When Your Dog Has Separation Anxiety
Separation Anxiety is a crippling state of mind for a dog. It is heart rending for owners to see the manifestations of their dog’s fear when they are left alone. Dogs are inherently social animals that crave being part of a group or pack. For some dogs, being separated from their pack and family causes intense fear.
It is a behaviour that is sometimes formed early in a dog’s life. It can be caused by experiences such as the loss of a mother before eight weeks of age. Isolation from lack of companionship between eight and sixteen weeks of age, abandonment by a previous owner, dramatic changes in their environment, and even breeding may be the cause for separation anxiety. Dogs that have been strays or were in a neglectful or abusive circumstance which are re-homed and then receive all the love and affection they deserve can become separation anxious due to their fear of losing their new life circumstance whenever their guardians leave them on their own. In some cases “anaclitic depression” can occur. One form of anaclitic depression concerns itself with what happens if the attachment to a dog’s caregiver is disrupted for a long period of time during the dog’s first year of life. The other may be more likely to occur in an adult setting, when a dog forms an extremely dependent attachment on others: dog or human. This “depression” can manifest itself as an extreme fear of being left alone that may result in a refusal to eat or relax when alone and anxiety and neediness even when you are together.
One of the most common manifestations of behaviour with dogs experiencing separation anxiety is excessive vocals, whereby the dog whines or barks incessantly, or destructive behaviour when the dog is left alone. Especially, “point of entry destruction”, which takes place at the doorway where the dog’s owners typically leave the home. Scratched doors, chewed door frames or door handle. I’ve seen flooring ripped up at the doorway, side windows cracked and some years ago, a German Shepherd I helped had ripped the metal mail slot right out of a solid wood door.
There are many reasons why a dog may misbehave when left alone but if your dog fits the profile of an animal who might be prone to separation anxiety and if your dog is only destructive or eliminates inside when no one is home, and does not display this kind of behaviour at any other time, separation anxiety is most likely the problem.
When your dog chews destructively when left alone, it is not being vengeful for having been left alone. Chewing helps a dog feel better when it is anxious. It’s distracting and helps relieve nervous energy. Dogs are sometimes more likely to chew something that smells of their human companion, such as a shoe.
When dogs are anxious they often do not have the same control over their bladder and bowels. The more anxious they become, the less likely they are to be able to wait until they are let outside. It could also be possible that there is some scent marking that occurs with the house soiling, it comforts the dog, knowing that its living area is filled with its familiar scent, though this is more likely in the case of a dog that is new to a home.
We can avoid the possibility of our dog becoming separation anxious by setting them up for success the moment they enter your life and home. Following some of these guidelines can be very helpful:
- Allow your puppy time to be alone. If your pup chooses to have alone time for a nap or to play by itself, allow it to do so. If you suddenly notice that your pup is nowhere in sight, do check on its location in your home but let them spend time alone. When a pup joins a family, all the family members want their snuggles or play time with the pup. The larger the family the more likely that the pup’s day and evening will be filled with attention, so be sure to let your children know that your new family member needs alone time. It can be helpful to schedule downtime for your pup and make certain everyone follows the schedule. If you are scheduling alone time it should be varied throughout the pup’s day so that a pattern of behaviour is avoided.
- Within a few days of the pup’s arrival begin introducing the puppy to the experience of being alone as the family leaves the house for an outing. You will want to constrain your puppy to its introductory living area; usually an area that can be closed off and has tile or wood flooring for the inevitable potty accidents. (I don’t recommend using the bathroom for this learning experience.) Another good option, especially if you don’t have an area of your home where you can easily contain your pup, is to introduce your pup to being in a crate or kennel. This assists with housetraining and prepares your pup for those times when you may need to kennel your dog when travelling. Leave your pup on its own for a few minutes while you go for a short family walk and gradually over the next week or two, work your way up to an hour. (Ed. note: For a specific article on crate training, click here)
- Departures should be calm and matter-of-fact. No hugs and kisses goodbye and no need for assurances that you are only going for a short while and will be back soon. Simply set your pup up in its area with water in place then out the door you go. The more that your departure is a non-event the less worried your pup will be about your leaving.
