Separation Anxiety in Dogs
Separation anxiety is a very common behavioral problem seen in dogs. It is estimated that this affects somewhere between 14-29% of the general dog population. It may also become more common as dogs age and become seniors. This may be due to cognitive changes related to aging, or may be because of medical conditions that can develop as dogs become older. It is very important that all dogs with anxiety have an exam done to rule out medical problems that may contribute to these behaviors (such as arthritis or urinary tract infections).
The most common signs of separation anxiety are vocalization, destructiveness, and possibly house soiling. This behavior happens only when the owner is gone, and generally starts within 30 minutes of owner’s departure. Destructive activity often is focused on doors/entryways or owner’s possessions.
Dogs who have separation anxiety often display extreme attachment behaviors when owners are home. They will follow their owners everywhere, greet excessively, show anxiety when owners prepare to leave the house. These dogs rarely spend time on their own.
Separation anxiety can develop in young puppies during their sensitization period (between 3-12 weeks of age). Introducing young puppies to temporary separation from humans may help them learn to cope with being alone. Other times, separation anxiety can develop after moving to a new home, losing a housemate pet, or by a change in owner’s schedule. There may also be a genetic component to this behavior pattern, although there has been no determined breed or sex correlation.
Studies have shown a lower rate of separation anxiety and other behavioral problems in dogs who have been through obedience training. Shelter dogs may be more likely to have separation anxiety than the general population. This may be because owners are more likely to relinquish a dog with anxiety behaviors. Importantly, presence of another pet in the home does not consistently prevent separation anxiety.
Treatment of separation anxiety is possible, and most dogs do show at least partial response to therapy. Therapy must consist of both a training plan and drug/pheromone therapy to have the best chance of being effective.
Multiple studies have showed a decrease in severity of separation anxiety in dogs treated with fluoxetine (or prozac) in comparison to placebo medication. Often, studies will combine fluoxetine with DAP, which is a synthetic version of the pheromone created by mother dogs. This pheromone is another way to help dogs with anxiety problems, and works well in addition to medication.
Besides medications, a behavior plan is needed to treat a dog with separation anxiety. This behavior plan must teach the dog some independence. It is important to make it a positive experience for the dog to be alone. This can be done by providing a food-filled toy when owner is away from home, and taking it up as soon as owners return. Leaving the TV or radio on can also help dogs to cope with being alone. There is even a CD of music, called Through a Dog’s Ear, that was developed specifically to calm anxious dogs.
Upon return, owners should ignore the dog for 5-10 minutes to avoid creating excitement. Avoid excessive greetings! These only teach the dog to wait anxiously for his owner’s return. Do not pay attention to the dog until he is settled quietly.
Another important step is to remove the negative association the dog has with departure cues (such as putting on a jacket, picking up keys, etc). The owner should do these activities randomly throughout the day when not planning on leaving, so the dog learns that these events are not always a negative.
When the owner is home with the dog, the dog should still learn to be independent. Encourage the dog to lay further from the owner, even by creating obstacles (baby gates, etc). The dog should be positively rewarded for laying quietly by himself. If there are multiple people in the home, caretaking should be split between the people to avoid excessive attachment to one person.
Studies have shown that following this behavior plan, in addition to medications and supplements as needed, has been very successful in rehabilitating patients with separation anxiety. Please ask your veterinarian for help if you are having difficulties with your dog when you are away from the home, as there is a lot that can be done for these pets!