Juli Potter, DVM
Separation anxiety is one of the most common behavior problems diagnosed in dogs. I think most dogs suffer from some form of separation anxiety. Actually, your dog’s first experience with separation anxiety is probably when he was separated from his mother and littermates as a puppy. If a wolf pup were separated from its littermates, it would vocalize, dig up the ground and probably urinate and/or defecate in the area where it was located, all in an effort to be reunited with its family. Dogs, like wolves, are social creatures; they form strong bonds with other dogs and with people. It really isn’t natural for them to be left alone.
Your dog can learn to be alone, especially once he learns the routine, but once that routine is disrupted, even slightly—your sister comes to live with you, or your work schedule changes, for example—your dog can become very anxious; now life is unpredictable and he needs you even more.
You might notice that your dog is very anxious even when you are at home. The dog follows you around all the time, and if you go into another room and shut the door, the dog sits outside the door and whines and scratches at the door. If your dog is like this and is left alone, he can panic.
Symptoms of separation anxiety are usually worse within the first 10-15 minutes of your departure. During this time, your dog is very anxious; your dog may become destructive by scratching at the door or windows or by chewing on furniture or personal belongings. Dogs may urinate and/or defecate in the house, even though it is house trained. Some dogs may bark or howl all day long. Sometimes the only indication you may get that there is a problem is a neighbor complaining that your dog has been barking all day.
These behaviors are not directed at you; the dog is not mad at you and he is not trying to control you, he is simply trying to relieve his own anxiety. If you were in a high state of anxiety, you might yell, go for a walk or throw something; you feel like you are going to explode and you need a way to make this tension go away. This is probably how your dog feels with separation anxiety. I often think of separation anxiety as a panic attack in dogs.
Signs of separation anxiety in dogs include:
- Destructive behaviors such as chewing, digging or licking
- Hyperactivity (pacing, drooling)
- Vocalization -barking/howling
- Urination and/or defecation
- Diarrhea and/or vomiting
- Self-destructive behaviors such as excessive licking
- Resists confinement
- Reduced activity levels, depression, lack of appetite
Destruction, defecation/urination and vocalization are the most commonly reported signs of separation anxiety.
Treatment of Separation Anxiety:
- It is very important that when dealing with any behavior problem, underlying medical problems must be ruled out and/or treated. Therefore, I recommend that all animals with behavior problems see their veterinarian for a thorough physical exam, blood work and urinalysis. For example, if your dog is urinating, you’ll want to rule out urinary tract infection, hormone-related incontinence etc.
- It is very important that for the first 3-4 weeks, everyone in your family completely ignore the dog, most of the time. This means no casual interactions are allowed. All interactions are to be in the form of command-response-reward. This means that the only time you interact with your dog is to give him a command, make sure he responds and then reward the dog for the appropriate behavior. Ignoring is important because it helps reduce your dog’s dependence on you. Ignoring also helps prevent you from rewarding anxiety and other unwanted behaviors.
- It is also very important to ignore your dog at least 20 minutes before you leave the house and for 15-20 minutes when you return home. Avoiding emotional hellos and goodbyes helps your dog realize that life isn’t over because you just walked out the door and your home coming really isn’t that big of a deal either. It is also very helpful to give your dog a special treat about 10 minutes before you walk out of the door. I recommend that you use a KONG stuffed with treats and smeared with peanut butter or a Nylabone drilled with holes and stuffed with treats. The goal is to give the dog something else to do while you leave. Also, only give your dog this special treat when he is being left alone.
- Put your dog on a very regular schedule. Here is when you can interact with your dog: Feeding twice a day, walking twice a day for 15-30 minutes each and training 2-3 times a day for 10-15 minutes each time.
- When feeding, offer the food for no more than 20 minutes then remove the bowl. Twice daily meals are important for many reasons. Meals provide a schedule, helping you know when your dog will need to go to the bathroom, or if your dog isn’t feeling well. I also like to feed twice daily because I have noticed that dogs who eat only once a day are often sick right before their next feeding; 24 hours is a long time to go with out eating.
- Walks are important for dogs for many reasons. For dogs with separation anxiety, the morning walks are the most important. Walks are not only good for physical stimulation but for mental stimulation as well. Walks off the property are an important part of a treatment plan for many behavior problems. Walks are a great way to socialize your dog and a walk helps to tire your dog out, and we all know that a tired dog is a good dog.
- Training is a very predictable, consistent way to interact with your dog. Training on a regular basis is a way to keep a dog’s commands more reliable; like if you were learning to speak French, the more you practice, the more fluent you will become; if you stop speaking French, you get rusty. Training is a form of communication as well as a fun way to interact with your dog. Plus, the more you train your dog, the easier it is for him to learn. I recommend reward based training, in particular, clicker training.
- NO punishment! Punishment is too unpredictable and inconsistent. For instance, when you punish your dog for being destructive or for urinating or defecating in the house, something he has no control over, you just increase his anxiety. Dogs do not make the association between making a mess and being punished for it at a later time.Your dog may look “guilty” when you come home and he has urinated on the floor or pulled the stuffing out of the sofa cushions. He does not look this way because he knows what he did was wrong, he looks this way because he has learned (for this has happened before) that when you come home and there is a mess in the house, he is in trouble. If someone who had never scolded your dog walked into your home and there was a dog-made mess, the dog would not look “guilty.” In either scenario, your home is still a mess, so the punishment isn’t working.
- Some dogs with separation anxiety may benefit from an anti-anxiety medication. It is important to understand that the purpose of such a medication is only to help decrease anxiety so that the dog can learn. Anti-anxiety medications alone do not cure the problem. Behavior modification is the most important part of a treatment plan for separation anxiety. Please remember that if your dog is on an anti-anxiety medication, it you should never stop this medication abruptly. When it is time to go off of them, dogs should be weaned off gradually, over a 2-3 week period.
Providing lots of physical and mental stimulation is a vital part of treating many behavior problems, especially those involving anxiety. A physically and mentally tired dog doesn’t have much excess energy to expend when left alone. Exercising your dog’s mind and body can decrease stress, give him an outlet for normal dog behaviors, and enrich his life.