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How to manage separation anxiety for a peaceful life

What are the signs of separation anxiety?

Common signs of separation anxiety include barking or howling, destructive behaviours (like chewing or digging), weeing indoors and sometimes even vomiting and diarrhoea when the dog is left alone. Sometimes these behaviours can start when the dog suspects you’re going to leave – When he hears keys jingling or when you put on your coat or shoes.

Why does separation anxiety develop?

There are many theories on why these anxiety conditions develop, the most common explanations are:

  1. Increased domestication of dogs. Breeding and selecting for certain appearance and personality traits has led to increasingly affectionate and needy dogs who develop strong attachments to people, and do not cope well with being left alone.

  2. Lack of obedience training as a puppy

  3. Transitioning from an environment (like a kennel or breeder) with lots of dogs and people to only a few members of the family. Dogs think of people as their ‘pack’ and if they are used to a large pack, a small number of other dogs / people can make them feel unsafe and exposed.

  4. Being rewarded / unintended training. Fussing over a dog when they are anxious (such as hushing, reassuring or patting) is often misinterpreted by the dog as a reward for acting that way, increasing that behaviour in the future.

Diagnosis of separation anxiety?

Before separation anxiety can be managed, the diagnosis of separation anxiety first has to be made. Other diseases can be easily confused for anxiety.

For example, urinating inside can also be caused by urinary tract infections, panting excessively can be caused by pain and destructive behaviours can be caused by boredom or lack of physical exercise.

A visit to the vet is normally needed to diagnose separation anxiety

How do we manage separation anxiety?

There are 5 keys to managing separation anxiety:

1. Encourage independence & creating a safe environment:

Separation is a normal part of life for people and dogs. After all, you cannot bring your dog with you everywhere. Getting them used to being alone and calm is very important.

Having a ‘safe place’ such as a crate, blanket or bed can be useful in this process. Reward the dog only for calm and quiet behaviours and do not punish undesirable behaviours. For example, wait for your dog to sit quietly before you let them outside, before you place their feed bowl down or before you give them their favourite toy.

Reward them for the unexpected calm behaviours too – if they lay down at your feet, or go to their crate for a snooze – praise them and give them a treat.

If your dog is anxious and barking, do not yell at them or hit them. They often will not associate the punishment with their behaviours and it will only act to worsen the fear next time.

A dog bed or crate is a great investment!

2. Downplay departures and arrivals:

The stress of separation anxiety usually is triggered by certain cues that you are planning on leaving – this can be the keys jingling in your hands, putting on your shoes or picking up your bag. Giving a chew toy to your dog 30 minutes prior to departure can help distract them while you get yourself organised to leave.

Desensitising your dog to these cues can also help. Jingle your keys or put on your shoes at other times of the day without leaving – soon these signs will lose their meaning.

Prolonged or excited greetings when you get home can also exaggerate the signs of separation anxiety. When you arrive home, acknowledge the dog, but try not to reward their excited behaviour by making a big deal out of it. After you quietly greet your dog, ignore them until they settle down, then you can give them a more enthusiastic greeting.

3. Decrease their overall anxiety:

Similar to people, anxiety can be reduced by small lifestyle changes. Bringing your dog on a regular long and brisk walk can help release feel-good endorphins and reduce their overall stress levels. Pheromones (such as adaptil collars) can also help.

4. Pharmacological therapies:

Sometimes certain prescription drugs are needed to complement training.

5. Prevention:

Prevention is better than cure! It is important to teach independence to puppies early, give dogs a consistent routine, and provide time alone on the days when you are home. Puppy obedience training has also been shown to reduce anxiety related disorders in adult dogs.

References: VIN (veterinary information network) - Behavioral Therapy for Separation Anxiety in Dogs--An Evidence Based Approach I & II

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