Separation Anxiety: Causes, Symptoms and Help

 When can separation anxiety occur?

  • When a dog has never or rarely been left alone;
  • Following a long interval, such as a vacation, during which the owner and dog are constantly together;
  • After a period spent at a rescue home or boarding kennel; 
  • After a change in the family’s routine (a child leaving for university, a change in work schedule, a move to a new home, a new pet or person in the home).

Separation anxiety is not fully understood, however, dogs may exhibit nervousness around strangers or other dogs, or may be clingy around people.

What symptoms should I be aware of?

Typically, a dog with separation anxiety will have an anxiety response within 20-45 minutes after being left. The most common behaviours are:

  • Digging, chewing and scratching at doors or windows in an attempt to escape and reunite with their owners;
  • Barking or howling in an attempt to get their owner to return;
  • Urination and defecation (even with housetrained dogs) because of distress.

Because there are many reasons for the behaviours associated with separation anxiety, it is essential to correctly diagnose the reason for the behaviour before proceeding with treatment.  If most of the following statements are true about your dog, your dog may have a separation anxiety problem:

The behaviour occurs exclusively or primarily when your dog is left alone.

The behaviour alwaysoccurs when your dog is left alone, whether for a short or long period.

Your dog follows you from room to room whenever you are home.

Your dog reacts with excitement, depression or anxiety to your preparations to leave the house.

Your dog displays effusive, frantic greeting behaviours.

Your dog dislikes spending time alone when outdoors

What can be done?

Your response to your dog when your get home is a factor in separation anxiety. Separation anxiety may initially be caused by an overwhelming greeting when the family returns home. Try ignoring your dog for the first few minutes and then calmly pet her. Keep your leaving and coming back low key, sincere and calm. 

The primary treatment for severe cases of separation anxiety is the implementation of a consistent programme of getting your dog used to being alone. You must teach your dog to remain calm during 'practice' departures and short absences.

Firstly, examine the triggers that may alert your dog that you are going to leave. Put your departure triggers in order as you do them: start with the first thing you do, ending with the very last thing you do before you go to the door. You should be aware that many dogs with separation anxiety are already in a heightened state of concern before the door closes and they are left alone.

Most people usually have a routine prior to leaving home, such as putting on outdoor shoes, picking up car keys, putting on makeup, or brushing hair. Check your routine and notice the effect it has on your dog. With this in mind, consistently practice the following:

  • First, engage in your first normal departure activity: putting on shoes, finding your keys, combing your hair. Do this, then go back to a routine daily task such as email or cleaning.
  • Next, engage in your first trigger and add the second.
  • Keep going through your list, adding another trigger when you reach the next stage, until you are at the point that you would be leaving.
  • Next,step outside the door - leaving the door open - and then return immediately.
  • Finally, step outside, close the door, and then immediately return.  Slowly get your dog accustomed to being alone with the door closed between you for several seconds.

Progression

  • Proceed very gradually from step to step, repeating each step until your dog shows no signs of distress (the number of repetitions will vary depending on the severity of the problem).  During this process, if your actions produce an anxiety response in your dog, you have proceeded too fast.  Return to an earlier step in the process and practice this step until the dog shows no “distress response”. Only then should you proceed to the next step. Do not make this training a big fuss or drama; you should adopt a calm and sincere approach.
  • When your dog tolerates your being on the other side of the door for several seconds, begin short-duration absences.  This involves giving the dog a verbal cue (for example, "I’ll be back soon”; do not use this word for any other aspect of your dog’s daily routine), leaving and then returning within a minute.  Your return must be low-key:  either ignore your dog or greet her quietly and calmly.  If she shows no signs of distress, repeat the exercise.  If she appears anxious, wait until she relaxes to repeat the exercise. Gradually increase the length of time you are gone. 
  • Practice as many absences as possible that last less than ten minutes.  You can do many departures within one session if your dog relaxes sufficiently between departures.  You should also scatter practice departures and short-duration absences throughout the day.
  • Once your dog can handle short absences (30 to 90 minutes), she will usually be able to handle longer intervals alone and you will not have to work up to all-day absences minute by minute.  The hard part is at the beginning, but the job gets easier as you go along.  Nevertheless, you must go slowly at first.  How long it takes to condition your dog to being alone depends on the severity of her problem.

Interim Solutions

Because the above described treatments can take a while, and because a dog with separation anxiety can do serious damage to himself / herself and/or your home in the interim, some of the following suggestions may be helpful in dealing with the problems in the short term:

  • Consult your veterinarian about the possibility of mainstream drug or alternative medicine therapy
  • A good anti-anxiety drug or alterative medicine should not sedate your dog, but simply reduce her anxiety while you are gone. Such medication is atemporary measure and should be used in conjunction with behaviour modification techniques.
    • Take your dog to a dog day care facility or boarding kennel.
    • Leave your dog with a friend, family member or neighbour.
    • Take your dog to work with you, even for half a day, if possible.
    • Punishment is not an effective way to treat separation anxiety. In fact, if you punish your dog after you return home it is likely to increase her separation anxiety.

What will not help and what you should not do

  • Get another pet. This usually does not help an anxious dog, as her anxiety is the result of her separation from the owner not merely the result of being alone. 
  • Leave the radio on (unless the radio is used as a “safety cue” - see above). Some dogs find the radio voices very disturbing.
  • Obedience school or training. While obedience training is always a good idea, it will not directly help a separation anxiety problem. Separation anxiety is a panic response, not the result of disobedience or lack of training. 

Additional help

If you suspect your pet experiences separation anxiety, speak with your Veterinarian in the first instance, so appropriate steps can be taken.

Read from a reputable source such as: Patricia McConnell, “I’ll be home soon”. ISBN-10: 1891767054

http://www.amazon.co.uk/Ill-Be-Home-Soon-Separation/dp/1891767054

Obtain the help and advice from an experienced dog behaviourist, preferably one that your veterinarian recommends and knows. 

Richard Grant from K9 Help / k9help.net