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Separation Anxiety

by on January 10, 2012

Home Alone:
Dogs with Separation Anxiety

By: Gail I. Clark, Ph.D.

Does your dog destroy the house when you leave him alone? Have you received complaints about your dog barking when you are not home? Does your dog appear to be agitated or nervous when you prepare to leave the house? If you answered yes to any of these questions, your dog may be experiencing separation anxiety. Although there are several explanations, for why dogs bark, chew, pace and dig, such as boredom, many dogs perform these behaviors because they are nervous and anxious about being alone. Dogs do not perform these behaviors because they are mad at us for leaving them. Chewing, barking, and pacing are a natural outlet for either boredom or nervousness. Don’t we chew our nails, pace, and talk a lot when we are nervous? While our nail chewing may not be of a big concern to most people, a dog that is experiencing separation anxiety can shred a house in a matter of a couple of hours, drive neighbors crazy, and make their owners a nervous wreck! When a dog is experiencing separation anxiety as opposed to boredom, there are distinct signs of physical nervousness such as panting, drooling, and general agitation.

What is Separation anxiety? 
Separation anxiety is nervousness that is related to being left alone, or being separated from a specific person or animal. For example, if your dog is nervous even when there is another person or animal present, your dog is experiencing anxiety because you left him. Most dogs do not exhibit separation anxiety when other people or animals are around and become anxious only when they are alone.

The dog that is nervous or anxious about being left alone becomes fidgety and feels compelled to expend this excess nervous energy. The most common anxious behaviors that dogs exhibit are barking, whining, pacing, and chewing. The activity of shredding the couch spends energy and gives your dog something else to concentrate on, which results in an outlet for his anxiousness. Your dog is reinforced to perform any behavior, such as chewing, that reduces his anxiety when he is alone.

Causes of Separation Anxiety.
Dogs suffer separation anxiety because they are pack or social animals and being alone is negative to them. From the beginning, dogs are in the company of their dam and littermates. In fact, your dog may have never experienced being alone until the first time you left him to run an errand or went to work. The first experience of being alone can be quite traumatic for a dog, particularly if he has been left for several hours, and as a result he may start to voice his protest by whining, barking, or redesigning your woodwork.

Separation anxiety is almost always evident in dogs that were removed from their litter too young. A 6-week-old puppy is very immature, dependent upon his dam and litter, and has not fully developed independence and exploratory behavior. When a puppy is forcibly separated from the litter before he is developmentally ready, he may transfer his dependency to you and feel anxious when you are absent. In addition, removing a puppy from his littermates before he is developmentally prepared to explore the world creates emotional stress. Although emotional stress is not always evident until a puppy is older, it affects his emotional state and ability to cope with being left throughout his adulthood.

While dogs are prone to separation anxiety as a result of being a pack animal, your behavior can also contribute to your dog’s anxiety when he is left. For example, if you either never leave your young pup alone or do not take the time to gradually teach your puppy how to be alone, the first time he is left, he will very likely experience anxiety. Often people arrange to get puppies during summer vacations or when they will be home all day and can take the puppy everywhere with them. If there is a schedule change and the owner has to go back to work, he may feel guilty about leaving his dog, and make a fuss when he leaves, “I will be back soon, don’t worry.” The fuss and emotional departure added to his first experience with being left, imprints a negative association with his owner leaving and serves to make him anxious. When the owner who feels guilty about leaving his dog comes home, there is always an excited and emotional greeting. For the dog that pined all day long because he was left, an emotional greeting is a strong, happy experience, which also imprints on the dog, and he will learn to anticipate his owner’s arrival. As the cues in the environment signal your dog that you are coming home soon, the sun going down, or the sound of the neighborhood traffic getting busy, he becomes active, excited, and anxious for you to arrive. As your dog becomes anxious, he chews, barks or performs some other behavior to relieve his fidgetiness and anxiety. Most behaviors associated with separation anxiety occur 30 minutes after you leave as a result of your dog feeling anxious because he is alone, and 30 minutes before you arrive home due to his excitement and anticipation of you coming home.

