Barney, an American Staffordshire cross, was 18 months old when he was referred by his trainer for severe separation anxiety. His problem was so serious that 6 months before he had gone through a plate glass window when left home alone causing damage to his foot. He refused to eat in his owner’s absence and had lost weight. Even when another dog was over, Barney still would doggedly escape. His owners had tried having him in the house rather than leaving him in their yard so he could feel more secure, but he would escape through the window. He would also whine and high pitch bark when home alone. Barney had a tendency to follow his owners around the house and slept in the owner’s bedroom. Barney spent Monday to Friday home alone while his owners were at work.

Unlike regular consultations at the vet, behaviour consultations take longer so the general behaviour of the pet and the interaction with the owners can be observed. A comprehensive history needs to be obtained. Barney acted fairly normal in the clinic. He seemed pretty relaxed and wasn’t especially “clingy” to his owners and was happy to take treats. A physical examination was normal apart from his permanently damaged toe. Blood tests were performed and the results appeared completely normal.

Separation anxiety was a likely diagnosis. Destruction can also occur as part of “normal” play in a young dog, boredom or inadequate exercise or stimulation, territorial displays towards dogs or people at doors or windows and with thunder storm or noise phobias.

Barney was an extreme case of separation anxiety. Separation anxiety manifests itself in many different ways. Some pets suffer in silence (eg. panting excessively, not eating etc) while others behaviours are more hard to miss as was the case with Barney. In order to diagnose separation anxiety, one or more of the following problem behaviours occurs when home alone:

  • Destruction (usually focused on exits)
  • Excessive barking/whining
  • House soiling
  • Excessive salivation
  • Inappetence
  • Depression/ immobility
  • Excessive pacing
  • Vomiting or diarrhoea
  • Excessive excitement on owners return
  • Self trauma and licking behaviours

Barney’s owners were very helpful in keeping both a daily diary and video evidence that clearly showed that he was distressed and not just occupying his time. It also detailed his response to treatment. If a diagnosis is not made, sometimes these behaviours are not managed correctly and can get worse. Or this anxious behaviour will be mistaken for being “naughty”, “spiteful” and may get punished, also worsening the problem.

Some of the things that were discussed with his owners included establishing a routine so that Barney’s life was more predictable, teaching him to be relaxed and more independent as well as identifying what cues triggered the beginning of his anxiety prior to departure. All this foundation work needed to be done before we could work on him actually being left alone.

Fortunately, Barney was not fussy who he was home with and this was arranged for the first few weeks. He was placed on medication to help reduce his anxiety. Unlike other veterinary medication, behaviour medication can take weeks to take full effect. How his owner interacted with him and managed him was to be the key to his success. Drugs alone do not “cure” a dog with separation anxiety. His owners initially had to encourage Barney to sleep off their bed and on his own bed. If he continued to have constant close contact with his owners, this would only emphasis when they were physically absent and hence, worsen his distress and anxiety. They also worked on him not having to be their constant “shadow” and having a “relaxation” area that he had access to at all times. They were instructed to continue using the food release toys to keep him occupied and mentally challenged as well as providing him with regular exercise. As best as possible they provided him with routine and boundaries so that his life was more predictable and therefore less stressful.

During the course of his treatment, Barney’s medication needed to be adjusted at times and behaviour modification plans reinforced or adjusted. His success can be attributed to the dedication of his owners although understandably he pushed the limits of their tolerance at times. It has been 1 and a half years that he has being doing well. His owners have a good understanding now of his behaviour but will always need to manage it to some extent. He has had some of his medication gradually weaned down but care still needs to be taken when his routine is out of wack. His separation anxiety is well controlled but not cured.

Barney was fortunate in several ways. He had a great trainer who helped him and his owners manage and modify his behavjour and recognised that this was not simply a training issue by seeking veterinary assistance. And most importantly, dedicated owners who did everything possible to get him through this despite a few relapses along the way and continue to do so. Not all dogs are quite so lucky.

If your dog is showing signs of anxiety, the best time to deal with fearful or anxious behaviour in your pet is as soon as it starts. By managing the environment, using behaviour modification and appropriate medication, we can often prevent the pet’s fear from developing into severe problem.

From Barney’s parents:

“We adopted Barney in late 2008, ever since he has been a valued member of the family.

Unfortunately in 2010, Barney ran through a sliding glass door, and with a combination of other behavioural problems, it became apparent that he was suffering from separation anxiety triggered from an overseas holiday.

Day by day, Barney wasn’t getting any better and we couldn’t leave him home alone for a few minutes without problems. Luckily, on the verge of giving up, we were referred to Hayley and the team at Prospect Road Animal Hospital, who assisted us getting Barney on the correct medications and treatment. He is still medicated today to control his anxiety, but we are glad we have our happy dog back and can enjoy life with him again.”

Learn more about separation anxiety in dogs.