What is Separation Anxiety?
Separation Anxiety is one of the most common behavior conditions diagnosed in dogs. Dogs are social animals; they form strong attachments to other dogs and people. The dog’s first experience with separation anxiety is when the pup is separated from its mother and littermates. In later life, problems can arise when a dog has experienced repeated abandonment. It can also happen when an overly dependent dog has a strong attachment to people. These dogs often follow people around the house and offer a very excited welcome when people return home. Unwanted behavior often starts or worsens when a family’s schedule changes so the dog is left alone more frequently, or after a dog changes homes or environments.
Signs of separation anxiety are ONLY seen in the owner’s absence. The dog is in a high state of anxiety or conflict because he wants to be with the 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 reduce the tensions.
Things dogs do to reduce tension can include
- Chewing, digging or licking which can cause destruction in the home
- Pacing and being hyperactive
- Reduced activity, depression, loss of appetite
- Urinating or defecating
- Having diarrhea or vomiting
- Being self-destructive, excessive self-licking and creating sores
- Resisting confinement, panicking in a crate, trying to break out of the crate
It is important to realize that the dog is NOT doing these things to get even for leaving him, out of boredom, or due to lack of obedience or training. Consider instead that the dog’s dependence on people is so great that this causes him to become anxious when you leave and in order to relieve his extreme anxiety, the dog engages in the problem behavior. No matter how flattering your dog’s constant attention to you may be, it is not fair to the dog to allow him to be so stressed by your absence that he must respond by destroying the house or hurting himself.
A video set up to be taken while you are out of your house is helpful to determine if your dog truly has Separation Anxiety, its severity and will also help monitor treatment progress. In some cases this video may identify other causes of the problem behaviors.
INCREASE YOUR KNOWLEDGE OF THE CONDITION FURTHER
To get more in depth understanding of Separation Anxiety I recommend:
- Dr. Patricia McConnell’s “I’ll Be Home Soon.
- Watch University of California’s Veterinary Behavior Specialist, Dr. Melissa Bain’s Webinar on Separation Anxiety
- The ASPCA provides a nice over view of Separation Anxiety and Treatment
- When are you coming home? How to Ease Separation Anxiety by Irith Bloom
WHAT TO DO TO MANAGE AND TREAT SEPARATION ANXIETY
Many excellent protocols for treating separation anxiety abound. Although many are effective, many include gradual departure training which can be very tedious and time consuming.
Recently a new protocol has been developed that can be used alone or in conjunction with gradual departure training. The new protocol focuses on:
- Using food to “counter condition” the fear of being alone.
- Enriching the environment to stimulate all the senses
- Behavior modification that focuses on relaxation and independence training.
- Anti-Anxiety Medications are often used to enhance and speed the process.
- Gradual Planned Departure Training can be added on. It is not always needed and is labor intensive and tedious but it can benefit as an additional treatment method if the first steps are not helping enough.
THE TREATMENT PROTOCOL IS METERED OUT INTO FIVE PHASES:
- What you need to do as you prepare to leave.
- How you should set up the environment while away
- How will greet your dog on your return
- How you interact with your dog while home
- Mood stabilizing and anti-anxiety medications—Fluoxetine (and in some cases add on drugs like trazodone or clonidine)
STEP ONE: LEAVING YOUR DOG HOME ALONE—Setting your dog up for success!
- Give your dog outdoor exercise and ample opportunity to empty bowel and bladder before you leave.
- Make sure your departure is a happy but low key; use very few to no words upon departure!
- Calmly ignore your dog for 20–30 minutes before you leave. This helps to reduce your dog’s excitement level before you leave, which reduces the tension he will feel while you are gone.
- Try to have your dog hungry when you plan to leave.
- Don’t feed him at the usual meal time before you plan to leave.
- Instead feed half of your dog’s daily food ration at the precise time of your departure
- Leave numerous ancillary treats such as:
- Peanut butter or spray cheese-stuffed Kongs
- Other stuffable toys filled with treats.
- See my CHEW TOYS & FOOD TOYS web page for suggestions.
- You may have to stuff them with an incredibly high value food treat like chicken or roast beef to get your dog interested in them especially when your dog is left alone.
- Continue to give food stuffed toys at other times so that receiving a Kong does not signal a departure.
