What is Separation Anxiety
It usually starts out with the following, “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 is a major behavior and health problem. 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 stress or behavior issues, your dog may have separation anxiety (SA). However, general anxieties, fears and phobias often times 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 end your social life faster than a nun in South Beach Miami (no offence to nuns). When a pet parent leaves their pet alone, emotional, physical, pathological, and detrimental conditions ensue, shorting 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
- All of 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.
Signs of Separation Anxiety
As with other stress signals, dogs may exhibit the following signs of separation anxiety in absence of the pet parent:
- Sweaty Paws
- Inappetence – lack of interest in food/appetite (or toys) when 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?
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 separation anxiety:
- Change in schedule. Dogs are routine animals and a slight change may affect them greatly.
- Change in residence. This is a great 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
- Environmental stressors
- Dog’s attachment to people and their social nature
- 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, thunder storms)
Separation Anxiety Solutions
There is no one size fits all cure or panacea for unique individuals, but some tools and protocols that typically ameliorate separation anxiety and some that are indispensable are the following:
- 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 a 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.
- Employ your dog. Have your dog work for rewards
- Ignore pushy dogs demanding attention
- Reward calm behavior
- Do not encourage shadowing behavior
- Encourage independence and perform confidence building exercises
- Desensitize to departure cues (jacket, keys, shoes, glasses, hat, 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) rarely 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
- Canine classical music
- Regular exercise
- 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 and people)
- Avoid leaving dog alone for prolong periods, doggie day care, dog boarding and pet sitter
- The best results come from a combination of the above
Other tools that may be of help are the Treat and Train, Pet Tutor®, Video and other audio apps and software devices. 14-16 These may aid in rewarding your dog from a distance and while out of site.
It is imperative to avoid triggering the fear/anxiety. Although sometimes impossible to accomplish, try your best to avoid replicating the results 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 in. 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, and exhibiting stress and fear. However it is incumbent upon a pet parent to help and ameliorate that panic attack fear by seeking appropriate help. Just as you would help assuage child who is terrified, so should you your pet.
Separation Anxiety in Dogs Conclusion
Separation anxiety is very serious, 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. 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 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 and 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.