Separation Anxiety in Dogs
Dogs are social animals that form strong bonds with people, so it is not surprising that they may feel somewhat anxious when separated from their social group. Separation anxiety usually manifests itself when dogs are left at home alone for extended periods of time. Unfortunately, problems can arise when an overly dependent dog develops a dysfunctionally strong attachment to its owners. A dog with separation anxiety is distinguished by signs of distress when left alone and over-attachment when the owner is present.
Separation anxiety may be manifested as destruction of the owner’s property and other behaviors that may be harmful for a dog or annoying for people sharing the dog’s immediate environment.
It is important to realize that dogs with separation anxiety are not doing these things to get even with the owner for leaving, out of boredom, or due to lack of obedience training. These dogs are not being destructive out of “spite” or “anger.” They are truly distressed when left behind. When they are left alone, they become frightened and their actions reflect this internal conflict.
Consider instead that the dog’s dependence on the owner is so great that they become anxious when their owner leaves. Dogs have to find an outlet for this anxiety, and their methods of doing so may cause considerable damage. No matter how flattering a dog’s constant attention to their owners may seem, it is not fair to allow a dog to be so stressed by the owner’s absence that they resort to unwanted behaviors to alleviate tension.
How to Spot Separation Anxiety in Dogs
For some dogs, anxiety associated with being left alone becomes evident to their owners soon after they join the household. In some cases, dogs may be genetically predisposed to anxiety, but inappropriate or insufficient socialization during their juvenile period is likely the cause. Often, no initiating trigger can be identified. Symptoms of separation anxiety may develop gradually over time or may appear in full-blown form the first time they are left alone.
The onset of separation anxiety sometimes occurs after a dog is exposed to an experience that disrupts its social bond. This can occur when owners board a dog for vacation or change their work schedule. It may also occur when a household member leaves or dies, or when the dog is relocated to a new house or household.
Overly-indulgent owners may promote separation distress in predisposed dogs. Owners of dogs that show separation distress are often nurturing, empathetic people who indulge their pet. They allow the dog to follow them around the house and encourage the exuberant welcome their dog gives them when they return home. Somewhat less-nurturing (but by no means neglectful) owners may help instill independence in their dog, thus circumventing the worst aspects of the problem and permitting its gradual resolution.
Separation anxiety may be confused with other separation-related behavioral problems that occur in an owner’s absence. A lack of stimulation leads some dogs to engage in excessive and destructive “exploring,” barking, and other nuisance behavior. This type of problem does not necessarily indicate a dysfunctional bond with the owner.
Causes of Separation Anxiety
It is a widely held belief that dogs with a dysfunctional background (adopted from shelters, puppy mills, pet stores, dogs that have had multiple owners or traumatic handling early in life) are more prone to separation anxiety. Whether this is because these dogs were relinquished or abused, or whether the condition emerged after their abandonment, is not known for certain. Inadequate early socialization is a concern with puppy mill and pet store dogs, but not all dogs acquired from these facilities develop separation anxiety.
It also has been reported that mixed-breed dogs suffer from separation anxiety more commonly than purebred dogs. Since more mixed-breed dogs are obtained from shelters than purebred dogs, this raises a question: Does exposure to a shelter environment predispose dogs to develop separation anxiety or are more mixed-breed dogs relinquished to a shelter as a result of preexisting separation-related issues?
It is possible that some dogs are genetically predisposed to develop stronger than normal attachment to members of their social group. Logically, we would predict that these dogs would be more submissive in temperament. Such dogs may belong to breeds that have been genetically selected to form overly tight bonds with owners in order to perform a “job,” such as hunting or herding.
Dogs that develop separation anxiety are often young dogs. However, geriatric dogs may develop separation anxiety in response to physical discomfort accompanying old age. These dogs become less independent and more emotionally attached to the owners as a consequence of their infirmity.
Presentation of Canine Separation Anxiety
Unwanted behavioral signs of separation anxiety are only seen when the owner is absent, or when the dog is prevented from being close to the owner (at night, for instance). Under such circumstances, a needy dog is in a high state of anxiety because they want to be with their owner and are prevented from doing so. Dogs, like people, cannot stay in a high state of anxiety for long, and must do something to relieve the tension.
