One of the best things about owning a dog is being able to come back home to him after a long day at work. But for your dog, this joyful reunion is a lot more intense an experience than for you.
Dogs are social animals, especially the ones we own. We are their ‘pack’, so to speak, and their ‘pack leaders’. Plus, the simplest and most powerful fact – they love us to bits. So, when your dog doesn’t see you all day, he’s naturally out of his mind when you come back home.
But what’s been happening behind that? Returning to a scene from a disaster movie is no fun. When your dog has gone to town on the sofa, on the rubber mats, on every slipper that you forgot to put away. Or when the neighbours inform you that he’s been howling and scratching at the door all day.
All these symptoms come under a form of Separation anxiety. Almost 20 to 40% of all dogs who come to veterinarians suffer from it. In recent times, the term has become more and more known. Its prevalence can possibly be linked to how ‘urbanized’ our households have become these days, and how our routines in city life are so tightly regulated.
Unfortunately, our dogs cannot grasp how that works. As far as they’re concerned, we vanish and abandon them for a large part of the day every day, and they spend the entire time fretting and worrying till we get back. Which is neither good for your dog, nor for you (or your stuff).
What is Separation Anxiety?
Although the term itself is commonly used, actual separation anxiety is defined by veterinary behaviorists as a hyper-attachment that dogs develop, with one person, usually the owner or a family member. This is an unhealthy version of the normal dog-owner relationship.
As a consequence of separation anxiety, dogs go into panic mode when they can’t see their ‘person’ for even a few minutes. It can be as little as being one room away, when you’re in the bathroom or taking a shower, for example. But that can trigger your dog into having a canine anxiety attack because of your absence.
It is similar to another problem – Isolation Distress. Isolation distress is the milder form of separation anxiety, where the dog is not hyper-attached to one person and is comfortable as long as someone he trusts are around him. A pet sitter, family members, or friends, for example.
Separation anxiety is much harder for dogs to work through, though. In this situation the dog may well be with another person he loves, but the absence of his person of attachment causes him severe distress, which can then manifest in many ways.
What Does Separation Anxiety Look Like?
Symptoms of separation anxiety can manifest themselves as drooling, barking, whining, running frantically around the house, destroying items in the home, scratching at the walls, doors and floors, and attempting to escape from the crate, or room.
Some of these are easy enough to mistake for a dog who is simply worked up or excited. But very quickly, the anxiety and fear makes itself clear. It’s especially hard to convey to your dog that you want him to calm down, because he isn’t mentally capable in this moment of even responding to commands he’s trained to listen to.
Some dogs develop self-destructive behavior, with catastrophic consequences. It can start small, such as licking their paws or gnawing at their nails, but can progress very quickly when it develops into a nervous tic. This can end in your dog having bloody or chewed off nails, open wounds, or torn skin, if he frets at a particular point too long. These can quickly get infected and end up requiring medical attention.
Another commonly seen symptom is having more frequent ‘accidents’. Even if your dog is housebroken, he may suddenly turn into a dog who wets himself at the smallest provocation.
Your dog may suddenly have become more talkative, too. If you notice a sudden change in your dog’s vocalization, that may be one of the early signs of his dissatisfaction or growing anxiety, as well. Whining a lot during the night, growling or whining inside the house at corners or very subtly in a low voice throughout the day, or barking aggressively when you’re not in the room, can all be starting signs that your dog is developing a hyper-attachment.
Is All Separation Anxiety the Same?
To put it short: it isn’t. As mentioned, there is also the milder case of Isolation Distress to take into consideration.
But also, under separation anxiety, there are two distinct types: true separation anxiety, and simulated separation anxiety. Simulated separation anxiety is a learned behavior commonly seen in dogs who haven’t been trained well.
Such dogs pick up attention seeking habits, when they notice that behaving badly gets them more attention from their owners. They start acting out for the express purpose of getting a response from their owners. It’s a natural impulse to want to soothe a dog who is barking uncontrollably, or whining, or pacing nervously. But this ends up reinforcing his bad behaviour, when he gets the response that he wants.
This can lead to really ludicrous situations, such as the case of a dog from Utah called Sully, who kept faking being sick, to make his owners stay home with him. Sully developed this trick where he made sounds like choking or coughing, right about the time when his owners had to leave for work.
And while the ingenuity in his case is impressive, it stops being funny after days of missed work, and in other cases, a lot of very expensive veterinary investigations. The reassuring side is that this is a training problem more than a psychological one, unlike separation anxiety.
So What Dogs Are Likelier To Have Separation Anxiety?
While there are no direct causes for separation anxiety, there are factors that make it likelier. A study published from the Tufts University School of Veterinary Medicine Behavior Clinic took into account 200 dogs with separation anxiety and 200 control dogs, and showed that factors like neutering and living in a home with a single adult human made it likelier for a dog to develop separation anxiety, compared to a dog that had sex more frequently, was separated from its litter at an appropriate time, and had more pets around him, even when they weren’t dogs.
Some other factors have been noted to frequently pop up in these cases. These include:
- pathologic overattachment to the owner,
- Any form of negative or traumatic experience in early life, such as being separated too early from their mothers or litter,
- Traumatic experiences while alone,
- Any sudden change in family circumstances, such as shifting, new pets, or the addition or subtraction of a family member, like a death, a birth, or a child going off to college.
