What is Separation Anxiety
How many of you have thought, “My dog follows me everywhere” or “My dog won’t stop scratching at the door when I leave.” Some pet parents think that it’s endearing and cute when their dog is attached to them at the hip, but when it comes time to leave your beloved furry family alone, stress ensues, and it causes significant behavior and health problems. Studies show that cortisol levels (a steroid hormone released in response to stress) spike even for dogs that are left alone who do not display signs of separation anxiety.13 If you find your dog exhibiting these types of stressors or behavior issues, your dog may have separation anxiety (SA). However, general anxieties, fears, and phobias oftentimes manifest themselves as storm/noise phobias, aggression to dogs and/or people and as separation anxiety. Separation anxiety and your dog’s clinginess are far from cute or endearing; they are extremely debilitating, traumatic and stressful for your dog and will immediately end your social life. When a pet parent leaves their pet alone, emotional, physical, pathological, and detrimental conditions ensue, shortening your dog’s lifespan1.
Manifestations of Chronic Phobias, Fear, Anxiety, and Stress Include But Are Not Limited To:
- Reduced and altered blood flow to vital organs
- Physical Pain
- Emotional Dysregulation
- Maladaptive Behaviors
- Displacement Behaviors
- Nutrition Metabolism Disorders
- Sleep Disorder
- PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder)
These ailments increase your pets’ susceptibility to other diseases and health problems and subject pets to the increased likelihood of recurrent health issues and infections in their lives.2,3
Separation anxiety in dogs is an acute or chronic unnatural, unhealthy phobia and stress which ensues when a dog is left alone from their pet parent. Separation anxiety often occurs with shelter dogs, who experience substantial change and instability in the family home. It takes a great deal of time and energy to combat separation anxiety, and you should have reasonable expectations and time frames before calling a Certified Dog Behavior Consultant, behaviorist and Certified Professional Dog Trainer (CPDT) with adequate experience in dealing with separation anxiety cases such as Fun Paw Care.
It is incumbent upon the behaviorist, behavior modification specialist and/or competent force-free dog trainer to diagnose the behavior problem not only from the parents account but empirically and/or through videos (and audio) to fully assess the intensity of the anxiety, the behavior and all of the contextual variables. Often parents misdiagnose and overlook subtle, yet imperative behavioral cues and clues that are vital to the behavior modification protocol.
What are Signs of Separation Anxiety
As with other stress signals, dogs may exhibit the following signs of separation anxiety in the absence of the pet parent:
- Sweaty Paws
- Inappetence – lack of interest in food/appetite (or toys) when a pet parent is gone
- Vocalization (whining, barking, yelping, howling, crying)
- Destructive behavior (chewing, tearing, biting, digging, destroying items)
- Follows pet parent around like a shadow
- Excess excitement upon pet parents return (whining, jumping, running in circles)
- Escape Behaviors
- Trembling, tense muscles
- Displacement behaviors
- Repetitive behaviors
- House soiling/Incontinence
Why do Dogs Develop Separation Anxiety Disorder?
Although Fun Paw Care likes to focus on the solutions rather than the problems, it is mandatory to do a functional behavior assessment and to consider the antecedent arrangement, behavior and consequences (ABC) of each unique individual’s case. What causes separation anxiety? Separation anxiety is a disorder where the solution has a lot to do with trial and error. No two cases are the same, and it requires experience in dealing with a variety of separation anxiety cases, vast expertise, and knowledge of ethology, cognitive ethology, psychopharmacology, epidemiology, ontogeny and thinking outside of the box. A full medical history, examination, and analysis should be performed to rule out any medical condition that may be the cause before proceeding to applied behavior analysis (ABA).
Interestingly, a recent study shows that dogs living in a house with only one human are twice as likely to have separation anxiety than dogs living amongst several people and that neutered dogs may be more prone to separation anxiety compared to their intact brethren.12
As with other social animals, abrupt change and/or lack of stability is not comfortable and is destabilizing for dogs. Because there is no conclusive evidence pointing to “one” reason or thing that causes separation anxiety here is a list of the possible (likely) culprits of contributing factors of separation anxiety:
- Change in dog or person’s schedule. Dogs are routine animals, and a slight change may affect them significantly.
- Change in residence. This is a significant change in a dog’s life and comes with stress and uncertainty. It upsets their routine and may trigger separation anxiety.
- Change in partners or household residences. One or more people move out of the home.
- Environmental stressors
- Dog’s unhealthy extreme attachment to people and their social nature
- Lack of dog training and consistency
- Lack of enrichment in a dogs environment
- Lack of socialization and play
- Poor breeding/congenital/inherited
- Lack of systematic desensitization and counterconditioning (SD/CC)
- Lack of habituation to absences and departure cues.
