by Dr. Mara Tugel
Have you ever come home to find a house that has been destroyed, with various pieces of furniture shredded or soiled, your favorite pair of shoes demolished, and your loving dog with a guilty expression on his/her face? If so, then you have been witness to a common scene among households with dogs who suffer from separation anxiety. Affected dogs often act completely normal when their owners are around, but panic when left alone. These dogs take out their anxiety by becoming destructive, and occasionally even harming themselves in their attempts to escape. Separation anxiety can affect dogs of all breeds and ages, and can range from very mild cases to very severe anxiety.
So how can you tell if your dog has separation anxiety? The first step is to distinguish between destructive behavior due to boredom versus true anxiety, and that the behavior starts within a short time period after being left alone. The key difference is that dogs with separation anxiety usually only become distressed and destructive when their owners leave them alone at home, but often do not cause any trouble while their owners are with them. Dogs who become destructive when they are bored, or just because they like to chew on things, often also engage in destructive behavior while the owner is home.
Additionally, dogs with separation anxiety tend to be very clingy and attached to their owners more strongly than the average, loving pet (this is often referred to as hyper-attachment). These dogs will often follow their owners from room to room, or constantly want to be held. Although this gives people a sense of being really strongly loved by their pet, sometimes it is a sign of anxiety and is actually stressful for the dog. Many dogs with separation anxiety pick up on subtle cues that their owner is preparing to leave, and may start showing signs of distress when their owner picks up their car keys, or puts on a coat for example.
Treating separation anxiety involves a combination of behavioral modification/training (of the dog AND the owner), and in some cases medication to help decrease the dog’s overall anxiety level. Although many owners would like a medication to just fix the problem, unfortunately most affected dogs really need behavioral modification. The goal of anti-anxiety medication is to make your efforts at behavioral modification and training more successful.
Behavioral modification in cases of separation anxiety involves three main steps:
1.)Decreasing the level of hyper-attachment. This really means re-training the owner to help their dog become more independent, and is often the most challenging step.
2.)Providing distractions and relaxation during separation. Many dogs with separation anxiety do better if they are left with a special toy while their owners are away (e.g. a rubber Kong filled with peanut butter). Other dogs are more relaxed if they can hear a TV or radio, and there are even pheromone diffusers available now that work for some dogs.
3.)Desensitization to separation. In essence this means changing the owner’s actions so that whatever cues their dog is picking up on no longer predictably mean the owner is leaving. For example, if you only pick up your keys prior to leaving the house, your dog associates that behavior with you leaving. One way to combat this would be to pick up your keys are other times, and make it a positive action so that your dog associates it with something positive like food or attention. The key is to make leaving the house a less predictable event, and change the routine regularly.
In summary, separation anxiety can be a very stressful and even dangerous situation for some dogs. If your dog shows signs of this type of behavior, schedule an appointment to talk to your veterinarian about the best treatment options. In mild cases, eliciting the help of a good dog trainer is enough to accomplish effective behavioral modification. In more complicated cases, anti-anxiety medication may also be necessary. Your veterinarian will recommend an anti-anxiety medication that is safe and will work best for your pet. As always, we are happy to answer any questions here at Sheabel!