Dog: Separation Related Anxiety

dog chewing a toyHow do I know if my pet’s problem is due to separation anxiety?

Separation anxiety is a term used to describe a condition which afflicts dogs that are overly attached to or dependent on family members. They become extremely anxious and show distress behaviours like vocalisation, destruction, house-soiling or inactivity when separated from their owners. Most dogs with separation anxiety try to remain close to their owners and become increasingly anxious the greater the separation. They may follow the owners from room to room and begin to display signs of anxiety as soon as the owners prepare to leave. Some of these dogs crave a great deal of physical contact and attention from their owners which can be demanding. During departures or separations they may begin to salivate or pant profusely, vocalise, eliminate, refuse to eat, become destructive or quiet and withdrawn. Most often these behaviours occur within about 20 minutes of the owner’s departure. While typically the behaviour occurs each and every time the owner leaves, it may happen only on selected departures, such as work-day departures, or when the owner leaves again after coming home from work.

Are there other reasons why my dog may engage in these behaviours?

Yes, there are numerous other reasons and it essential to be sure of the underlying emotional motivation for your dog’s behaviour as the ways in which the problem should be treated can differ. Expert assistance may be necessary for this and you should not assume that your dog has separation anxiety, just because he is destructive, eliminates or vocalises when you leave him. One important condition, which is, in many ways similar to separation anxiety, is a conditioned aversion to being left alone. These dogs have experienced something traumatic in the owner’s absence (and possibly without the owner’s knowledge) such as a severe thunderstorm, and then find it difficult to cope alone. Treatment for this condition is quite different as it involves identifying and treating the original trigger as well as conditioning the animal to accept periods alone. In these cases the dogs have a normal level of attachment to their owner that does not need addressing. It is not uncommon for more than one condition to be present at a given time and this can make assessment even more complicated.

House-soiling may be due to medical problems, leaving the dog alone for longer than it can control its bladder, inadequate house-training from puppyhood, or a loss of house training associated with a more general age related decline. 

Vocalisation may be due to a perception of territorial intrusion by strangers or other animals and can be a rewarded behaviour if the dog receives any form of attention when it vocalises or is inadvertently rewarded by the stimulus moving away. 

Destruction may be associated with digging, scratching or chewing. Finding out which form of destruction is involved in your particular case can help in determining the reason for the behaviour. For example, chewing may be an investigatory behaviour and many dogs, especially puppies and adolescent dogs, enjoy chewing and engage in the behaviour when they have nothing else to keep them occupied. 

What can I do immediately to deal with the problem?

This is an extremely difficult question since the answer will be dependent on the underlying emotional motivation for the behaviour. If your dog is truly anxious then the aim of treatment will be to reduce the level of anxiety by training your dog to feel comfortable in your absence. This can be a prolonged process, even with the help of medication which helps to speed up the training. Many owners, understandably, need to deal with the problem immediately, especially if property damage is severe. In this case you may need to hire a dog sitter, take your dog to work, find a friend to care for your dog for the day, board your dog for the day, or arrange to take some time off from work to retrain your dog. Crate training or dog-proofing techniques may work to contain the problem, especially for those dogs who already have an area where they are happy to be confined. Crates should be used with caution however for dogs that have separation anxiety and/or barrier frustrations, because they can severely injure themselves attempting to get out of a crate, if they are not properly trained to accept it first. It is important to choose a room or area that does not further increase your dog’s anxiety and if the behaviour is related to an underlying fear, it is important to make sure that your dog will not continue to be exposed to the fear inducing stimulus while he is contained in the crate. Your dog’s bedroom or feeding area may be most practical since your dog already associated with pleasant and relaxing experiences.

If departures are short, the destructive dog may be trained quite quickly to wear a plastic or wire meshed basket muzzle so that he can continue to roam around the home unrestricted. Never leave your dog unattended when he is wearing a nylon/cloth muzzle. Muzzles are not suitable for longer periods of separation and should not be used as anything other than a temporary measure. The important thing is to discover why your dog is being destructive and remove the need to perform the behaviour, rather than simply stopping the behaviour from being performed. Obviously a muzzle will not be of any help in cases where the damage is due to digging or scratching. 