Keep in mind that dogs who come from shelter environments, rescue organizations or who are young to middle-age tend to have the greatest propensity to display separation anxiety.10
What is NOT Separation Anxiety
There are many behaviors that may look like separation anxiety but may not be such as:
- Barrier frustration
- Medical incontinence
- Urine Marking
- Incomplete or unsuccessful housetraining
- Anxiety due to other reasons other than separation anxiety
- Medical problems
- Contextual anxiety (fireworks, thunderstorms)
Separation Anxiety Solutions
There is no one size fits all cure or panacea for unique individuals, but some indispensable tools and protocols that typically help and ameliorate separation anxiety are the following:
- Video camera to record many videos and audio, are mandatory to monitor the dogs’ separation anxiety
- Behavior modification (habituation, counterconditioning and systematic desensitization)
- Certified Dog Behavior Consultant (CDBC) and only positive reinforcement, force-free Certified Professional Dog Trainer with many years of experience with separation anxiety. Never punish or force a dog to do anything as that is inhumane and will only make matters much worse.
- Employ your dog. Consider getting a dog backpack, giving your dog a job and have your dog work for rewards. Contrafreeloading
- Ignore pushy dogs that demand attention
- Reward calm and confident behavior
- Do not encourage shadowing behavior
- Encourage independence and perform confidence building exercises
- Desensitize to departure cues (jacket, keys, shoes, glasses, hat, perfume, routine, alarm, TV, lights, radio)
- Avoid giving attention at least 30 minutes prior to departure and after arrival
- Environmental management
- Antecedent arrangement
- Functional assessment
- Pharmacotherapy (medicine/drugs) not successful when used alone. Drugs do not resolve problems and only aid in the behavior modification protocol.
- D.A.P. (Dog Appeasing Pheromone) ‘Adaptil’4
- Thunder Vest6-8, 18
- Lavender chamomile or other calming essential oils5
- Another holistic option is Rescue Remedy by Bach Flower19
- Supplements such as L-Theanine, Valerian Root, and Composure
- Dog/Cat heating pad
- Canine classical music
- Regular exercise, enrichment, and socialization
- Use food-dispensing toys for all meals and treats when not using the food for training and behavior modification protocol
- Environmental enrichment
- Socialization (other dogs, species, and people)
- Avoid leaving dogs alone for prolonged periods, doggie daycare, dog boarding, and pet sitters
- The best results come from a combination of the above
Other tools that may be of help are the Treat and Train, Pet Tutor®, Furbo, Petzi, Video, and other audio apps and software devices. 14-16 These may aid in rewarding your dog from a distance if you are a single parent and/or while out of sight.
It is imperative to avoid triggering the fear/anxiety. Although sometimes impossible to accomplish, try your best to avoid replicating the behaviors that result in where your dog is in fear. It helps to brainstorm, be creative and to discuss with your behavior specialist the different options and scenarios where you may avoid putting your dog in any undue stress and panic. In addition, create a safe room or area of your home where your dog feels confident and comfortable. As with all social animals, empowering others fosters learning, comfort, and calm homeostasis.17 Always empower your pet and let your dog choose this safe area, not you.
It is important to remember that rewarding and comforting an animal who is exhibiting a conditioned emotional response (CEF) or a conditioned fear response (CFR) will not encourage, reward or teach that emotion to reoccur. Emotions are not reinforceable, behaviors are. You will not be rewarding a dog for shaking or exhibiting stress and fear. However, it is incumbent upon a pet parent to help and ameliorate that panic attack and fear by seeking appropriate help. Just as you would help assuage a child who is terrified, so should you comfort your pet.
Separation Anxiety in Dogs Conclusion
Separation anxiety is a very serious genetic disorder20., can be life-threatening and is a very scary and traumatizing experience for dogs. It is not to be taken lightly and left untreated does not get better with time; conversely, it intensifies and becomes more complex. If it is determined that your dog or cats separation anxiety is severe, psychotropics can be very effective in combination with behavior modification. As with all treatments, the sooner you get started the better. Never scold or punish your dog for any reason, in particular for being afraid and having fear. Teach your dog how to cope and learn in a healthy, confidence-building way through empowering exercises. Be patient. Depending on the intensity, lasting reprieves from separation anxiety are measured in months and take a lot of commitment and energy. Separation anxiety is treatable and common, occurring in over 50% of dogs!9-11. Consistency, patience, and repetition will pay off with a skilled force-free, CDBC, and CPDT. Your dog will thank you.
1. The effects of fear and anxiety on health and lifespan in pet dogs. Dreschel NA. Applied Animal Behaviour Science 125:157-162, 2010.
2. Ulcers, the runs, and hot fudge sundaes. Sapolsky RM. In Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers, 4th ed—New York: Henry Holt & Co, 2004, pp 19-36.
3. Feline fear and anxiety. Levine ED. Vet Clin North Am Small Anim Pract 38:1065-1079, 2008.
5. Aromatherapy for travel-induced excitement in dogs. Wells DL. JAVMA229:964-967, 2006.
9. Bradshaw JWS, McPherson JA, Casey RA, et al. Aetiology of separation-related behavior in domestic dogs. Vet Rec 2002; 151:43-66.
10. Flannigan G, Dodman NH. Risk factors and behaviors associated with separation anxiety in dogs. JAVMA 2001; 219:460-466.