The Basics of Separation Anxiety in Dogs

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How To Deal With Your Dog’s Anxiety

© By Linda J. Brodzik, Dog Trainer & Behavior Specialist

Dogs are social pack animals that rely on group living for both comfort and safety. Strong attachments are made between pack individuals (canine and human). Like many social animals, dogs may display distress when separated from their companions. These behaviors are made in an attempt to reunite with other pack members. Behaviors commonly displayed include vocalization, hyperactivity and destructive behavior such as digging and chewing.

Separation anxiety is not only one of the most prevalent, but also one of the most frustrating behavior-related problems seen in companion dogs. Pet owners often believe that their dog is displaying this “misbehavior” out of spite or because they are angry at being left alone. It is commonly, though incorrectly, believed that these behaviors are displayed to “get even.”

The most obvious of signs is that symptoms are only displayed when the dog is separated or denied access to a key individual to whom he/she is attached. Also of importance is that the dog will display symptomatic behavior(s) within a short period of being left along, often within minutes. Many dogs display anxiety-related behaviors prior to the owner leaving in anticipation of being left alone. Behaviors most often seen would include following the key individual around the home, panting, increased salivation, pacing and possibly trembling. Some dogs may even display a depressed or sad demeanor as the key individual prepares to leave. Displayed behaviors may include lowered head, ears and tail; inactivity and/or careful watchfulness of the key individual.

Signs of Dog Separation Anxiety:

  • Vocalization – howling, whining, barking
  • Elimination – defecation, urination
  • Destructive behavior – chewing
  • Escape behavior – chewing and/or digging at barriers such as doorways or windows
  • Anorexia – lack of appetite, depression, inactivity, disinterest in toys or play
  • Physical upset – diarrhea, vomiting, excessive licking or biting of self
  • Hyperactivity – excessive greetings, following or over-solicitation of owner

Dogs suffering from separation anxiety may display one or multiple symptoms. The most common behaviors displayed are elimination, vocalization and destructiveness.

Susceptibility of These Behaviors

These dogs are usually the dependent type. They generally follow the owner around the home and engage in excessive greeting and solicitative/attention-gaining behavior. Dogs that have become accustomed to prolonged/constant contact are especially susceptible. This may include homes where a person is always present or engaged in prolonged periods at home (teachers, vacation, layoffs, etc.). Owners who engage in exaggerated, emotional departures and greetings may contribute to susceptibility. Puppies raised with continuous contact are especially at risk. Separation anxiety is also prevalent in abandoned or shelter-adopted dogs. It is likely that the time of abandonment contributes to the disorder.

Treatment for Your Dog

Treatment must first and foremost include a proper diagnosis. Misdiagnosis will not only render little assistance in rehabilitation of reported problem behaviors but may in fact worsen the symptoms.

  • Getting a pet for your pet does not work. Your dog is distressed over separation from you.
  • Punishment does not work and often increases fear, distrust and anxiety.
  • Cage confinement may actually increase anxiety and is not recommended for dogs that have not been previously conditioned to calmly accept its use.

Once properly diagnosed by a qualified animal behaviorist, treatment is individualized. Depending on such factors as the longevity of the disorder, reinforcement and personality type, a program of rehabilitation may be short and simplistic or lengthy and involved (the former being the most common).

Treatment generally centers upon a number of factors:
  • Increased exercise
  • Establishing a positive, structured home environment
  • Obedience training
  • Establishing an alternate/pacifying behavior to be displayed by the dog during departure of the owner
  • Desensitization to leaving signals and departure
  • Medication*

*Pharmaceutical therapy may be helpful in more progressed cases. It should be noted that drug therapy should only be used in conjunction with a behavioral modification program.

Prognosis

The prognosis for recovery is very good for dogs suffering from separation anxiety. Programs are often short and direct, yielding fast and lasting results.

If you feel that your dog might be suffering from separation anxiety, you should speak with your veterinarian or another qualified behavior specialist.

To learn more about my training methods, sign up for a dog obedience class or to schedule an in-home, private behavior consultation, please contact me today.

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