- Your arrivals are by far the most important part of this experience for your pup. It is vitally important that on your return, you must not match the level of excitement that your pup displays on your return. Your puppy is going to be very excited to see you and we are very gratified and excited to see our puppy but… you must display a calm greeting and send the message that being apart is no big deal. Please don’t worry that if you don’t act excited to see your pup, they won’t feel appreciated. Do feel free to make eye contact with your pup and offer a smile and you can even say hello as long as your voice does not sound excited or higher pitched. But if your greeting produces an excited response you need to mellow your greeting. Once you’ve been back with your pup for 5 minutes or so and your puppy has calmed down (relatively speaking), you can interact and play with your pup as you normally do. It is that first few minutes of greeting that can possibly reinforce their fear at being apart from you.
Your excited puppy might simply be thinking… Yahoo! It’s play time again! But there’s a possibility their thoughts are… They’re back. I’m going to live!!
Managing Separation Anxiety
Though the experiences of the past that created your dog’s anxiety cannot be undone, it is possible to diminish the experience and train your dog to accept being left alone or reduce their general anxiety level. Utilizing a behaviour modification program, designed specifically to meet the needs of both you and your dog, it is possible to help your dog understand that they have not been abandoned whenever they are left alone.
Since the reason for a dog being separation anxious varies, and every dog, living circumstance and behavioural manifestation of the anxiety differs, the cure very much needs to match the ability of the dog to learn. The most challenging aspect of resolving your dogs anxiety is… time. There is no fast-track to resolution. If you try to progress too quickly your dog is likely to fail and you will experience set back after set back. However, there are some standards of approach to resolving separation anxiety.
No big deal departures.
Departures should be very calm and matter-of-fact. No hugs and kisses goodbye and no need for assurances that you are only going for a short while and will be back soon. Simply set your pup up in its area or kennel if you are using one with water in place then out the door you go. The more that your departure is a non-event the less worried your dog will be about your leaving.
There are cues that trigger the start of your dog’s anxious behaviour such as grabbing your keys or putting on your shoes or coat. It can be helpful to avoid a pattern of preparation to leave. Put your keys in your pocket well in advance, place your shoes outside before you leave, etc. It can also help to put on your coat or pick up your keys or shoes and simply walk about your home for a few moments then put down you keys, take off your coat and so on. By handling those triggers randomly and at times not even leaving your home, your dog should become desensitized to them as being cues that you are about to leave.
Greetings when you return.
Whenever greeting your dog, at any time, make your greeting very calm and matter-of-fact by making short eye contact and delivering a calm greeting. Many trainers recommend that you completely ignore your dog when greeting them; however it has been my experience that some dogs will jump through hoops trying to gain your attention. I feel that there is value to making short eye contact as a quick acknowledgement but thereafter do not look at, speak to or touch your dog until they are calm and relaxed so not to reinforce their anxious excitement.
Even when they have relaxed and you feel the timing is right to say hello, be sure to make your greeting very calm and mellow.
Alleviate “needy” behaviour
If ever you suspect that your dog is coming to you for affection/support because they are anxious, it would be wise to ignore the “needy” behaviour and give them your attention/affection when they are in a more relaxed state of mind and less fearful. This is a subtle way of helping them confront their anxieties on their own so that they learn that the world won’t come apart for them without your support. Recognize that your dog is seeking your attention but patiently wait for them to relax and give them your affection at a time when you won’t be inadvertently rewarding their anxiety and neediness.
Practice coming and going as often as possible.
The only thing that desensitizes animals to a fearful circumstance is for them to confront their fear by experiencing the circumstance time and time again until they come to realize that their life is not threatened, and in the case of separation anxiety, that there is no terrible consequence to being left on their own. We can hasten the process by helping them learn the lesson in small ways many times. The more often they experience your calm and nonchalant departures and especially… arrivals, the quicker they will learn.