For vocalisation, anti-bark devices are not recommended as they simply act to make barking unpleasant for the dog to perform. If the vocalisation is the result of an underlying anxiety, the punishment of the behaviour using such a device is likely to make your dog more anxious. If the emotional motivation to vocalise is stronger than the deterrent value of the device then the barking will continue despite its presence. Even if the device is “successful” in inhibiting the vocalisation your dog will still be anxious and may start to show an alternative sign of its problem (become destructive, for example). Medication can help to deal with the underlying emotion, but you need to seek advice from a veterinary behaviourist to ensure that the correct medication is used. It is not advisable to sedate your dog to mask the signs of the problem, even in the short term. 

"For vocalisation, anti-bark devices are not recommended as they simply act to make barking unpleasant for the dog to perform. If the vocalisation is the result of an underlying anxiety, the punishment of the behaviour using such a device is likely to make your dog more anxious."

Punishment of destruction or house-soiling when you return will not help and will most likely make the problem worse. The inappropriate behaviour is a result of your dog’s anxiety, and not an act of "spite" or the result of being "cross" that you left. Dogs are unable to make the association between their act of being destructive for example, and any punishment which is given on your return. Even if your dog looks guilty, this does not mean that he knows that he has done wrong. It indicates that your dog has made the association between the onset of punishment and your presence in association with the mess, rather than the act of making the mess in the first place. When he is in the process of making a mess he is responding to his emotional state and is so stressed that he does not think about the consequences. The guilty look is actually an attempt by your dog to calm you down and reduce the risk of punishment. Therefore when you continue to punish him this will only serve to make your dog more anxious about your return.

How can your dog be retrained so that he is less anxious during departures?

In order to fully address the problem you will need to try to reduce any interaction which could contribute to your dog’s anxiety prior to departure, at the time of departure, and at the time of homecoming. For example, try to keep preparation for departure as low key as possible and reduce any specific actions which your dog may have learnt to associate with being left alone. In addition it is important to avoid all punishment in association with departure or returning home. In order to give a long term solution to the problem your dog needs to learn to accept periods when the two of you are apart even when you are at home. Start by simply walking away while your dog feeds and then closing doors for a short time. Consistent interaction with your dog and the use of appropriate obedience training which teaches your dog to settle and relax, can also help to reduce your dog’s general anxiety.

What should be done prior to departures?

  • Before any lengthy departure, provide a vigorous session of play and exercise. This not only helps to expend some of your dog’s energy and tire him out, but also provides a period of attention. 
  • A brief training session can also be a productive way to further interact and "work" with your dog. 
  • For the final 15-30 minutes prior to departure, your dog should be ignored. It would be best if your dog was trained to go to a prepared rest area with a radio, TV, or video playing. This will allow you to prepare for departure with your dog out of sight and earshot, and so reduce some of the build up which can result in both you and your dog getting upset.
    • In the short term, the key is to avoid as many specific signals of departure as possible, so that your dog’s anxiety is not heightened before you leave. Brushing teeth, changing into work clothes, or collecting keys, purse, briefcase or school books, are all routines that might be able to be performed out of sight of your dog. You might also consider changing clothes at work, preparing and packing a lunch the night before, or even leaving your car at a neighbour’s so your dog will not hear the car pulling out of the driveway. 
    • In the long term, a desensitisation programme will be needed to decrease your dog’s reaction to these various triggers.
    • A few minutes prior to departure your dog may be given some fresh toys and objects to keep him occupied so you can leave while your dog is distracted. However it is important that these do not themselves become a cue for departure, and so this aspect of the routine must be repeated at other times – see below for further tips about this.
    • Resist the temptation to specifically say goodbye to your dog as this will only serve to bring attention to the departure.

What should I do about the pre-departure signals that I cannot avoid?

Even with the best of efforts some dogs will still pick up on "cues" that you are about to depart. For this reason you should also work on training your dog to break the association between these cues and your impending departure. By exposing your dog to these cues while you remain at home and when your dog is relaxed or otherwise occupied, they will become less predictive of departure. This entails some retraining while you are home. For example, you can pick up the items (keys, shoes, briefcase, jacket, etc.) that normally signal your departure, and walk to the door. However, you do not leave, and instead simply turn back and put everything away. Your dog will be watching and possibly get up, but once you put every thing away, he should settle down again. Then, later on when your dog is calm, this process can be repeated. Sometimes you may pick up the items associated with departure and not even walk to the door, but simply carry on with some household task with the item on your feet or in your hand! Eventually, your dog will not attend to these cues because they are no longer predictive of you leaving and will not react, get up or look anxious as you go about your pre-departure tasks. Your dog will then be less anxious when you do leave. 

