Separation Anxiety: A Guide to Help Your Dog
Have you ever come home to claw gouges on your window sills? Do your neighbors complain about annoying howling and barking? Or worse still, have you ever walked into your living room to find your furniture overturned and pillows ripped open? If so, the term “separation anxiety” might not be so new.
What is separation anxiety? According to Dr. Karen L. Overall in her book, Clinical Behavioral Medicine for Small Animals, separation anxiety is “A condition in which animals exhibit symptoms of anxiety or excessive distress when they are left alone.” It is merely a panic response and NOT related to spite, revenge, or anger. The first step in remedying the condition is to understand the causes:
- Loss of a loved one
- Changes in schedule or routine activities
- Shifting from one home to another, especially from a shelter
- Change of ownership
- New circumstances such as being left alone when your dog is used to being around People
Defining Signs and Symptoms – How to Identify Separation Anxiety
Below is a list of questions that you can use to determine if your dog is suffering from separation anxiety:
- Is your dog only destructive when you are not around?
- Does he/she get depressed, excited or anxious when you prepare to leave?
- Does your pup get frantic or particularly excited when they greet you?
- Have you noticed that your dog prefers to follow you when you’re at home?
- Does your dog lose his/her appetite when you leave?
- Do you find signs of digging, scratching, or chewing?
- Does your dog cry, howl, or bark excessively when you’re not around?
- Do you come home to find defecation or urination?
*Please Note: It is important to rule out other medical problems before diagnosing your dog for separation anxiety.
Your canine companion may show some of the symptoms highlighted above due to:
- Boredom – Lack of mental stimulation may leave your dog with nothing to do but bite a pillow or two (Idle paws can be the devil’s playground)
- Medical problems – Urinary incontinence may be attributed to a variety of medical issues such as neurological problems, Cushing’s disease, kidney disease, diabetes, bladder stones, hormone-related problems, and even old age.
- Juvenile destruction
- Urine/territory marking
- Incomplete house training
- Excitement or submissive urination
- Medication – Some medication may cause house soiling and frequent urination
What are the Best Solutions?
As highlighted earlier, your dog is not lashing out – the reaction is simply a way to cope with fear and solitude. Scolding or any other form of punishment should be avoided because your dog does not even realize the error in his actions. But we also understand that the “coping mechanisms” are still destructive, regardless of the intention. This is why we have compiled steps to remedy separation anxiety to protect your dog and your peace of mind – it’s a win-win situation.
Similar to other fear-related conditions, separation anxiety is treatable through counter-conditioning and desensitization. The latter involves briefly exposing your dog to the stimulus (cues that show them you are leaving) and gradually prolonging the time of exposure until the fear is eliminated as shown below:
- Follow your typical routine such as putting on your coat or getting your keys, but instead of leaving, sit down. Repeat this initial step until your dog remains calm.
- Follow you routine and step out of the door. After a few minutes or seconds, return and sit down. Just like the first step, repeat this activity until your pooch remains calm.
- Return immediately after closing the door behind you.
- Gradually increase the duration of your planned absences, making sure to monitor your dog’s reaction at each level.
- Before moving to the next step, always ensure that your dog does not show signs of anxiety.
Counter-conditioning involves teaching your four-legged friend new responses or conditional reflexes to an old stimulus. Below are possible steps to remedy separation anxiety through counter-conditioning:
- Make you departures quiet and calm.
- When your pup demands attention while you’re around, ignore them. Wait for them to calm down before yielding to their demands.
- Give them something to occupy their time when you are away such as a chew toy.
- Teach them a safety cue to signify your return. The cue may range from turning on the television or giving them a toy. This is applicable for short absences.
*Please Note: Behavioral modification therapy may worsen the symptoms of separation anxiety if applied incorrectly – consider consulting an expert dog trainer or veterinarian.
If the symptoms of separation anxiety are severe, your vet may prescribe pharmacologic treatment. They reduce anxiety and fear by targeting neurotransmitters such as GABA, dopamine, noradrenaline, and serotonin. They may include:
- Dietary supplements containing alpha-casozepin or L-tryptophan
- Synthetic dog pheromones administered through dog collars or vaporizers
According to ancient teachings and recent scientific evidence, cannabidiol (CBD) is a safe and promising remedy for a variety of anxiety disorders in humans and animals – through interaction with the body’s endocannabinoid system. CBD oil, which is derived from THC-free hemp, can be administered to your pup through tinctures or dog treats. Dog owners around the United States are increasingly using CBD oil as an all-natural remedy for separation anxiety and other therapeutic solutions.