Anxiety can also develop as a result of a traumatic event such as a thunderstorm or being abandoned. A loud clap of thunder that surprises or frightens your dog as he is comfortably napping in the backyard can cause him to be afraid of being alone. The dog that has been abandoned and placed in a stressful environment such as a shelter causes him to feel anxious about change and can manifest into difficulty with being left alone in his new home.

Preventing Separation Anxiety.
Just as your behavior can contribute to separation anxiety, you can help your dog cope with being alone. Dogs need to be conditioned or desensitized to tolerate periods of solitude with short periods of separation. For instance, you may start by leaving your dog alone when you go out to get the mail. For the rest of the day that you must be separated from your dog, day care provided by a friend, family member, or a trained professional sitter is a good option for implementing a gradual program for teaching your dog to be alone for longer periods. When your dog tolerates short periods of solitude, leave him alone for the length of time that he is comfortable with, and arrange day care for the rest of the time. Each week you can gradually increase the time your dog is home alone and decrease his supervised day care time as he adjusts to the short periods of separation. When your dog is comfortable staying home alone for several hours a day, change the day care to drop in visits to your home several times a day to let your dog out for a change in routine and to check on how he is coping with being alone. As your puppy gets older or your older dog learns to tolerate being alone, gradually reduce the pet sitting visits.

When you leave your dog, do not make a fuss, and just as importantly, greet your dog without fanfare when you return home. Just before you leave, give your dog a very special treat such as a peanut butter or cheese spread in a Kong or an interactive toy that you can Google on the Internet and with nothing more than a “Bye.” The purpose of the treat is to make your leaving a rewarding experience and provide an outlet for your dog to release his anxiousness. A knucklebone with the marrow intact in the middle may keep your puppy busy for a long time as he tries to relentlessly lick out the marrow. There are many toys you can fill with goodies such as peanut butter or cheese spreads. The better the chew toy, the busier your dog will be, and his anxious behavior will be appropriately channeled. Long hours of chewing will keep your dog’s mind off of you, and tire him, making him sleep for longer periods of time. Do not give the chew toys to your dog on any other occasion then when he is left so that the novelty of the toys does not wear off.

When you get home, immediately take him out to relieve himself without a greeting. If the reunions are emotional and overly rewarding, your dog will spend the day anxiously anticipating your arrival. A loving greeting is appropriate about ten minutes after your dog comes back in from the yard or walk. If there is an interval between your arrival and your greeting, your dog will not spend the day anticipating a happy reunion. Vary your routine and schedule. Change your schedule by coming and going at different times so that you do not set a pattern that your dog can focus on and worry about. Varying your routine will enrich both of your lives.

For enriching the environment when your dog is alone, turn the radio on to soft music. Heavy metal, rock, or jazz may be a poor option for the dog that needs to relax. If you are an avid television viewer and your dog is used to the noise, you can alternate between the television and radio for familiarity.

Preventing Damage to Your Home.
The best option for providing your puppy or older anxious dog with some solitude, while keeping him and your house safe, is the crate. The crate is also the only option for preventing the destruction of your house from the dog that chews when he is left alone. Crating your dog in the house also eliminates over-stimulation or fear from outside noises and sights that may instigate non-stop barking and interrupt his sleep. If your dog is in a crate in the house, his barking is not likely to disturb your neighbors, he will be unable to dig out of the fence, and he will be safe from being teased through the fence or from fences that may blow down in a wind storm. When you institute crate training for the anxious dog, he should be introduced to the crate gradually. For the majority of dogs, the crate becomes their safe haven where they feel comfortable from any outside influences that may threaten them such as being stepped on while they are sleeping, or other dogs that may invade their territory. However, there are rare cases where some dogs cannot tolerate the crate. Consult a dog professional about helping you crate train or explore other options to safely contain your dog in the house where he cannot damage anything or himself.

