Separation Anxiety

 

 

Home Alone

From "Your Dog", a monthly newsletter from
Tufts School of Veterinary Medicine
203 Harrison Ave.
Boston, MA

You're hustling to get the kids ready for school and get to work on time. Before flying out the door, you make sure Fritz has water, dry food, and a non-splintering chewbone. You even turn on the radio -- easy listening. Maybe today will be different.

Alas, you come home to find the water, food, and bone untouched. Instead, Fritz has gnawed off a piece of door frame and shredded a sofa cushion.

Separation Anxiety

Dogs are great companions because they become so attached to people. But that attachment sometimes backfires in the form of separation anxiety.

Fortunately, most dogs do not become anxious when left alone. "A well-balanced dog realizes that its owners have departed and curls up for a snooze," says Dr. Nicholas Dodman, director of the Behavior Clinic at Tufts University School of Veterinary Medicine. However, dogs that do exhibit separation anxiety behaviors -- excessive barking, household destruction, and inappropriate elimination -- are not acting out of spite or anger. They are simply distressed by separation from "their people." Most dogs live to please -- an important fact to remember as you try to help your dog overcome separation anxiety.

"Normal" Anxiety

Certain anxieties in dogs are normal. For example, when you bring a new pup home, it usually cries for a few nights as it adjusts to life away from littermates. During the critical learning period from about 7 weeks to 4 months, puppies -- like human infants -- need almost constant attention as they seek a secure position in your family's pack." But over time, you should leave your dog alone for increasing periods of time so it doesn't form unhealthy attachments to you or other family members.

Why My Dog?

Separation anxiety most often occurs in dogs that become very attached to their owners. While genetics may play a role, most experts believe certain early experiences lead dogs to form intense bonds with people and therefore become vulnerable to separation anxiety.

For example, puppies deprived of human contact during the critical learning period are at risk of developing separation anxiety. "You can't treat a 7 week-old puppy like a lawn tractor and park it while you go to work," cautions Dr. Dodman.

But there's a flip side; a dog that spends almost all of its time with people is also likely to feel distress when suddenly left alone. Either extreme -- too much or too little contact with people -- can cause separation anxiety in a dog.

In well-behaved adult dogs, separation anxiety may develop if an owner suddenly changes routine -- for example, by returning to work after a period of unemployment. Occasionally, an otherwise well-adjusted dog develops separation anxiety in connection with a fearful incident that occurred when it was home alone. If a dog, terrified of thunder, is home alone during a severe electrical storm, it may thereafter associate being alone with thunder and become anxious whenever its owner leaves.

Older dogs that have stayed alone without incident for years may also unexpectedly display signs of separation anxiety. Almost invariably in these cases an underlying medical problem is the cause; ill dogs often seek out the comfort of their owners. (If separation anxiety occurs in your elderly dog, consult your veterinarian.)

Signs

Within minutes of its owner's departure, a dog with separation anxiety starts to whimper or bark. After vocalization fails to bring back its owner, the dog may try to escape -- chewing moldings, breaking screens, even shattering windows. In extreme cases, dogs may urinate or defecate in the house because they are simply beside themselves with anxiety.

A rarer manifestation of separation anxiety is self mutilation such as lick granuloma. Dogs groom themselves because it feels good, but some highly anxious dogs turn grooming into a licking obsession which can lead to skin ulcerations.

Your dog may not display these extreme behaviors, but it may show subtle sub-clinical signs of separation anxiety. Some animals, for example, won't eat or drink during their owner's absence.

Treatment Options

Successful treatment requires patience, consistency, and praise. "Praise is an important part of treatment, because dogs inherently want to please," says Dr. Dodman. "Positive reinforcement gives your dog the confidence to tolerate longer periods alone. Conversely, punishing a dog for separation anxiety behaviors that occurred earlier makes the dog more anxious because it doesn't connect the punishment with the undesirable behavior."

Rather than reversing the specific "bad" behaviors, treatment for separation anxiety focuses on reducing the dog's panic level just before and after the owner's departure. Because dog behavior is relatively complex, treatment usually entails a combination of methods: behavior-modifying desensitization (gradually increasing the dog's exposure to situations that produce anxiety) and counter-conditioning (training the dog to expect pleasure, not panic, when left alone). In difficult cases, anti-anxiety medications, "pharmacological shoehorns" as Dr. Dodman calls them, may facilitate behavioral treatment.

Anti-anxiety Medication

Although not a panacea, medication can be a valuable ally in treating separation anxiety. Veterinarians sometimes prescribe drugs, including tranquilizers, hormones, and tricyclic antidepressants such as amitriptyline, in conjunction with behavior therapy. At the proper dosage, tricyclics reorganize the brain's electrochemical connections with relatively few side effects and without sedation.

Dogs usually stay on the medication for several weeks -- long enough to subdue anxiety while they undergo behavior modification.

