Dog Separation Anxiety

Dogs accept the schedules imposed upon them by us, their owners, and they coexist in our homes with acceptable levels of inappropriate behavior. An occasional scratched door or chewed curtain, or an understandable “accident” now and then are small prices to pay for the companionship our dogs provide.

But there is a group of dogs for whom separation from their owners provokes intense reactions. The very absence of the owner from their sight or vicinity evokes profound and irrational fears of abandonment.

At this time, no one knows the actual cause of dog separation anxiety. Possible causes include genetic predisposition, organic/chemical abnormalities, learned behavior or a combination of these factors and influences. Risk factors include a history of the dog having been obtained from a shelter facility, raised as an “orphan,” or a background of mistreatment or abuse. Understandably, dogs may have been exhibiting behavior prior to their shelter sentence. Likewise, punishment and abuse may have been in response to an uninformed owner attempting to “train” the dog out of their irrational fear and anxiety.

Typical Behavior of Dogs With Separation Anxiety

When the owner leaves their sight, dogs with this disorder typically engage in one or more of the following behaviors:

  • vocalization (barking and whining): Observation of these dogs clearly indicates that the dogs are barking out of stress and distress, not boredom, or in response to outside noises or distractions.
  • destructiveness: These dogs may attempt to dig through doors, shred carpeting and flooring, and tear apart cushions, drapes, and other household furnishings.
  • inappropriate elimination: The affected dogs may urinate and defecate inside the house.
  • excessive salivation: Dogs may exhibit excessive panting and salivation. Barking, pacing, and similar strenuous activity often accompany these symptoms.
  • self-mutilation: Dogs may exhibit excessive chewing or licking of paws or tail.

How to Handle Mischief, Anxiety and Boredom

Some dogs get into mischief or develop self-mutilating behavior or other bad habits to cope with environments that don”t resemble their natural habitat and offer none of the normal distractions that would be available to them in the wild. Such is the price of domestication.

Given this, it makes sense to “get inside” your dog”s minds and see the world from her perspective.

  • Always rule out any underlying medical cause for the behavior. For example, dogs exhibiting excessive licking or chewing should be examined for skin disorders and similar problems.
  • Ask your vet about psychotropic medication (read the section below to find out more about medication and when it should be used).
  • Enroll in basic obedience training.
  • “Redefine” your interaction with your pet.
  • Start a behavior modification program.

Striking your pet or punishing him by withholding food or treats is never helpful. In fact, your disapproval will increase your pet”s anxiety and your extreme behavior will frighten him. If you feel things are out of control, ask your veterinarian for help.

The Stress Response Continuum

If you”re blessed with the dog who is satisfied with life as you deliver it, lucky you. If your dog is further to the right on the Response to Stress Continuum, consider ways to reduce stress, improve stimulation, and remove temptation to engage in behavior that has the potential to be labeled “problematic”:

  • Increase their daily physical exercise and your interaction with them.
  • Establish a routine that is predictable.
  • Improve the richness of their physical environment. Consider adding appropriate toys, music and other distractions to their environment.
  • Eliminate opportunities for mischief. Lock away garbage, clothing, shoes and other enticements to misbehavior.
  • Consider doggie daycare several days a week. The socialization and exercise may do wonders for your dog.

Consider visual and auditory stimulation for your dog in your absence. Music has documented benefits in many species. Given the low cost and ease of use, music CDs or tapes are probably worth a try for any pet left alone. There”s no harm in trying.

Medication for Dog Separation Anxiety

In severe cases, your veterinarian may prescribe calming medications. Most of us are familiar with the existence of drug therapy for humans to address stress and anxiety.

In 1998 a drug designed specifically for dog separation anxiety was approved. The drug, manufactured by Novartis, is called Clomicalm (clomipramine). Used in conjunction with a behavior modification program that teaches the dog to remain calm in the owner”s absence, the drug has proven effective in helping these dogs live a normal life.

Separation Anxiety Only in Dogs?

While separation anxiety is most evident in dogs, you may see symptoms of it in your other pets as well.