- Leave some other exciting games like an indoor digging pit. You can make one from a small kiddie pool or sandbox. Fill the pool with towels, rags, or large plastic bowls. Hide some treats inside the pit for your dog to dig and find.
- Leave some treats hidden inside cereal or shoe boxes lined with smaller cereal boxes that your dog can rip apart to find treats inside. Or simply hides some treats or dog kibble around the house for your dog to hunt and find.
- The goal is that every time you leave, a party comes to town with special goodies and games that are only around when you are gone. Mix up what you leave each day so you keep the dog guessing.
- Mix up “departure cues” so they do not cue your dog in advance to start feeling anxious before your leave.
- Click here for great explanation on how to do this
- Make a list of things that you do before leaving your dog home alone and that may cause the dog to start showing symptoms of separation anxiety such as drooling, whining, panting and pacing.
- Then list the things that you do if you leave your dog for just a brief time (like going to get the mail) and your dog does NOT show anxiety.
- Then mix up these cues.
- Mix up other separation cues by performing them in a different order.
- For example, put shoes and jacket on before having breakfast, or put shoes and jacket on in your car and leave the house without them.
GRADUATED PLANNED (PRACTICE) DEPARTURES:
- The goal is to gradually build practice departures, using a special SAFETY CUE (a sound or scent and or visual or verbal cue) and practicing them in a different setting than your normal departure area to help your dog learn that departures need not produce anxiety.
- A Safety Cue is used to signal to your dog that this will be a special departure unlike all the other regular ones that upset him.
- In the beginning it will be a very short departure; an amount of time that your dog is capable of being alone without a panic attack (drooling/pacing/panting/whining/barking/urinating)
- This period of time initially needs to be measured in seconds or minutes, not hours.
- The “cue” or “signal” to mark that this is a special and safe departure different from the other longer ones that cause panic could be an air freshener scent sprayed in the air, a physical cue like a towel placed over a door knob, special music turned on or a special and unique verbal cue that is only used for these practice gradual departures.
- The goal is for the safety cue to provide the dog information: “you are going to be alone but it’s OK because this length/type of departure is one you have already learned to calmly handle”.
- Just like dogs with separation anxiety learn to recognize and respond to their owners “departure cues” (and show anxiety and panic), they can also be trained to recognize a “safety cue” (and learn to respond with calmness because they have learned over time they can handle these departures).
- By practicing short departures marked with a safety cue, the goal is to gradually desensitize your dog to you leaving and then slowly being gone longer and longer.
These gradual planned departures must be like real departures with three exceptions.
- First, the departures are going to initially be very short and never long enough to distress your dog.
- Second, as you depart for a practice run, you leave a new and consistent cue or signal.
- Third, if possible you will leave your dog in a different location and you will leave through a different door than the one that currently takes you away so that there are no prior bad associations.
- The goal: your dog associates your departure, the new signal and good behavior with each other as he learns how to be left alone.
- Initial departures will be very short, 1-5 minutes or less so that we do not push your dog beyond his threshold and allow her to engage in any separation related behaviors.
- The dog is given the safety signal like the radio or special music turned on or an air freshener sprayed to distinguish this departure from a real or work departure. Pick something that he will only experience during the practice sessions.
- The dog can also be given a safety cue with a brief word or phrase, such as “I will be back”. Be sure not to use this cue or phrase when leaving for real life lengthy work departures.
- The length of the departure is slowly increased at 3-5 minute intervals with short departures that are interspersed with longer ones.
- The increase must be irregular, not a progression so that the dog does not become anxious by predicting your return.
- The new signal or cue is only used on a planned departure, NEVER when you must be gone for long periods of time that still cause distress such as going to work.
- If your dog is destructive or engaged in any of her separation-related behaviors during a planned gradual practice departure, then you are moving too fast and were gone too long and the next departure must be shorter.
- You cannot quickly go from a 20 minute planned departure to a 3 hour one. This can elicit separation-related distress and may render the safety cue useless.
- A journal to assess progress and treatment success can be helpful. Videos can also be helpful!
- You can see that gradual departure training is very time consuming.
NO MATTER WHICH METHOD YOU CHOOSE WE NEED TO PROVIDE THE HOME ALONE DOG WITH ENRICHMENT FOR ALL OF THE 5 SENSES-TASTE, SIGHT, SOUND, SMELL, AND TOUCH/TEXTURE! Your challenge is to create a crate or party room full of wonderment for your dog to explore while he is alone! Try to vary it a little bit day to day so your dog never knows what to expect! Switch up what toys and treats you use!
