Separation anxiety in dogs typically includes one or more signs of destructiveness, excessive vocalization and house soiling when the pet is separated from the owner. These signs occur immediately following departure and may be most dramatic following unexpected or unusual departures. Since the behavior occurs almost exclusively when the pet is alone, there is nothing to stop them from creating a mess every time the owner leaves. Often the dog will display signs of anxiety when he sees cues that the owner is about to leave (i.e., the owner gets ready for work, gets the car keys, takes a shower, makes breakfast etc.).
Separation anxiety problems can be precipitated by moving to a new home, loss of another pet in the home, or by prolonged separation from the owner. Prior to these events, the dog may have shown no signs of separation anxiety. If the pet is hyperattached to the owner this can also be a risk factor. Hyperattachment is manifest by the pet following the owner from room to room and/or constantly wanting to be held. Senior pets are predisposed to separation anxiety as they can develop cognitive changes associated with aging.
Separation Anxiety Vs. Boredom
Pets that are extremely anxious can be very destructive but so can pets that are bored. You may come home to find the front door scratched up or the sofa reduced to a pile of stuffing. The question becomes was this destructive behavior due to separation or boredom or what is called barrier frustration, in which they become destructive and attempt escape simply in response to being confined.
For a true diagnosis of separation anxiety there needs to be fear or anxiety associated with separation, not simply destruction and other undesirable behaviors. The behavior occurs only when the pet is left alone or anticipates being left alone. Vocalization during the episode tends to be high pitched and in repeated yips. (This is a regression to a young puppy’s distress call in the time of separation from its mother.) The episode begins in the first 30 minutes from the time the owner leaves.
Not all of these signs need to be present to make a diagnosis of separation anxiety but these points should be considered in order to best treat the pet and the situation.
Treatment is primarily behavior modification with medications used only as needed.
Step One: Discourage Hyperattachment
Dogs will often solicit attention from their owners when they return. Resist the temptation of petting the dog with separation anxiety when approached for play or contact. Be aloof when greeted upon arriving home. Only innitiate contact with the dog when the dog is showing a calm and relaxed demeanor.
If possible, have other people in the home besides the primary caretaker provide services for the dog. This will help the pet be less dependent on one person.
Encourage independent play by using interactive toys that do not require human participation (like a Kong toy containing a food reward).
Step Two: Relaxation During Separation
It is also important to create a positive environment while you are gone. There are several ways to achieve this.
Provide a special treat (food, toy or both) only available when the pet is left alone. Do not forget to remove the item when you return home.
Leave the TV or radio on when you leave. While the dog will not be fooled into thinking that someone is home it can aid in creating a sense of calm and relaxation.
The D.A.P. (dog appeasement pheromone) diffuser is a plug-in device that releases a specific pheromone normally secreted by mother dogs to their puppies as a message telling them to relax and that everything is all right. These can be plugged in the home to help the pet relax.
Step Three: Desensitization To Separation
Dogs readily learn the cues that indicate that the owner will be leaving the house soon. It is helpful to uncouple these cues from the actual leaving. At random times, the owner can go through some of the rituals of leaving: put on cologne, shower, wear work clothes, jingle the car keys, even go outside and lock the door – but then come in again. This helps the dog to remain relaxed when he hears or sees these cues at the times when the owner is actually leaving. It is important to repeat these cues so many times daily that they become meaningless to the dog.
Do not punish the dog for behavior demonstrated in fear.
This usually only leads to more fear or more anxiety. Second, unless the animal is actually in the process of performing the behavior you wish to discourage, the dog will not understand what behavior is being punished.
Drugs can be used to as an aid while behavioral modifications are being implemented. They are not beneficial as a solo means to help you pet with separation anxiety. Currently clomipramine and fluoxetine are the only FDA-approved drugs for the treatment of separation anxiety in the dog. The problem with these medications is that, while positive effects can be seen in the first week of use, they require 4-6 weeks to achieve maximum effect. Because of this, they are often combined with a shorter-acting substance such as trazadone or alprazolam to achieve rapid results. Speak with your veterinarian about the difference choices and which one is right for your pet.