You can begin this process by simply going into one of the rooms within your home and close the door behind you, leaving your dog by themselves for a minute or two. Make certain they see you going into the other room. After a minute or two open the door and exit the room making short eye contact but not engaging them in any way until such time as they are displaying calm and relaxed behaviour. Once they are more relaxed give them simple praise for being calm and if they remain relatively calm then interact with them as you normally would.
In addition to practicing within your home you should also practice exiting through the door leading outside your home. Initially, only for a few moments and then begin increasing the amount of time you are outside as you see less anxious/excited greetings when you return.
When practicing separations from your dog, when you intend on re-entering your home try do so before they start to bark, whine or scratch at the door, otherwise they may learn that their barking or scratching encouraged you to return. Wait for a 30 second break in the barking or scratching and then open the door.
Once their greeting to you is calmer during a short exit/re-entry you can start extending the amount of time that you are separated from them.
When you can successfully exit and re-enter your home after a 15 minute practice separation and your dog is happy to see you but not displaying an anxious-excited greeting, you can start to do those things that you would normally do when actually leaving the house. Put on your coat, pick up your car keys, etc., as you would if you were going to work, an appointment, shopping, and so on.
Crating or Kennelling
As a rule I encourage dog owners to teach their dogs to accept being in a crate or kennel. It is best to start this when your dog is a puppy and can be necessary to constrain your pup from getting into mischief when you need to go out; especially if your “open concept” home doesn’t allow you to close off a particular area of your home. As well, if you like to travel and kennelling your dog will be necessary for air travel, etc., it will be especially stressful for your dog if they have not been trained to accept being in a kennel.
If your dog has minimal or no experience being kennelled, I do not recommend crating or kennelling a dog suffering with separation anxiety. Even for those dogs that have previously been comfortable in their kennel it could possibly be detrimental to place them in a kennel when they are separation anxious. Contrary to popular belief, it does not help them feel like they are in their comforting den. Instead it provides a more intense feeling of being restricted from searching for you and greatly increases their anxiety and fear. Once a feral dog has left the den they do not desire returning to their den as a comforting experience. (When was the last time you wished to be back in your crib when you were having a stressful day?) I’ve worked with a few dogs whose owners were advised to crate their dog which resulted in the dogs injuring themselves and suffered lacerations and broken teeth in their feverish attempt to escape the kennel.
Medication to support training.
There are a few medications that can be very helpful in resolving severe cases. One such medication is Clomicalm (clomipramine hydrochloride). It is designed and approved for the treatment of separation anxiety in dogs. It is not a tranquilizer or a sedative, and will not affect your dog’s personality or memory. The medication helps to lower a dog’s anxiety level making it easier for your dog to learn. The medication alone will not resolve the separation anxiety it must be accompanied by behaviour modification support from an experienced animal behaviourist or trainer.
Measuring progress and success.
Throughout the process it will be important to measure your dog’s reactions when you are returning after being separated. Always keep in mind their level of excitement whenever you return after a separation and look for indicators that the level of intensity in their excited greeting is lessoning.
Observe their body movements that indicate levels of excitement such as:
- Rapidity of tail wagging. (very active, moderately active, calm active.)
- Is their hind end moving vigorously or gently?
- Do they appear extremely submissive by dropping their head down and turning their head slightly to the side (anxious) or does his head drop down a bit but remains straight? (confident)
- Does their body bend as he greets you (anxious) or does their body remain fairly straight (confident).
As they become desensitized to being separated from you, their greetings will still be energetic but less so as they progress and are less concerned about being away from you.
Success is when their greeting to you is head up, body straight, tail gently wagging but a fairly relaxed hind end. Ultimate success is when you arrive home and have to go looking for them in order to say hello.
© 2011 Steven J. Huxter. All Rights Reserved