One of the most common behavioural problems we see in dogs is separation anxiety – excessive fear and distress when left alone. With the summer coming to an end, children going back to school or University, and adults going back to work, we often see a spike in cases in September and October! In this blog, we’ll briefly talk about the causes and symptoms, and then look at some of the different ways to manage the condition. Please note, however, if your dog is suffering a more severe form of separation anxiety, it is usually unwise to try and manage it by yourself – come in and talk to one of our vets, and we can help or, if necessary, refer you to a qualified canine behaviourist for specialist advice.
How do I know if my dog has Separation Anxiety?
The typical signs are that the dog shows:
- Distress when they think you’re about to leave (e.g. drooling, pacing, whining, trying to stop you from going, depression).
- Destructive and inappropriate behaviour when you’re out (digging, urinating or defecating in the house, trying to escape, pacing, barking, destroying things).
- Excessively happy behaviour when you return (jumping, yelping, attention seeking).
Bear in mind, however, that many of these symptoms can be caused by other problems – behavioural issues, boredom, or even medical problems. A key feature of the dog with Separation Anxiety rather than one who is just bored and a bit lonely is that they are equally depressed when you’re out and excited to see you whether you’ve been gone 5 minutes or 5 hours. Unlike a “normal” (i.e. unaffected) dog, who is more upset and more excited the longer you’re away, for a dog with Separation Anxiety, it’s an all-or-nothing response.
What causes Separation Anxiety?
Dogs are social animals – they want to live in a pack. So, anything that makes them think that they’ve been abandoned is innately stressful. Some individuals cope better with this stress than others, but there are certain features in a dog’s life history that seem to increase the chance that they will develop Separation Anxiety:
- A change in family – for example, actually being abandoned or rehomed.
- Sudden changes in occupancy – e.g. children going away to school, or a homeworker changing to a job where they go out to work every day.
- A change in the physical environment – such as moving house.
How can Separation Anxiety be managed?
There are a number of possible approaches, and some of the more commonly effective ones we’ll look at briefly below. However, it does depend how severe it is, and we strongly advise you to talk to us for advice. In all but the mildest cases, we do suggest you consider referral to a specialist canine behaviourist.
Help your dog become more independent
Many dogs become anxious because they are separated from their pack and feel unsafe and uncertain. By helping to increase their self-confidence, you reduce (although of course never remove) their need for company at all times. The most effective technique is to actively reward calm, relaxed behaviour, and ignore (but never punish) anxiety or stress.
Reduce anxiety directly:
One of the most powerful tools we have is Adaptil – a synthetic version of the pheromone a bitch makes to reassure her puppies. Using a diffuser or collar significantly reduces stress and anxiety, whatever the cause – partly because the dog can smell “safety”, and therefore feels less lonely.
For some dogs, they’re OK when their owner has left – it’s the thought of them leaving that stresses them out! Habituation is a system of getting the dog used to the idea of you leaving, by starting the “leaving the house routine” (e.g. picking up the keys, putting on shoes, or whatever), but then not leaving. After a while, the dog learns that these triggers don’t necessarily mean you’re about to leave, and so become less stressed by them.
This is a technique to overcome the fear of a nasty thing (being left alone) with the pleasure of something nice (such as a particularly tasty treat). A good solution is to have a favourite food available that your dog only gets when you’re away – the aim is that, in time, they come to associate being left alone with this special treat, rather than being lonely.
This is very similar to habituation, only in this case the aim is to gradually get the dog used to being left alone – initially for very short periods (a few minutes, even), but getting very gradually longer. This is a long-term process that may take months, but can work really well, especially if combined with counterconditioning.
Sadly, some dogs are so anxious and stressed, that the simple techniques above aren’t sufficient. In these cases, there are certain medication that can be used to reduce anxiety (e.g. alprazolam) and improve your dog’s ability to learn from behavioural modification techniques (e.g. clomipramine). These are prescription-only drugs, but our vets can prescribe them if needed.