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Canine Separation Anxiety

The most common signs of separation anxiety are vocalization, destructiveness and house soiling during the owner’s absence. Destructive activities may focus on doors, confinement area exits or owner’s possessions. Other signs might include hyper salivation, vomiting, diarrhea, self mutilating and predatory-like behaviors, such as grabbing, shaking or jumping at objects. Some dogs appear depressed and may refuse to eat.

Most dogs with separation anxiety stay in close proximity to their owners and show signs of anxiety when the owners are inaccessible. Signs typically arise when the owner is getting ready to leave or within the first 30 minutes of departure. Separation anxiety is more common in shelter dogs or after an abrupt change in the owner’s lifestyle.

Using Behavior Modification to Treat Separation Anxiety

  • Train to settle through rewards. Reward desired behavior and ignore undesirable behavior. Rewards can be anything that motivates your pet; food, access to other dogs, attention from you, walks or toys. Teach your dog the “sit, stay” command using desired rewards. Once the dog is sitting and staying begin taking a few steps away from the dog. Reward him before he comes to you. Once you can take steps away try going out of sight. Once you have accomplished this try shutting a door and opening it with a reward. Extend the time with the door shut but do not allow your dog to become anxious or the exercise will not work. Limit the time to whatever amount your dog can handle.
    It can also be helpful to designate an area with bedding or favorite toys, where the dog can be trained to settle. The owner should work towards longer stays in the area using rewards. Follow the same instructions as above. If necessary only provide your dog with rewards when he settles. Instead of feeding meals, feed small amounts during training sessions. Your dog will be less likely to do what you want if he is getting rewards for free.
  • Departure cues. It does not take long for pets to figure out that certain cues mean departure. Practice departure activity, getting your keys, putting on your coat, opening the door without actually departing. Associate rewards with these activities.
    • Relaxation cues. Dogs can also learn that certain cues predict nondeparture or short absences. Leave the TV or radio on or give your pet a toy stuffed with his favorite treat. Eventually, these cues may help the pet remain settles when the owner must leave for longer periods of time.
  • Develop a predictable routine. Develop a daily routine that provides suffient exercise, play, training and attention. Spending at least 20-30 minutes of interactive time with the dog at least three times a day would be the minimum required to meet most dog’s social needs. Through developing this predictable routine the dog can learn when to expect attention, interactive play, relaxation or no attention at all.
  • No drama at arrivals or departures. Keep all departures low key. When you arrive back home ignore your dog until he is calm. Even eye contact or speaking to them is considered affection. If the pet jump’s up for attention, push them aside and keep ignoring them. Any attention is positive attention.
  • No punishments. Do not scold your dog for destructive behavior that has occurred in your absence. It will only add to your dog’s anxiety for your next departure and has no effect on the behavior that occurred.

It can take weeks to months to achieve satisfactory improvement. Many pet owners are desperate for a more immediate fix. Unless the owner can schedule time at home to work on problems, useful alternatives include behavioral specialists, day care, house sitters, a dog walker, and drug therapy.

Behavior modifications used alone or with drug therapy can greatly improve most cases of separation anxiety. Successful treatment is likely to take weeks to months, short-term, immediate solutions may also be required. Separation anxiety can frustrate owners and lead to pet relinquishment. Early intervention at the primary care veterinary facility may help owners keep their pets.

If you believe your pet has separation anxiety, we suggest making an appointment to have your pet checked for a physical problem that may be making him or her more needy. If no physical abnormalities are found, we will discuss how to best carry out the behavioral modification outlined above and we will discuss the benefits and risks associated with drug therapy with an anxiolytic drug.