Separation Anxiety

Separation related problems in dogs and how to manage them

Dogs are social animals and include human family members as part of their social group. They have a sense of attachment or belonging to their social group and also their abode. Dogs effectively identify family members with a non-transferable ‘tag’ which is also linked with the home. Family members’ tags have a positive value, where as other people who enter the home, such as postmen, may have a negative value. This explains why a dog’s behaviour and feeling of attachment toward a family member, or indeed a postman, may be different outside the context of the home.

Human Companionship

Dogs need human companionship and it is never acceptable to leave a dog for more that 4 hours during the day. Dogs become bonded to family members and when separated, some dogs may experience distress, resulting in separation related problem behaviourssuch as destruction, vocalisation, and elimination.

Some dogs with separation related problem behaviours also suffer separation anxiety which may include anorexia, drooling, attempts to escape, depression, acral lick dermatitis, intestinal distress, and hyperactivity.Owners need to be aware that there is a complex relationship between symptoms, behaviour, disease, and anxiety.

  • Constant anxiety can lower resistance resulting in disease
  • Some diseases can result in anxiety
  • Disease and/or anxiety can result in problem behaviour

 

Separation related behavioural problems may damage the human-animal bond which can result in dogs being relinquished to animal shelters or even euthanasia.

Cats are less likely to suffer
Cats do form attachments and bonds with humans but they are less intense and therefore cats are less likely to suffer with separation related problems than dogs.

Traits of a dog prone to separation distress
Dogs that suffer with separation distress often seem quite anxious and are over-attached to their owners. The dog may follow its owner from room to room, even the bathroom, and constantly attempt to interact with the owner, maybe by bringing them toys or nudging their hand to have their ears fondled. Some dogs will not eat if their owners are not present. The dog’s level of distress escalates when they recognise the events that mean their owners are preparing to depart the home.
It is important to seek veterinary advice if you think that your dog is suffering from a separation problem because it is essential that any underlying diseases are eliminated.
Management of separation problems
Don’t be tempted to get another dog to alleviate your dog’s separation problems, your dog wants your company not that of another dog. You could end up with two dogs with separation problems!Short-term

  • Where possible avoid leaving the dog alone;
    • Take the dog to work
    • Leave it with family or friends
    • Utilise ‘doggy day-care’, dog sitters or walkers.
  • Avoid cues that the dog will recognise prior to departing home;
  • Don’t ritualise the ‘goodbye’, avoid excessive social interaction 30 minutes before departure
  • Sneak out of the home using different exits
  • Mask departure with washing machine noise, music, or recorded family banter.
  • Environmental enrichment may occasionally help;
    • Boredom busting, treat dispensing toys
    • Automatic interactive toys, but few exist
  • Use medication to reduce distress;
    • This may take the form of prescription behaviour modifying drugs
    • Pheromone collars or diffusers.

Long-term

  • Make the dog more independent;
    • Ignore attention seeking behaviour – but not the dog
    • Owners initiate attention only when the dog is calm
    • Teach the dog to sit apart from the family
    • Have short periods of separation from the dog while the owner is at home
    • Minimise the contrast between ‘owner home’ and ‘owner gone’
  • Make the dog feel more confident;
    • Engage in regular training because it provides structure and predictability for the dog.
  • Manage escalating distress associated with pre-departure cues;
    • Owners should occasionally enact some pre-departure triggers in isolation so that they are no longer associated with departure
    • Teach the dog to sit in the vicinity of the exit from the home and reward calm behaviour.
  • Minimise social interaction 30 minutes before departure and 30 minutes after return
  • Teach ‘training departures’;
    • The owner leaves the home for a short period once the dog has remained relaxed in a specific location.  As the owner leaves they provide a new ‘safety cue’ for the dog such as a spray of air freshener. This enables the dog to differentiate between a real departure and a training departure. If all goes well, training departure periods can be extended to the duration of a real departure. Have patience as this process can take some time.

An owner’s role
Owners perpetuate separation problems because they love their dogs too much! This makes a dog dependant upon their owners, under-confident and consequently, they are devastated whenever the owners leave them. For the sake of their dog’s state of mind owners need to encourage their dogs to be independent and confident.

David Chamberlain BVetMed., MRCVS.
Veterinary Consultant to PetSafe®

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