To reduce stress, dogs may engage in destructive behavior, house soiling, and distress vocalization. Other signs may include a reduced activity level, depression, loss of appetite, ritualized pacing, aggression when the owner leaves (mouthing, growling, nipping, or body blocking), excessive grooming, diarrhea, vomiting, panting, and salivation. Signs of over-attachment when the owner is home include excessive following behavior, anxious behaviors associated with signals that the owner is preparing to depart, and exuberant greetings.
Excessive chewing, digging, and scratching tend to occur in areas near doors and windows (“barrier frustration”). Damage in such areas is virtually diagnostic of separation anxiety. These areas represent exit routes for the dog as they attempt to reunite themselves with the owner or, at least, to escape loneliness. If a dog is confined to a crate, or their movements are restricted by a gate, destruction is usually centered around the crate door or the gate itself. The dog may seriously injure themself during these escape attempts. Attempts to get free from barriers may result in broken nails or teeth, a bloody mouth, or more extensive injuries from tearing through glass and wood. Dogs may also destroy property that carries the owner’s scent, such as bedding, furniture, clothing, or shoes.
Barking, howling, and whining are also common signs of separation anxiety when dogs are left alone. Distress vocalization and active seeking behavior occur when many social animals are separated from their companions. Such distress vocalizations represent the dog’s attempt to reunite the social unit and try to get each family member to come home. Excessive vocalization may occur primarily at the time of the owner’s departure or may continue throughout the duration of the owner’s absence. Owners are often unaware that their dog is distressed by the departure and it is only when neighbors complain about the excessive barking or howling that they become aware that their dog has a separation problem.
Dogs with separation anxiety may become so distressed in their owners’ absence that they urinate or defecate in the house. When this occurs only in the owner’s absence, such “inappropriate” elimination is not indicative of a loss of house training, but a physiological response to the extreme distress the dog is experiencing from being alone. House soiling typically occurs within 30 minutes of the owner’s departure as the dog becomes more anxious.
Treatment of Separation Anxiety in Dogs
The first step in treating separation anxiety is to break the cycle of anxiety. Every time a dog with separation anxiety becomes anxious when their owner leaves, the distress they feel is reinforced until they become absolutely frantic any time they are left alone.
Owners should give the dog an acceptable item to chew, such as a long lasting food treat when they go out. The goal is to have the dog associate this special treat with the owner’s departure. Treats might include hollow bones stuffed with peanut butter or soft cheese, drilled out nylon bones, or hollow rubber chew toys such as Kong toys with similar enhancements (place these in the freezer before giving them to your dog to make them last longer). Give the bone to your dog about 15 minutes before preparing to depart. The chew toy should be used only as a reward to offset the anxiety triggered by your departure. Hiding a variety of these delectable food treats throughout the house may occupy the dog so that the owner’s departure is less stressful.
In an effort to prevent destructive behavior, many owners confine their dog in a crate or behind a gate. For dogs that display “barrier frustration,” the use of a crate in this way is counterproductive. Many dogs will physically injure themselves while attempting to escape such confinement. Careful efforts to desensitize and counter condition the dog to crate confinement before leaving them alone may be helpful in some cases. However, some dogs rebel against any form of restraint, including restricting barriers and, for them, crate training may never be a positive experience. Crate training and utilizing the crate while people are home can be a positive way to make the crate a safe place. If you utilize it when people are around, your dog won’t necessarily associate the crate with departure and being left alone. Creating nap time in the crate throughout the day can also be helpful.
Independence training can help build confidence and instill obedience.
“Doggie Daycare” or hiring a pet sitter may be a better alternative for dogs that are initially resistant to treatment. It can be expensive, but prices vary.
Independence training is one of the more important aspects of the program. It involves teaching your dog to “stand on their own four feet” when you are present, with the express intention that their newfound confidence will spill over into times when you are away. You need to make your dog more independent by reducing the bond between both of you to a more healthy level of involvement.
Decreasing the bond is the hardest thing for owners to accept. Most people acquire dogs because they want a strong relationship with them. However, you have to accept that the anxiety your dog experiences in your absence is destructive.
Essential components of the independence training program are as follows:
- Your dog can be with you, but the amount of interaction time should be reduced, especially where attention-seeking behaviors are concerned. You should initiate all interactions with your dog, and they shouldn’t be permitted to demand attention. If you give your dog attention every time they whine, it helps to foster the dog’s dependence on you and increases its anxiety in your absence. You should ignore your dog completely when they engage in attention-seeking behavior, and avoid catering to them when they appear to feel anxious. This means no eye contact, no pushing away, and no soothing talk or body language, all of which will reward their attention-seeking mission. Attention is encouraged only when your dog is sitting or lying calmly. The goal is not to ignore your dog, but to stop reinforcing attention-seeking behaviors so that your dog develops a sense of independence.
