Separation Anxiety in Dogs – Dr. LeeAnn DuMars, ABVP
Separation anxiety is one of the most common behavior problems that veterinarians diagnose in dogs. Dogs bond closely with humans, so it is not surprising that they may have anxiety when left alone. Dogs may bark excessively, dig, chew and destroy things, or they may housesoil when left alone. Some dogs may simply hypersalivate, pace, urine-mark or have diarrhea during the owner’s absence. A detailed history is needed from the owner before diagnosing separation anxiety from other destructive behaviors.
Separation anxiety behavior can be dangerous to the pet, destructive to the property, and annoying to owners. Unfortunately, it is a common cause of relinquishment of dogs to shelters. Prognosis can be good if the problem is of recent occurrence; the pet does not have a highly anxious temperament; and if the owners are motivated to change the way in which they interact with the pet.
Signs of Separation Anxiety
Onset of problems coincides with an abrupt change in the owner’s schedule that results in the dog being left alone for longer periods or different times:
-returning to school or work.
-move to a new home.
-change in the owner’s routine.
-visit to a new environment.
-following a stay in a kennel.
-can also be seen if the owner is physically present but not paying attention to the dog: a new baby in the home; new social relationship; working in another part of the house.
Most of the destructive behavior begins within a few minutes to an hour after the owner departs, when the dog’s anxiety and arousal level is highest. The destructive activity concentrates on personal possessions of the owner or items they contact; such as books, clothes, hairbrushes, and furniture. The dog is not “getting back at the owner” for being left alone. The dog selects these items because they carry the owner’s scent. Typically, the dog does not engage in these destructive behaviors when in the owner’s presence. The problems occur when the pet cannot be with the owner or gain the owner’s attention. As the owner prepares to leave, the pet may show signs of increased activity and anxiety (pacing, restless, whining) or depression (lying around or reluctance to move). When the owner returns, the dog usually becomes extremely active and demonstrates exaggerated greeting behavior.
There are several techniques to manage separation anxiety – including teaching the dog to tolerate owner absences and correcting specific problems of barking, chewing, digging or elimination.
1) Modify the pet/owner relationship by teaching: the pet independence; “Nothing in Life for Free” – the dog should not be allowed to solicit attention on demand. When the pet gets what it wants every time it nudges or whines, it is more likely to be anxious when alone and unable to get social attention. The owner can give the pet attention but it is on their terms not the pet’s.
2)Exercise – make sure the dog has adequate exercise before each departure and is allowed to calm down after. Exercise dissipates anxiety and tension as well as provides attention for the pet.
3)Stimulation –dogs may be less anxious when they have something to do while left alone –i.e. chew toys, access to a yard via a “doggy door”. New chew toys, chew toys with hidden bits of tasty foods, or treats hidden around the house may help keep the pet mentally engaged. In SOME situations, having another pet will provide a playmate or distraction for the dog.
4) Obedience – the pet should be taught that it cannot always be with the owner by teaching “down-stay” and “sit-stays”. This should begin with the pet staying for a short period before accompanying the owner to various rooms of the house. Gradually increase the time request for the pet to stay, until he will remain in another room for 30-60 minutes or more alone. If the dog is confined to a room or area during departure, this is where all training (and all good things – food, sleep, toys) should take place.
5) Desensitizing departure cues – dogs learn to associate certain cues with the owner’s departure – picking up keys, putting on a coat, going out the same door, etc. These signals increase the pet’s anxiety level and should be avoided. Put a coat on in a different room, leave purse or keys in the garage, exit through a different door while the pet is otherwise occupied to lessen anxiety.
-Provide cues associated with calmness during departure times – leave a TV or radio on, a favorite blanket or mat to lie on, provide a favorite special toy with hidden treats.
-Desensitize the dog to signals that cannot be avoided during departure. Pick up the car keys, put on a coat, turn the door handle repeatedly; but then stay home. Put the dog in its crate, open and close the door frequently while the owner is home to habituate the pet to these cues and diminish the strength of them to cause anxiety.
-After the pet has been desensitized to departure cues; the owner should practice short mock departures. The dog should be exercised, placed in its resting area and ignored for 15 minutes. The owner should then leave initially only for several seconds to a few minutes (below the threshold of pet’s anxiety). Periods can be lengthened gradually as the dog responds without anxiety. Duration of departures should be lengthened on a variable schedule to minimize predictability by the dog.
6) Preventing destructive behavior –confine the pet to a crate or “safe room” where it cannot hurt itself or the surroundings – as long as this does not cause excessive anxiety.
7) Remote monitoring – to assess the pet’s behavior when the owner is out of sight – can use a video recorder, tape recorder or baby monitor.
8) Punishment – there is NO role for punishment in separation anxiety. Punishment increases anxiety – if we “spank” a pet for defecating in the house, it does no good – the pet doesn’t understand what it is being disciplined for as the incident is far removed from the punishment. Punishment can also escalate aggression in the dog.
9) Drug therapy – benzodiazepines such as alprazolam can be helpful in the short term to decrease anxiety and provide some control while the pet is learning the behavior modification strategies. Tricyclic antidepressants such as clomipramine and amitriptyline may be useful in reducing departure anxiety that is more chronic, compulsive or stereotypic. Selective serotonin-reuptake-inhibitors such as fluoxetine may also be helpful to decrease anxiety in chronic cases. Sadly, drug therapy alone is rarely successful. Drugs help lessen anxiety and help the pet relax so that learning new behaviors can take place. Owner commitment is crucial to teaching the pet new behaviors.
Prevention of separation anxiety involves teaching the pet independence from the owner early on; especially if the owner and pet have a very close relationship. A major change in the owner’s schedule or lack of time suddenly spent with the pet can trigger a recurrence of anxiety. Basic obedience training; relaxation techniques, and “Nothing in Life for Free” training can benefit the pet and teach him independence from the owner. Vigorous exercise daily or doggie daycare can help tire pets out and increase mental engagement with the owner or other dogs to give the pet something to do and attention.
While general practioners are versed in providing advice for basic behavior problems, we many times refer to our veterinary behaviorist colleagues for tough cases. These veterinarians are trained and boarded in veterinary behavior after going through regular veterinary school, internships and clinical practice and completing a residency in behavior. They will spend more time on each case and have more specialized treatment plans for working with problem behaviors. They provide a written plan and will continue to follow-up with owners via phone and recheck visits to assess the pet and owner progress. Please do not hesitate to ask about referral to our visiting behaviorist – Dr. Meredith Stepita – she sees consults at the Fresno Veterinary Specialty and Emergency Center on Blackstone monthly.