Veterinarians are careful to bring dogs up to the proper dosage -- and wean them off -gradually. But the first few times you administer anti-anxiety medication at home, you should stay with your dog to watch for side effects.

Repetition

The rituals surrounding departure and return trigger an emotional roller coaster in dogs with separation anxiety. Therefore, owners must try to help their dogs cope calmly with the inevitable comings and goings. Those capable of "tough love" may want to try the "20-20" technique. (Softhearted owners may want to modify this to the "5-5" technique.) Completely ignore your dog for 20 minutes before you leave and 20 minutes after you return. "Nothing generates anxiety in a dog more than you spending 5 minutes cooing promises that you'll be right back," cautions Dr. Dodman.

Desensitize your dog to pre-departure cues (such as picking up a briefcase or applying hand lotion). Presenting these cues randomly may calm your dog as it becomes accustomed to the sights, sounds, and smells associated with people leaving. Present a pre-departure stimulus (jangling keys, for example), but instead of leaving, sit down. "The dog eventually learns that the keys don't necessarily mean anything, and therefore the dog doesn't get into a panic state," explains Dr. Dodman. But don't expect immediate results. You may have to put on your coat or grab your hat up to 20 to 30 times daily for a while.

Next, simulate leaving with "graduated departures." Begin by simply walking to the door. Once your dog tolerates this routine, open the door. When opening the door no longer bothers your dog, step outside for a few seconds. Increase separation time only when the dog shows no sign of anxiety during the previous step. It may take several weeks of patient work on your part before your dog is comfortable with 15 minutes of solitude.

Under no circumstances should you allow the dog to reach a full-blown panic during these graduated-departure exercises. You can't try to desensitize your dog over the weekend and then leave it alone all day during the following work week. "That's like desensitizing someone to fear of heights while at the same time dangling them periodically from the top of the Empire State Building," says Dr. Dodman. Therefore, working families may have to spend some vacation time on these exercises.

Pleasant Expectations

As your dog becomes desensitized, you can start training it to be more independent even when you are together. Using a light lead, gently lead the dog to its bed, praising it and rewarding it with a food treat. Or tell the dog to sit and stay as you move progressively further away until it stays without anxiety in a room by itself. Use praise and food treats to reinforce the message that such "detachment" is pleasurable.

"Environmental enrichment" may help an anxious dog get past the critical first half-hour alone. Give the dog long-lasting goodies to distract it from your departure and absence. Instead of feeling anxious when left alone, the dog now anticipates a snack. Scatter treats 20 minutes before departure; then sneak out the door so your dog doesn't see you leave.

In addition to traditional beef knucklebones, you might try leaving hollow, hard-rubber chew toys stuffed with peanut butter, or drilled-out mylar bones jammed with cheese spread. Your dog will have hours of challenging and tasty "work." (Of course, it helps if the dog doesn't use the Persian rug as a placemat!) You can prepare these treats in advance and keep them refrigerated until you need them.

Speaking of edibles, many veterinarians recommend a low-protein diet for adult "home alone" canines. Input (food) should balance output (exercise). And feeding high-energy chow to a dog that stays inside all day is like putting jet fuel in a lawnmower. (Remember, always check with your veterinarian before changing your dog's diet.) Also, most dogs need at least 20 to 30 minutes of aerobic exercise every day. A tired dog is usually a calm dog.

Crate Training

Desensitization and counter conditioning are effective, but they can be time consuming. Until you can make the time for these approaches, crate training is an expedient stopgap. Some people consider crate training inhumane "imprisonment." But many dogs, when properly acclimated, actually feel safe and happy in crates during the workday. (Your dog's ancestors probably dug dens for shelter and puppy rearing.)

If a dog is not properly acclimated to the crate, however, this "halfway house" may aggravate an anxiety problem. During acclimation, keep the crate door open at all times. Give the dog a chance to associate the crate with pleasurable experiences like play, food, and praise. Never use the crate as punishment, and never shut the door until the dog is completely comfortable inside. And be sure to attend to your dog's exercise needs when you get home.

Remember: dogs that misbehave when home alone are not malicious. Your dog is trainable and has an innate desire to please you. While you can't overcome separation anxiety overnight, with some patience (and perhaps professional help), odds are you and your dog will get your relationship back on track.

The 30-Minute Threshold

Preliminary signs of separation anxiety in dogs, such as panting and pacing, often begin as owners prepare to leave. More overt (and destructive) behaviors usually begin minutes after the owner's departure. "The first 30 minutes are the most important," notes Dr. Nicholas Dodman, director of the Behavior Clinic at Tufts University School of Veterinary Medicine. If a dog calmly passes that threshold, it will generally remain calm.

So running home at lunchtime will not stave off your dog's separation anxiety. Odds are the destructive behavior has already occurred. In fact, if you go home briefly at noon, you subject your dog to another nerve-wracking separation.


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