- Minimize the extent to which your dog follows you by teaching them to remain relaxed in one spot, such as their bed. To accomplish this, it is helpful if you train them to perform a sit-stay or down-stay while gradually increasing the time that they hold the command and remain at a distance from you. Providing a treat or toy and encouraging individual play time can be helpful.
- Once your dog has learned basic obedience commands, you can train them to hold long down-stays while you move progressively farther away. First, your dog should be trained to perform a “down-stay” on a mat or dog bed using a specific command, such as “lie down.” Your dog may have to be gently escorted to the designated spot the first few times. Initially, they should be rewarded every 10 seconds for remaining there, then every 20 seconds, 30 seconds, and so on. Once they have figured out what is wanted, you should switch to an intermittent schedule of reinforcement [reward], as this will strengthen the learned response. Each time your dog breaks their “stay,” issue a verbal correction, indicating that there will be no reward, and then escort them back to their bed.
- First, your dog can be made to “down-stay” while you are in the room. Next, they can be asked to stay when you are outside of the room, but nearby. The distance and time you are away from your dog can be increased progressively until your dog can remain in a down-stay for 20 to 30 minutes in your absence. Your dog should be warmly praised for compliance. Of course, they need to accept the praise without breaking the stay.
- Your dog should become accustomed to being separated from you when you are home for varying lengths of time and at different times of day. You can set up child gates to deny your dog access into the room you’re occupying (i.e. reading, watching television, or cooking). Instruct your dog to lie down and stay on a dog bed outside the room. As previously mentioned, you can provide an extended-release food treat or toy to keep your dog calm and distracted. Once they are able to tolerate being separated from you by a child gate, you can graduate to shutting the door to the room so your dog cannot see you.
- Allowing a dog to sleep in bed with the family can increase dependence. If you decide to prevent your dog from sleeping in your bed, there are some steps to take to establish this routine. First, you need to train your dog to sleep in their own bed on the floor in your bedroom. They may have to be taken to their bed several times before they get the message that you really want them to sleep in their own bed. Alternatively, you can train your dog to enjoy sleeping in a crate to prevent unwanted excursions. Do not use a crate if it causes more anxiety and distress for your dog. Once they tolerate sleeping in their own bed in your bedroom, you can move their bed outside of the bedroom and use a child gate or barrier to keep them out. Always remember to reward your dog with praise or a food treat for remaining in their bed.
Develop Departure Techniques
Many owners erroneously feel that if separation is so stressful, then they should spend more time with their dog before leaving. Unfortunately, this only exacerbates the condition. Everyone in the family should ignore your dog for 15 to 20 minutes before leaving the house and for at least 10 to 20 minutes after returning home. Alternatively, your leaving can be made a highlight of your dog’s day by making it a “happy time” and the time at which they are fed. Departures should be quick and quiet. When departures (and returns) generate less anxiety (and excitement), your dog will begin to feel less tension in your absence. Remember to reward calm behavior. Teach your dog that your departure and return are just normal parts of the day and are not times to be stressed.
You should attempt to randomize the cues indicating that you are preparing to leave. Changing the cues may take some trial and error. Some cues mean nothing to a dog, while others trigger anxiety. Make a list of the things you normally do before leaving for the day (and anxiety occurs) and the things done before a short time out (and no anxiety occurs).Then mix up the cues. For example, if your dog is fine when you go downstairs to do the laundry, you can try taking the laundry basket with you when you leave for work. If your dog becomes anxious when you pick up your keys or put on a coat, you should practice these things when you are not really leaving. You can, for example, stand up, put on a coat or pick up your car keys during television commercials, and then sit down again. You can also open and shut doors while you are home when you do not intend to leave. Entering and exiting through various doors when leaving and returning can also mix up cues for your dog.
When you are actually leaving, you should try not to give any cues to this effect. Leave your coat in the car and put your keys in the ignition well before leaving. It is important to randomize all the cues indicating departure (clothing, physical and vocal signals, interactions with family members, other pets, and so on).
