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Wednesday, 9 January 2013

How To Handle Dogs Separation Anxiety

Separation anxiety (SA) is an extremely common issue that an estimated 11.5 million dogs suffer from.  SA can manifest itself in many different ways, including, but not limited to destructive behavior, urinating and/or defecating in the house, excessive salivation, eating or drinking excessively, not eating or drinking at all, excessive vocalization (howling or barking), fearfulness/worried/apprehensive look as you are getting ready to depart, clinginess, hyperactivity, and depression or aggression when about to be left alone.

What Are The Signs
What is destroyed and where the destruction takes place is important.  Many dogs destroy objects and there are different motives for this destruction.  Dogs with separation anxiety target objects that have your scent on them, such as remote controls, phones, socks, shoes, pillows, and underwear.  The stronger the scent, the more likely a target the object will be.  Common locations for destruction include doorways and windows.

A big red flag for SA is when an adult dog, that was previously house trained, begins to have accidents in the house when left alone.  The key here is that the accidents happen when he is alone.  Medical causes need to be explored, but usually medical causes will cause inappropriate elimination at other times as well.

It is extremely important to note that these dogs are not being spiteful.  They are not destroying things and soiling your house because they are angry that you left them alone.  They are literally having panic attacks and are not able to control their reactions to those panic attacks.  Spite is not an emotion that dogs are capable of, only humans are capable of this.  If you think your dog is being spiteful you will be more likely to get angry with him.  Anger will cause more stress and confusion and will make things worse.


 Separation anxiety can be highly variable.  A dog can exhibit signs of SA when left totally alone, or if just one family member is not present.  SA can develop when there is a sudden change in your schedule (i.e. teachers who have been off all Summer and suddenly return to work in the Fall), or if you are just a little late returning home (i.e. home at 7:30 vs 6:00).  SA can also be idiopathic (cause unknown) and dogs that were left alone their entire lives can no longer be left alone.  Other causes/risk factors include a traumatic event (house fire, burglary attempt, etc), severe thunderstorm, or fireworks, “SPOILING” your dog, dogs rescued from shelters, laboratories, and those that have spent extensive time in shelters or with a home bound person.  Genetics also play a role and shy/timid dogs tend to be predisposed to developing SA.

 What To Do

So, what can we do to help our dogs with SA.  The first place to start is where I start ALL of my behavior modification, with deference.  You need to teach your dog to defer to you by having him sit and look at you for everything that has value to him.  You need to be consistent and have him defer to you for everything, food/feeding, treats, love/affection, grooming, going outdoors, coming indoors, having his leash put on, being invited onto the sofa or bed, playing games, playing with toys, etc…  Anything and everything!  Having your dog defer to you helps to facilitate an overall relaxed state of mind and helps to decrease anxiety.  Next, start rewarding your dog every time he is relaxed.  We tend to be very good at saying “no!” when our dogs are doing something wrong or something we do not like, but when they are lying quietly we tend to leave them be.  Make a point to go to your dog and quietly praise him for being relaxed.  Reinforce what you want!


The mainstay of treatment involves desensitizing your dog to your departure cues and counter-conditioning using gradual departures.  Dogs read body language extremely well.  Your dog knows which days you are going to work and which days you are staying home.  He is very well aware of your routines.  We can use this to help desensitize him.  On the days that you are going to work, try to mimic the routine you have on your days off.  The time you leave may be something you cannot help, but you can wear “days off” clothes to exit the house and then change into work clothes at work.  The same applies for days off, mimic your work day routine, and then stay home.  Also, begin to do various things you would do if you were leaving.  Grab your keys randomly through out the day and make sure he hears them jingle, then continue to do what ever you were doing.  Same thing with coats, pocket books, shoes, etc…  Try to mimic your departure routine and components of the routine throughout the day.

 Counter-conditioning using gradual departures involves teaching your dog to be alone for gradually longer periods of time.  I cannot stress enough the importance of going slow with this.  How fast this gets accomplished is not the goal, having your dog be relaxed during this process is. Be aware of your dogs state of mind and do not forget to reward even the most tiny hint of increased relaxation.  If you find your dog becoming stressed while practicing gradual departures, STOP!  Go back a duration that did not cause stress, and end the exercise for the time being.

 Start counter-conditioning using gradual departures by having your dog sit and stay for a few seconds, go to him and reward with whatever motivates him (a treat, toy, etc… and always praise).  Gradually increase the length of time that he stays.  Start with 5 seconds, then 10, then 15, etc…  An increase of 5 seconds at a time may be too much for your dog.  If that’s the case, increase the increments 1 or 2 seconds at a time.  Next, begin to have your dogs stay while you take a step backwards, then 2 steps, then 3 steps, etc…  See the pattern here?  Next, take steps to the right, then to the left, and continue in this manner until you can begin to leave the room you guys are in.  Leave the room for only one second to begin, then 2, then 4, and continue to build on that.  Eventually you will be walking out of the front door during this exercise.  However, you may not be able to just open the door and step out without your dog becoming stressed.  Your may need to start with just touching the door knob, then just jiggling it, then just turning it, etc…  Remember to reward between each step for relaxation.  Continue this process until your dog can be left alone for about a half an hour.

In a perfect world, your dog should NEVER be left alone during the treatment process.  For those of use that work all day, doggie daycare, pet sitters, neighbors, friends, and family can help to accomplish this.  If you are lucky enough to have a job that allows you to take for dog to work, take advantage of that.  Also, ask your boss if he/she would be willing to help you out with treatment and allow you to bring your dog to work with you on a temporary basis.  It can’t hurt to ask!
Crate training your dog can help, but ONLY if he views the crate as a happy place.  Crating your dog without addressing the SA will not help your dog and may actually make things worse.  However, if your dog has a positive association with the create, and knows that time in there is meant to be spent relaxing and sleeping, the crate can be an asset during this process.  I will cover crate training in a separate post.

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