- Major changes in a family’s routine, like a member returning to work after a period of unemployment, or after a summer break
Some dogs may also have a genetic predisposition to develop the condition, because they have been bred to be socially dependent, devoted, and infantile. This puts them at a naturally higher risk to develop separation anxiety, when they have to spend time away from their ‘main’ person.
What Can I Do For My Dog?
To start with, the diagnosis itself must come from your vet. Separation anxiety is a complicated disorder that can have parallels with many diseases. It’s important to take your dog to the vet to rule these out, before you can proceed to the next step.
Second, it’s important to remember: do not punish your dog. Although the hyper-attachment your dog has developed needs to be fixed, screaming at your dog or punishing your dog disturbs his ability to react correctly even more.
Here are some things you should do when helping your dog to recover from separation anxiety:
Behavior modification: under the rather dry term ‘desensitization and counter-conditioning (DSCC)’, we have a terrific resource on hand. A series of behavior modifying exercises can help alter the environment and circumstances around your dog, with which you can start an effect from the ground up.
Help your dog with his isolation distress, by making sure he isn’t isolated. In this case, doggy daycares, pet sitters, doggy play centres, etc. are all good ways of provoking a change. You’ll suddenly eliminate the entire reason your dog was suffering from isolation at all. The change in pace forces your dog to ‘recalculate’ his routine, and helps you reprogram it.
It’s important to know: buying a new dog or another pet, or simply leaving your dog with a new family, isn’t going to help change his behavior. This is because a new pet or the same people around him in the same house won’t help reprogram his behavior as drastically.
The main point here is to make sure that your dog has a change of environment, and is never alone during the day. While this can be tedious to take care of in the beginning, it’s part of a process. After your dog recovers enough, he may eventually also be left alone.
Activity and routine modification form the backbone of your dog’s recovery. Implementing changes like the following, for example, help massively in creating a new environment for your dog-
- increasing exercise to reduce the dog’s energy level and provide the dog an opportunity to eliminate extra energy
- providing regular relaxation training to reduce anxiety (such as the sit-stay protocol)
- crate training, to teach the dog that the crate is a safe place during the owner’s absence. A crate can be made into a happy retreat with toys and blankets, preferably away from food, so that your dog has to go to and fro between the two points.
- reduce the dog’s excitement at owner’s departure and return (known technically as downplay departure). Your dog should not make a big deal of your leaving. This means that you will have to change your routine of leaving for work or school for a little while. But the change will be worth it.
- Giving a special toy when leaving to allow the dog to associate the owner’s departure with anticipation of pleasure (special toy);
- dissociate the cues of departure, such as picking up keys, putting on shoes, and turning off lights. Your dog will know your routine better than you, even the small things you do unconsciously. Removing these cues helps desensitize a dog to the owner’s departure.
- Use your weekends to reinforce the change and length of your absence, by leaving for multiple times for short periods (desensitization). This helps remove the mental block your dog may have, about you leaving for many hours each time.
- Make your arrivals and departures uneventful. They have to become an insignificant part of your day, so that your dog also stops marking them as significant turning points in his own day.
Incorporate Stressbusters in your Dog’s Routine
Dog Appeasing Pheromones, or DAP, are available in the form of collars that release pheromones. As long as your dog is wearing the collar, he receives a steady intake of these pheromones that put him in a calm and relaxed state. On an average, the commercially available collars last a month, and many are available with refills. There are no known side effects to using these collars for dogs, and as such, only positive reactions have been given.
Using white noise machines, or leaving white noise and/or nature sound playlists to play in the background, is a good way to add a dimension to your dog’s surroundings when you’re gone. Soothing instrumental music is also a good option. It’s important to note, though, that the soundtracks or music you choose does not irritate or agitate your dog even more.
Snuggle piles for dogs are also a good idea. Things like wrap shirts simulate being hugged or cuddled and are a good tool when dealing with dogs who demand constant physical contact. However, bear in mind that these can be used as tools to wean the dog off his habit. If not used correctly, they can reinforce the bad habit even more.
Dietary supplements using compounds like L-Theanine, extracted from tea, are another useful way of getting your dog to stay calm. While not medications, these are supplements with a quasi-medical effect, and so it is always better to start them after consulting your vet first.
Medication As Recourse
While on the topic, the next most effective tool in your arsenal against separation anxiety is anti-anxiety medication.
The use of Alprazolam is already widely known. Additionally, newer drugs like trazodone have also been used with good success rates. A study conducted with 56 dogs with anxiety disorders treated at a referral veterinary behavior clinic found that trazodone helped dogs with anxiety alone and in combination with other anti-anxiety drugs. I you think your dog could benefit from being put on anti-anxiety medication, it’s a good idea to discuss it with your vet.
It’s important to understand that all these steps are only that- steps. Helping a dog with separation anxiety recover from it and transition into a normal relationship requires a lot of time and patience from your side. But the pay-off is a dog who functions well independently, and has a healthy and happy mindset, instead of being a tortured and nervous wreck. And that is something every dog owner would always choose to work for.