The planned departure technique can be very effective for some dogs. This program is recommended only under special circumstances because it requires that you never leave your dog alone during the entire retraining period, which can be weeks or months.
Timing is everything when implementing this program. If your dog shows signs of anxiety (pacing, panting, barking excessively) the instant you walk out of the door, you should stand outside the door and wait until your dog is quiet for three seconds. Then go back inside quickly and reward your dog for being calm. If you return WHEN your dog is anxious, this reinforces your dog’s tendency to display the behavior, because it has the desired effect of reuniting the “pack” members. The goal is for your dog to connect being calm and relaxed with your return. Gradually work up to slightly longer departures 5 to 10 minutes as long as your dog remains quiet, and continue in this fashion. Eventually, you should be able to leave for the day without your dog becoming anxious when you depart. When performed correctly, this program can be very helpful in resolving separation anxiety.
Other Treatment Options
Obedience training helps to instill confidence and independence in your dog. You should spend 5 to 10 minutes daily training your dog to obey one-word commands. It may be helpful to have training sessions occur in the room where your dog will be left when you are gone. All positive experiences (food, toys, sleep, training, and attention) should be associated with this area of the home.
Your dog should receive 15 to 20 minutes of sustained aerobic exercise once, preferably twice, per day. It is often helpful to exercise your dog before you leave for the day. Exercise helps to dissipate anxiety and provides constructive interaction between you and your dog. It is best to allow your dog 15 to 20 minutes to calm down before you depart. Fetching a ball is good exercise, as is going for a brisk walk or run with your dog on a leash. Even if your dog has a large yard to run in all day, the aerobic exercise will be beneficial since most dogs will not tire themselves if left to their own devices. This is incredibly helpful in dogs that are working breeds that need a job to expend energy and work their brains.
Recently, supplements have been released to the public that can help dogs with anxiety. Purina created a probiotic that has been shown to reduce anxiety and provide a calming effect on some dogs. Your veterinarian may recommend this product for treating anxiety, or other products that contain L-Theanine or L-tryptophan.
Similar to the weighted blankets that have been marketed to people with anxiety, there are dog-specific products that utilize this same concept. The thought process behind these products is to mimic being swaddled as a baby, which makes dogs feel more secure and reduces anxiety through compression. Weighted blankets should not be used in dogs or cats, since the weight could impair their breathing. Dog-specific products include anxiety jackets or ThunderShirts. Trying these products out while you are home and during short trips out of the house can help to monitor their success.
There are a wide variety of cameras to watch your dog while out of the house. Some are simple surveillance cameras, while others are more advanced and allow you to speak to your dog or give them treats. This can help you monitor to see if your dog is having separation anxiety while alone at home and make sure they aren’t engaging in destructive behaviors. Some pet designed cameras have alerts that provide notification if your dog is barking when you are away. These cameras create a window into your pet’s day and can help monitor their activities when home alone.
Medication for Dogs with Separation Anxiety
Medication is often used in conjunction with the above treatment strategies and is generally helpful. Long-term medical therapy is usually reserved for severe cases that fail other training and treatment options. Traditionally antidepressants like clomipramine (Clomicalm®), fluoxetine (Prozac®), and amitriptyline (Elavil®) are recommended. Clomicalm® has recently been FDA approved for use in dogs to treat separation anxiety.
Punishment and Guilt
Dogs should never be punished for the physical consequences of their distress when separated from you. In fact, punishment can exacerbate any underlying anxiety and worsen behavioral problems. Dogs do not make the association between making a mess and being punished for it at a later time. They also cannot reason that if they don’t make a mess in the future, they won’t be punished.
Owners often report that their dog looks “guilty” when they return home to destruction or urine or feces on the floor. The dog is not exhibiting guilt as we know it. Your dog has learned that when you are present and a mess exists, they are in trouble. If someone who had never scolded your dog entered the house, and a mess was present, your dog would not look “guilty.” In an attempt to avoid punishment, your dog may respond with submissive postures which you misinterpret as “guilt” or “remorse.” Submissive postures are actually an effort to appease you and avoid confrontation.
Depending on your pet and their behavior, adding an additional pet to the household may be helpful. Some dogs are more content and less destructive with a friend at home. Unfortunately, some dogs will become destructive together and having another pet may make behavioral problems worse. Getting another dog just to relieve anxiety symptoms may not be the best solution.