Vary the time you leave your dog. Sometimes place him in his safe area 5 minutes before you leave and other times 15 minutes before your departure so he does not associate his safe area with negative emotions evoked by your leaving.

For the dog that is not crated, enrich his environment. Find special toys that keep his attention and expend energy. For one of my clients, we introduced his dog to the Puzzle Ball, which cured his Weimaraner from incessant barking when he was left alone. Using a video camera, we found that the Weimaraner spent half his day batting the ball to get the treats out, and then spent the remainder of the day sleeping to make up for the physical exercise he exerted. Another tactic I use to keep my dogs busy and entertained is the hide and seek game. Every few days, I hide special treats around the house. I barely get out the door and they are off and running to sniff out their favorite goodies that may be hiding under a cup or box on the floor. The special toys and treats should only be given to your dog when you leave and picked up when you come home.

Companionship for Your Anxious Dog.
When people perceive that their puppy is lonely, their first inclination may be to get a second animal for companionship. Another animal can provide companionship and exercise that can redirect anxiety. A dog that has played all day is a tired dog and less anxious than the dog that has pent up energy. Unfortunately, another animal can sometimes present double the problems. The second dog may have behavioral problems and compound your dog problems without alleviating the anxiousness your dog experiences when you leave. The decision to acquire another animal for your anxious dog should be well thought out. Before you acquire another animal to provide companionship for your anxious dog, borrow one. Ask a friend if you could keep their dog for a day or two while they are out of town. Now, if having another animal around for companionship does not help your dog, you will not be committed to two animals.

Exercise and Diet. 
Physical exercise helps reduce anxiety. Scheduling exercise in the morning, a game of fetch or a jog in the park, can release a dog’s pent up energy and help him relax. For puppies, the amount of exercise should be limited to a level that is appropriate for your puppy’s age. Too much exercise, such as a 2 mile jog for the 5 month old puppy may be detrimental to his growing bones and joints and is not appropriate until he is 18 months and older. Ask your veterinarian how much and which type of exercise is appropriate for your dog. Whether you are exercising a puppy or older dog, plan sessions that will be easy and comfortable for you to maintain on a permanent basis. New resolutions to run every day for 5 miles generally do not last throughout the year and if your dog becomes accustomed to the extra exercise and the schedule gets erratic, he will miss the activity and may end up more stressed than he was originally. The program I like best that I can maintain as a great workout for my dogs is obedience training.

In addition to a good exercise program, your dog’s diet also affects his energy level. Provide a diet for your dog that does not provide more calories and nutrients that he can burn. Unused calories result in energy that manifests into anxious behaviors. There are many different diets on the market to meet the level of exercise a dog receives. If your dog spends the majority of his time warming the couch, he does not need the same diet as a field dog. If you provide your dog with more calories than he uses, he will seek an outlet to release his energy and chewing the family couch may be very convenient for releasing his energy.

Obedience training and Separation Anxiety. 
Obedience training has several benefits, it is low impact exercise, rewarding for both of you, and leaves a dog exhausted. A dog can frolic all day chasing a ball and never tire, but use his brain for five minutes in obedience training and he will be exhausted. Obedience training spends your dog’s energy, and rewards you with a well-behaved dog. Training, a one on one interaction provides quality time and develops a communication line between you and your dog, which fosters security and trust. Quality time can spend a lot of pent up energy and make up for missed time if you feel guilty about leaving your dog.

Drug Therapy.
As the millennium approaches, the topic of separation anxiety would be remiss without the mention of drug therapy. Extreme cases of separation anxiety have warranted the decision to introduce anti-anxiety drugs to help the dog tolerate being alone. The medical literature suggests that the best results are achieved when drugs are used along with a behavioral therapy program. There are always risks of side effects from drugs and you should never administer drugs without the advice of a veterinarian. If a program utilizing day care, obedience training, exercise, and a change of diet does not seem to help your dog cope with being left, consult a veterinarian about a combination program that uses drug therapy and behavior modification.

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