Separation Anxiety

Also known as separation-related distress, this relates to problematic behaviours that only ever occur when a dog is separated from its owner. This separation can be when the owner goes to work and leaves the dog home alone, or simply when there's a physical barrier like a glass or flyscreen door.

What are the Symptoms?

The most common signs of anxiety are vocalisation (barking/howling), destructive behaviour, escaping, and home soiling (urine and/or faeces).

So needy.

Some dogs with separation anxiety also have general attachment issues where they won't leave their owner's side – often even following them into the bathroom! Hence the nickname, 'Velcro dogs'.

But my dog has another dog for company.

Separation anxiety is anxiety experienced from being separated from a human. Unfortunately, dogs are not seen as human substitutes and hence having another dog will not guarantee that one or both of them will not develop separation anxiety.

Should I get another dog?

This is a common suggestion as a treatment for separation anxiety. But as pointed out above, separation anxiety is associated with separation from an owner. Getting another dog doesn't bring that owner back and so this rarely solves the problem. Only get another dog if you want a second dog, because chances are it won't fix your current dog's separation anxiety.

How do I prevent it?

The key is starting young. When your dog is still a puppy, make sure they have time where they're on their own. Initially, begin with very short periods, e.g. while you're bringing in your rubbish bins or getting the newspaper. A few minutes before you leave, give your dog a longer-lasting food reward or chewy treat that will last for as long as you're away. Leave for a slightly longer period next time, and continue increasing this length of time over several days. The idea of this training is that your puppy will look forward to your departures because they'll get a tasty reward.

My dog has always been fine 'home alone'. Why has it started now?

Separation anxiety can start suddenly in response to changes to the household routine, such as owners returning to work after holidays or extended sick leave. The reason is that the dog has become accustomed to daily company, which suddenly stops. It can also be triggered by a house move, renovation, or even a change in family structure, e.g. a new baby arriving or a death in the family.

Give it time! She'll get used to being on her own.

Unfortunately, without proper treatment, separation anxiety usually worsens over time. So every time your dog has an anxious episode to do with your departure, they're likely to be more anxious the next time you leave.

Treatment

In the early stages of treating separation anxiety or until treatment is going well, it's recommended that you rarely leave your dog alone. This isn't terribly practical, but building up gradually is the only effective way to treat the problem without your dog's anxiety actually getting worse.

For starters, try feeding your dog with food release devices (e.g. Kongs stuffed with food, Buster Food Cubes, Busy Buddies, etc). Give these as you're getting ready to leave (before your dog gets anxious) and when departing. Some people even 'feed the chooks' by scattering the food in the backyard. The idea is that your dog isn't fed from a bowl anymore, but from the food release devices instead. This makes your dog's meals more interactive, and distracts them from your departure (and doesn't give them the opportunity to get anxious).

A raw meaty bone daily will keep them occupied too. Be sure to increase the number of bones they are getting over a couple weeks to avoid constipation.

Ensure your dog is getting plenty of exercise. For a dog with separation anxiety, walking twice daily for a minimum of 30 minutes is recommended. One of these walks should be before you depart in the morning. If possible some of this should be off-leash to provide both physical exercise as well as lots of sniffing and socialising opportunities (as long as you and your dog are comfortable with being off-lead!).

Rotate your dog's toys daily to provide novelty and variety. Some owners introduce a different toy for each day of the week.

To avoid the anxious anticipation of you leaving, ignore your dog 30 minutes before you leave and do not greet them until they have settled down when you arrive home.

Teach your dog to sit and stay, or relax at a distance from you when you are home. This may mean giving them a chewy food reward on their bed/mat that is initially right next to where you are sitting. Over a period of time, increase the distance between their bed and where you are sitting. This teaches your dog to relax when at a distance from you. After a period of time your dog may be able to lie on their bed in a separate room from you while enjoying a treat. Sometimes some dedicated 'sit and stay' training can be used. This is where you teach your dog using food rewards to first 'sit' on command. Then you take one small step backwards from your sitting dog and quickly return to them, giving them a food reward for staying in the one place. Over a period of weeks, you increase the distance between you and your dog, as well as the amount of time the two of you are apart.

For dogs with severe separation anxiety, or who don't respond well to the above treatment, there are other treatment options available. There are also short-term and long-term medications, as well as pheromones that can greatly assist dog separation anxiety.

If you'd like to know more, contact your veterinarian or a veterinary behaviourist (see http://www.deltasociety.com.au/behaviourists).