Separation anxiety is one of the most common, yet most undiagnosed behavioural problems in dogs. The symptoms of excessive barking, whining, self-mutilation, urination and defecation can take a big toll on both dogs and owners. It can also result in many dogs being labelled as “naughty”, with the real cause of the condition going undetected. Luckily separation anxiety is now widely understood by veterinarians and there are many management options that can decrease and even eradicate the condition completely.
What is separation anxiety?
Separation anxiety is your dog’s reaction to being away from you and/or your family. As dogs are pack animals, it’s normal for a puppy to become attached to their litter and then subsequently to their new human family. It’s also normal for a dog to get bored when their owner leaves the house or to occasionally whine, bark and act destructively. What distinguishes separation anxiety from day-to-day mischievousness is that in separation anxiety the behaviours occur only in the owner’s absence.
Some owners notice the signs of separation anxiety by what goes on when they are away – a dug-up garden, a torn-up house or neighbours reporting incessant barking. Other people notice it as they prepare to leave the house – the dog notices cues that their owner is leaving (like picking up keys, putting on shoes or applying make-up) and begins to bark, scratch or become hyperactive. Signs of separation anxiety can also include the following:
- Loss of appetite
- Diarrhoea or vomiting
As the causal nature of the condition is over-dependence or strong attachment, the key to effective treatment is teaching your dog to feel safe in your absence. There are a number of different techniques that can assist with this and a few you should avoid.
- Use Command-Response-Reward interaction, which provides reward-based positive reinforcement for good behaviour. Ignore attention seeking behavior such as whining, barking, pawing or licking for 3-4 weeks (or longer if you are not seeing improvement). Only initiate interactions with your dog when they are calm and not seeking attention; this will help shift the association of reward from attention-seeking behaviour.
- Train your dog to do a reliable down-stay using reward-based techniques:
- Start by training a down command and rewarding your dog.
- Gradually increase the time they must stay before the reward is given.
- Once your dog can remain in a down-stay for several minutes, return to frequent rewards but this time take a step back from your dog before giving them a treat.
- Continue increasing the distance and the length of reward time gradually.
- Incorporate this exercise into your daily routine, e.g. when you are having breakfast, working at your desk or relaxing at night. Use it to prevent your dog following you around.
- Encourage independence by allowing your dog to have positive associations in your absence. For example, leave a Kong®, chew or exciting toy in another room and allow your dog to find it.
- Ignore your dog for 20 minutes before you leave the house and then again for as long as it takes for them to become settled when you return home. This will help to reduce your dog’s arousal levels and the sudden experience of separation when you leave.
- Give your dog a long-lasting chew item 5 minutes before you leave the house and with minimal interaction (as mentioned above, 20 minutes of ignoring your dog is optimum). Interactive toys such as Kongs®, Buster Cubes® and other food dispensing toys are useful to use at these times.
- Walk your dog at least twice a day for a minimum of 15-30 minutes each time. Exercise is known to decrease anxiety and to be important for socialisation and mental stimulation.
- Break associations that cue to your dog you are about to leave the house. For example, pick up your keys, put on your shoes and put on make-up without going outside. You can also mix up departure cues by performing them in a different order; put on your shoes and coat before having breakfast or drive the car out of the garage and shut the door, come back in the house and leave later in the day.
- Anti‐anxiety medication can assist to reduce a dog’s anxiety. However, as the underlying cause is relationship-based, it’s important to treat the dependency issues at the same time (using techniques above). Before commencing medication it is important to take your dog to see your vet, get a full physical examination and, if appropriate, consider pathology tests (blood work) to ensure liver and kidney function are normal and there are no underlying diseases.
What doesn’t work
- Getting another dog for companionship. As the dependent bond is between you and your dog, even when a new dog is introduced, the dog will still feel panicked when you leave the house.
- Punishment. Unlike humans, dogs are not able to associate past behaviours with subsequent punishment. As such, punishment does not work. The ‘guilty’ look that owners sometimes report dogs having is usually the dog’s learned response to the owner’s reaction. Reward-based approaches for good behaviour are most effective and build stronger relationships with you and your dog.
- Deterring chewing by tying the dog to chewed objects or painting them with a deterrent (e.g. Tabasco sauce), may stop the dog from chewing that object, but they will then find another outlet for their anxiety.
Other Things to Consider
Confinement can often increase anxiety. While it may be necessary to prevent self-injury or damage to the house, try to reduce confinement as much as possible. If necessary stacked baby gates in a room are preferable to a crate. Systematic desensitisation to departures can also be effective but can be a time-consuming process and require significant commitment from the owner.
Separation anxiety often manifests or worsens in winter. With the reduced daylight hours and cold weather, dogs may be walked less often. Where possible, owners need to keep up the same routines and exercise regimes in winter as they do in summer.