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Separation Anxiety in Dogs

This is an excerpt from an article in Clinicians Brief magazine.

Recent Studies have shown that 14 to 17% of dogs suffer from separation anxiety and 30% of dogs are surrendered to animal control as a result of perceived behavior problems.

Separation Anxiety is the occurrence of distress when the dog is separated from the person or persons to whom it is attached. Common symptoms are: destruction, indoor soiling, and vocalization. Other signs are: self-mutilation, excessive salivation, pacing, whining, and inappetence.

A good physical exam by your veterinarian and laboratory work should always be the first steps since medical issues often contributes to behavioral changes.

Diagnosis is based on the pet's history; video or audiotapes are also useful to confirm the behavior of the pet when he or she is alone. Often within 10 to 15 minutes of the owner's departure, the dog starts its distress behavior.

Treatment plans have 7 components:

  1. Independence Training: Many dogs with separation anxiety remain close to the owner when the owner is home. Treatment is aimed at teaching the dog how to be more independent by decreasing following behavior as well as how to relax and settle on command. Ignore attention seeking behaviors and give the dog attention only for being calm and quiet.
  2. Extinction of response to departure cues: An owner's routine before leaving often signals to the dog that departure is imminent and many dogs begin to show signs of anxiety when this routine begins. The goal is: present these signal 1 to 3 times a day when they are not associated with departure. For example, get your keys, walk around the house and then put the keys down without ever leaving. The goal hopefully is teaching the dog that keys don't always signal departure.
  3. Counterconditioning to departure: Provide the dog a pleasurable, alternative task before leaving; this hopefully would change the underlying emotional state from anxiety to relaxation. Often this is accomplished by offering the dog a food toy that has been stuffed with treats. Give this treat or toy at time other than departures otherwise it too may become a signal of departure
  4. Changing departure and return protocols: Keep departures and returns as low-key and calm as possible. Ignore the pet 10 to 15 minutes before departure and on return. On return, interact with the dog only when it calms down although it's ok to let them out to do their business.
  5. Training departures : these are only begun after the dog no longer responds to departure cues with anxiety. We shall discuss this at another time.
  6. Pheromones: Pheromone products (CEVA animal health) can be useful in some dogs to help diminish anxiety.
  7. Finally Medication: this is administered after consulting your veterinarian.