on dominance and punishment of unwanted behaviours, are ineffective and even damaging to the animal’s mental health. All training should be approached as a team exercise that encourages bonding between owner and pet, and should always focus on rewarding the desired behaviours. Punishment should never be used. Forceful methods such as the use of choker chains and shock collars will not produce positive results.  

A combination of these strategies alone can work for the vast majority of dogs to significantly reduce or completely eliminate separation anxiety. However, these strategies will not work for all dogs and in those cases medications are available to help. There are products that can aid in calming the dog in the short-term to enable more success with behaviour modification. There are also products available for long-term use in extreme cases, where all other measures have been exhausted. Either way, it is important to note that medication is not a ‘quick fix’ and is not the first port of call for behavioural issues.

If you would like more information or suspect that your dog may suffer from separation anxiety, please call us on 6778 3133 or drop in to the clinic at 116 Bridge Street, Uralla.