Taste: In addition to leaving the daily half ration before you leave try some of the following:
- Create several extra tasty stuffed Kongs full of super delicious treats. Click here for some recipes to try!
- Some dogs need to be taught how to use a Kong or food toy, check out food ideas and training by clicking here
- Leave long lasting safe chews such as deer antlers coated in peanut butter
(caution there is no 100% safe chew toy, choose an antler or chew that is too large to swallow and be aware if your dog is a real rough chewer, hard items such as nylabones and antlers can crack teeth)
- Cleverly hide small treats inside the crate or around the room
- Provide food filled puzzle toys! Here are links to some ideas:
Vision: Try to provide a view of the outside world.
- Some dogs enjoy watching out the window instead of being in a barren closed room.
- Some dogs enjoy bird feeders or squirrel feeders outside for entertainment.
- If by chance you have Direct TV there is an entire channel for dog enrichment called DogTV.
- There is also an online version of DogTV. It works on laptops, tablets and cell phones. You may be able to purchase a subscription of this without Direct TV service but I am not sure.
Sound: Leave the TV on or play melodic sounding soothing music
Use the Music of Through a Dog’s Ear (available for download or purchase online).This CBS News video explains how the music helps separation anxiety. Another example is RelaxMyDog.com music and is available on their YouTube Channel You can also try Chakra Meditation Music from YouTube
- Calming music CDs should first played when your dog is not exhibiting anxiety.
- This allows your dog to associate the calming music with a positive state of being.
- After doing this at least four times, proceed to using it when you anticipate that your dog will experience anxiety such as during your departure.
- If the music doesn’t keep your dog calm at first, stop and use it several more times while he is not exhibiting anxiety.
- You can also record normal day to day conversation in your household such as at dinner time. Then leave your familiar voice recording playing while your dog is home alone .
Smell: Enrich the environment with scents!
- Use Pheromone Therapy in the environment with Adaptil (DAP) For Dogs. Dog Appeasing Pheromone (DAP) communicates a sense of security and well-being using a pheromone, a chemical communication signal. This is one of the easiest adjunctive treatments we can do for separation anxiety pets.
- Dogs have a special sensory organ in the back of their nose called the vomeronasal gland which processes the pheromone chemical communicator signal which then travels through the nervous system to the limbic area of the brain where emotions are processed.
- The Adaptil/DAP pheromone is a synthesized copy of the natural pheromone released from the mammary glands of a mother dog when she nurses her puppies.
- This pheromone is recognized by all dogs and gives them a sense of safety and security.
- Adaptil is available at most veterinary hospitals and online.
- What about Raccoon, rabbit or Squirrel scent?! No kidding, Dr. Nicholas Dodman, a world renowned Veterinary Behaviorist actually suggests we put a few drops of these scents into the bedding or on toys! I haven’t tried this to know how pungent it is but a tiny bit is enough for a dog’s sensitive nose to smell and may not be enough for us to smell. Worth a try!
Here is a link to where you can find these scents used for dog training
- Leave clothing, towels or rags with your own scent for your dog. Hide toys in your laundry basket so that they can also pick up your scent before you leave them. Do not do this if your dog tends to chew or tries to ingest these things.
- Essential Oils often have calming benefits.
Touch: Provide Textures and comfortable resting places
- Provide several soft cushy doggy beds or leave familiar blankets with your scent in areas that Eira likes to lay
- The gentle body pressure of a Thundershirt has some mild anti-anxiety benefits and might be helpful. It is important to acclimate the Thundershirt and have your dog also wear it during some fun activities with you so that is does not become a signal of being left alone.
STEP THREE: GREETINGS UPON RETURN–LOW KEY!
- Pick up ALL toys, treats, and any uneaten food.
- The party room you prepared for the departure goes away; the fun stuff only comes out when you are gone.
- Pay your dog little or no attention until he has settled down
- Once the dog is settled and relaxed you can acknowledge his presence through petting and praise.
- Ask your dog to do some clicker foundation behaviors she has been taught such as target, sit and spin. Give attention and rewards for doing these behaviors instead of doing rowdy and over exuberant greeting behaviors.
- Teach your dog it is calm behavior that earns attention and gets you to return!