Recently, I saw a video of a Rottweiler that had a GoPro strapped to him while his guardians were away. He traveled around the house looking for them everywhere. He drank from the toilet a few times and howled from time-to-time. It is exactly what I would expect but not every dog feels that ‘comfortable’ being alone. That’s where separation anxiety comes in. Separation anxiety has been an interesting topic in the world of canine mental health. We talk about a dog’s companionship but when is it too much? When does it transition from a few whimpers to full-blown panic? Let’s look into this topic further.
Separation anxiety (SA) is triggered when a dog becomes distressed while separated from his/her guardian. According to Dr. Daniel Mills at the 2018 American Veterinary Medical Foundation Convention, “…about 20 percent of dogs are affected. Consistently across studies…15 percent of dogs aren’t responding to medication, and 15 percent aren’t responding to behavioral treatment.” This means 11+ million dogs in the world have some form of separation anxiety, while a 2+ million aren’t responding to chemical and another 2+ million behavioral intervention. When analyzing separation anxiety remember, it is not about disobedience, resentment, or vengeance. SA can be mild, moderate, or severe but all are based in fear. All involve distress behaviors which may include household destruction, destructive chewing, digging or scratching at doors or windows, howling, barking or whining, urination or defecation, and/or escape attempts that can result in self-injury.
Dogs are social creatures and prefer to not be alone. Behavior can deteriorate while in solitary confinement. In most cases, the development of separation anxiety is due to a significant life event such as a change in environment such as being left alone for the first time after an extended time off (summer vacation), change of guardian or family, change in schedule, change in family membership (new baby), or change in residence, to name a few.
Note: For severe cases (like any serious behavioral problem), consult with your veterinarian to rule out medical reasons for these behaviors and for possible medication intervention.
Management is very important for dogs with separation anxiety. Management is more than confinement. It is setting the dog up for success by changing circumstance, adjusting schedules, and making accommodations. To help alleviate some stress, consider taking your dog to work with you (if possible), utilize a friend or family-member, dog walker, or doggy day care. All of these options involve human interaction.
People ask me if crate training will help for dogs with separation anxiety. In my opinion, it’s dependent on the dog and situation. Crates are only used for confinement to prevent some distress behaviors, it is not cause of it. Most dogs will have certain thresholds that they can tolerate and it’s important to know what those are. Since SA is based in fear, working on obedience while they are in a state of stress, will not work. That being said, if crate training isn’t an option, consider a room with a baby gate. This will allow the dog to be confined and prevent injury. Consider playing music in the room. Classical music has been known to reduce stress for dogs in shelter environments. There are calming playlists, CDs, and downloadable options available to help reduces stress in dogs. Also, leave a recently worn t-shirt that smells like you. Dirty laundry may have a calming scent cue for the dog.
Boredom and excess energy are two of the most common reasons for behavioral problems with dogs. Exercise the mind and body through mental stimulation and enrichment. Exercise is an outstanding stress reducer. Consider vigorous off-leash aerobic activities to help with behavioral issues and is a great complement to any behavior modification program. As for mental stimulation,there are products that require your dog to eat their food out of puzzles. Puzzles take memory, skill, and manipulation, all of which help your dog find healthier, less-destructive ways to release pent-up energy. A great product that everyone should have is a KONG®. The KONG® is non-toxic, dishwasher-safe, durable rubber toy that can be stuffed, boiled, and helps express natural behaviors, like chewing, scavenging and working for food. This can be used for mental stimulation and/or during your behavioral modification program. Don’t want to spend a lot of money, for cheap DIY fun, check out this page for some great tips on enrichment ideas:
Other options include using products already available such as technology, plug-in pheromone diffusers, and national options. Technology has people and their pets more connected than ever. The market has been flooded with so many great products and applications (apps) to keep Fido entertained and connected. There are products like PetChatz® which is a Wi-Fi connected device with a two-way audio and video camera and treat dispenser. Products like iFetch, that are interactive automatic ball launchers. Apps like Skype™ can allow you to stay connected from any device. A great option to use is a diffuser. There are multiple plug-in pheromone diffusers on the market that help decrease stress levels. Most diffusers on the market mimic the pheromones released by nursing dogs to comfort their puppies. And, for those interested in more natural options, CBD or calming treats are available for consumption, while lavender can be diffused. CBD or Cannabidiol is natural component of hemp plants and help reduce stress. CBD treats do not contain THC, which is the psychoactive cannabinoid. Another option is the essential oil, lavender. Lavender is an essential oil that has been known to calm dogs.
As always, when working with your dog, (especially one with separation anxiety), work with a qualified, force-free dog trainer to work on a behavior modification program that works best for your dog and family.