Are there any immediate things I can do to reduce anxiety at the time of departure?

  • As you depart, your dog should be kept busy and occupied, and preferably out of sight, so that there is little or no anxiety.
  • In order to select the best activity for your dog during departure you will need to determine what motivates your dog most. For example, if a particular toy is highly successful provide two or three of the same type, rather than toys that do not maintain your dog’s interest. It may also be helpful to provide some or all of your dog’s food during departures, perhaps with a few special surprises in the bottom of the bowl. Giving favoured treats and food for departure times (and taking them away when you are at home) can help to keep your dog distracted and perhaps "enjoying himself" while you leave. Dogs that are highly aroused and stimulated by food may become so intensively occupied in a peanut butter coated dog toy, a dog toy stuffed with liver and dog food, or some frozen dog treats, that they may not even notice you leave. Be certain that the distraction devices last as long as possible so that the dog continues to occupy its time until you are "long gone". Frozen treats placed in your dog’s food bowl, toys that are tightly stuffed with goodies, toys that are designed to require manipulation and work to obtain the food reward, toys that can maintain lengthy chewing, and timed feeders that open throughout the day can all be useful for this purpose. Naturally, food will not be effective for dogs that will not eat when the owner is preparing to leave.
  • Many people consider getting a second pet to help to keep their dog occupied and distracted during departures, but it is generally better to deal with the separation problem in one dog before going out to get another.

dog in a crateWhat should I do when I come home?

At homecomings ensure that you minimise interaction with your dog when it is agitated and aroused, and maximise interaction when it is calm or at least when all four feet are staying on the floor! Exuberant greetings only serve to heighten your dog’s level of arousal, and the use of any type of punishment for misbehaviour will increase your dog’s level of anxiety and lead to a mixture of emotions which can further fuel arousal. If your dog is responsive to commands it can be useful to engage in some obedience tasks when he has calmed down and give some treats as a reward. Try to be as passive as possible during the homecoming and focus on delivering food rewards which your dog gains directly from the floor rather than from your hand, since the latter may inadvertently encourage him to jump at you or nudge you to get the treat. Also minimise the use of your attention and affection as a reward at this time. This may heighten the contrast between your presence and absence in a way that makes your dog more anxious when you come to depart the next time.

How do I retrain my dog to reduce its dependence and following?

The most important aspect of the behaviour programme is to teach your dog to be independent and relaxed in your presence. Only when you have taught him to stay in his bed or den area when you are at home, will it be possible to train your dog to accept your departures.

First and foremost your dog must learn that attention-seeking behaviours are not necessary. Any attempts to gain attention must be ignored but it is important to make sure that whenever you ignore one behaviour you also reward an alternative. Therefore lying quietly away from you should be rewarded. Teach your dog that it is the quiet behaviour that will receive attention, and not following you around, or demanding attention. Teach your dog to relax in its quiet den area and to accept regular periods without attention when you are home. When he is used to this routine you can start to get your dog used to departure. Initally you would only leave for a very short time (literally go out of the door and back again) and then slowly build up the time. 

How can I teach my dog to accept my departures?

Formal training will often be needed to teach your dog to remain in its bed, crate or den area, for progressively longer periods of time (30 minutes or more). 

