Separation Anxiety in Dogs

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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 she wants to be with her owner and is 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 the tension, 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 tends 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 she attempts to reunite herself with the owner or, at least, to escape the loneliness. If the dog is confined to a crate, or her movements are restricted by a gate, destruction is usually centered around the crate door or the gate itself. The dog may seriously injure herself during these escape attempts. Attempts to free herself 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 other common signs of separation anxiety. 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. 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 rather is 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 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 its owner leaves, the distress she feels is reinforced until she becomes absolutely frantic every time she is left alone.

Owners should give the dog an acceptable item to chew, such as a long lasting food treat only 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 similarly enhanced (place in the freezer before giving it to the dog to make it last longer). Give the bone to the dog about 15 minutes before preparing to depart. The chew toy should be used only as a reward to offset the anxiety triggered by the owner’s 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 countercondition the dog to crate confinement before leaving her 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.

“Doggie Daycare” or hiring a pet sitter often is a better alternative for dogs that initially are 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 her own four feet” when you are present, with the express intention that her 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 most 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 so your dog, and it shouldn’t be permitted to, demand attention. If every time you give your dog attention when she whines, it helps to foster the dog’s dependence on you and increases its anxiety in your absence. You should ignore your dog completely when she engages in attention-seeking behavior, and avoid catering to her when she appears to feel anxious. This means no eye contact, no pushing away, and no emollient talk or body language, all of which will reward her 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 your dog develops a sense of independence.

  • Minimize the extent to which your dog follows you by teaching her to remain relaxed in one spot, such as her bed. To accomplish this, it is helpful if you train her to perform a sit-stay or down-stay while gradually increasing the time that she holds the command and remains at a distance from you.
  • If your dog will not remain in a sit or down-stay on command, and insists on following, you can make use of a tether. It is best to introduce your dog to tethering gradually. Tethering is never a substitute for training; it’s simply a tool to use to reach the ultimate goal. A choke chain makes a good tie down – clip one ring to the wall and attach the other to her buckle collar. Have your dog’s bed and favorite toy available so she is comfortable and has something to do. This exercise should be enjoyable – it’s not meant to be a punishment or a time out.
  • Once your dog has learned the basic obedience commands, you can train her 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, she should be rewarded every 10 seconds for remaining there, then every 20 seconds, 30 seconds, and so on. Once she has 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 her “stay,” issue a verbal correction, indicating that there will be no reward, and then escort her back to her bed. She should soon learn that if she breaks the stay, she will be put back, but will be rewarded by staying put.

    First, your dog can be made to “down-stay” while you are in the room but otherwise occupied. Next she can be asked to stay when you are outside of the room, but nearby. The distance and time you are away from your dog are 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, she needs 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 in which you are doing something (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 she is 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.
  • Your dog should not be allowed to sleep in bed with you as this only fosters dependence. In fact, it is best if your dog is not even allowed to sleep in your bedroom. First, you need to train your dog to sleep in her own bed on the floor in your bedroom. She may have to be taken to her bed several times before she gets the message that you really want her to sleep in her own bed. If your dog will not follow instructions, you may need to tie her to a fixture in the room with a short tether.

    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 she tolerates sleeping in her own bed in your bedroom, you can move her bed outside of the bedroom and use a child gate or barrier to keep her out. Always remember to reward your dog with praise or a food treat for remaining in her bed.

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