  • Start by rewarding your dog when it chooses to lie in the designated area by delivering food treats, which can be dropped passively into the bed or crate as you walk past. If your dog is not likely to go to the area on its own then you can encourage it to do so by going and standing close to the bed or crate with food treats visible in your hand. As you dog enters the bed or pen you can then deliver the treat.
    • Repeat this process until your dog happily and frequently goes into the bed or crate.
    • Once this is happening you can very gradually increase the time between your dog entering the bed or crate and the treat being delivered. Increments of a few seconds at a time will be most appropriate.
    • Progress in irregular time intervals so that your dog cannot begin to predict when the treat will arrive.
    • The next stage is to introduce a command which your dog will associate with going to the designated rest area. You can choose your own command but examples might include “settle”, “relax”, “bed” or “pen”. To begin with, you will say the command as your dog is in the process of going to the area (i.e. you use the word as a label for the action rather than as a command). After a number of repetitions your dog will make an association between the command and the action and at this stage you can begin to use the word to induce the behaviour of going to the rest area.
    • The next stage is to teach your dog to stay in the rest area when you leave. In order to do this you should give the command, and when your dog enters the rest area you should drop a treat into the bed or crate to reward him. Then begin to walk away. It is helpful to walk backwards at this stage so that your dog is less concerned about losing your social interaction but as training progresses you will start to turn around and walk away rather than just reverse.
      • Command your dog to go to the rest area, then walk back for a couple of steps and deliver a reward as long as your dog stays in position. 
      • Gradually increase the time your dog must stay in the rest area, with you a few steps away, before the treat is delivered.
      • Once your dog will stay in place for 1 minute while you cross the room, sit, return and switch to intermittent rewards. Praise is given every time but food is only given every 2nd, 3rd or 4th time, when his behaviour is particularly relaxed. However, for each new step in training, use the food reward for the first few times. 
      • Work on getting to the stage where your dog will remain relaxed in the rest area for 30 minutes while you sit and read a newspaper or magazine. From this point on, your dog should be encouraged to stay in its bed or crate for extended periods of time when you are at home and in the same room, rather than sitting at your feet or on your lap.
      • The next stage is to begin to leave the room. Give your dog the command to go to the rest area and reward him for doing so. Then walk across the room, and go out of sight for a short time before returning to the rest area to give the reward. Gradually make departures longer until your dog will tolerate being left in the room alone for up to 30 minutes as before. 
      • The next stage is to practice short "mock" departures. During "mock" or graduated departure training, your dog should be exercised, given a short formal training session, and commanded to go to his bed or mat to relax. The first few "mock" departures should be just long enough to leave and return without any signs of anxiety or distress. This might last from a few seconds to a couple of minutes, but do not try to do too much too soon. Gradually but randomly increase the time (for example 30 seconds, 1 minute, 2 minutes, 1, 2, 3, 2, 5, 7, 4, 7, 10, etc.). 
      • To begin with the departures should be very low key with minimum signs of preparation to depart but gradually you will need to incorporate a range of “getting ready to go out” signals such as picking up keys. Introduce these slowly, just one or two at a time. You will previously have worked to decrease the predictive value of these signals (see earlier in this handout).
      • The final stage is to make the departures increasingly realistic by including other activities associated with true departure such as opening and closing the car door and returning, turning on and off the car engine and returning, or pulling the car out of the driveway and returning.

It is very important to progress slowly through the series of departures. If when you return, your dog is anxious or extremely excited, then the departure was too long and the next one should be shorter. This is an effective technique but very slow in the beginning.

The training should take place in your dog’s quiet or resting area, using as many cues as possible to help relax your dog. It can help to mimic the secure environment that your dog feels when you are at home (e.g. leave the TV on, play a favourite video or CD, leave a favourite blanket or chew toy in the area). These can all help to calm your dog. The aim is to teach your dog to stay in his bed or confinement area for progressively longer periods of time before you return and give the reward. 

dog toysThis programme seems very complicated, is it quite difficult?

The programme requires commitment but is not too difficult in the majority of cases. However, if you need help, do not be afraid to ask. Some of the steps needed to help your dog to cope with being alone are quite straightforward but others are more challenging and require patience on your part. Detaching yourself from an over dependant dog and encouraging him to be more independent is not easy for your dog or indeed for you but such treatment can be very successful and is worth the time.

Is drug therapy useful?

Drug therapy can be useful especially during initial departure training and there are now drugs licensed for the treatment of this problem in dogs. Often the most suitable drugs for long term use are anti-depressants, anti-anxiety drugs or a combination. Tranquillisers alone do not reduce the dog’s anxiety. Drugs alone will do little or nothing to improve the problem in the long term. Research indicates that they really need to be used as part of a behaviour programme and the licences controlling the use of these medications all insist on this training. A useful alternative or addition to drug therapy is a synthetic analogue of a chemical that dogs naturally produce and that has a calming effect. This is called Dog Appeasing  Pheromone (D.A.P.). Studies have shown that D.A.P. can significantly reduce the signs of separation anxiety, when used in conjunction with a behaviour therapy programme. This product, is available from veterinary practices, and is available in various forms according to your needs.

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