Dogs that suffer from separation distress, also known as separation anxiety (SA), are coping the best they can. In their view, being left alone is a very scary proposition. One that makes them panic before the event (here is the anxiety piece) and during the event. It is difficult to know why dogs experience anxiety when alone, but one theory is that the dog has created a deep bond with a particular person or just has not learned how to self-sooth and cope with being alone.
Is it possible that your dog is just being mischievous, and he’d rather spend his alone time redecorating your home? Of course, it’s possible! But in order to ascertain what is going on with your dog, we must look at typical behaviors or symptoms that are present in dogs who suffer from SA. While every dog is an individual, and not all of the behaviors listed below will be always present, this trouble shooting list does give, in my opinion, a good roadmap to find out what is truly behind the dog’s behavior.
• Shadowing a person while at home. Unable to stay away from the company provided by a person.
• Exhibiting distress when they realize they might be left alone as they carefully observe departure cues. If there is something dogs do incredibly well is being observant of human behavior (even more so than any other primates!).
Besides keen observation, they are excellent at formulating some sort of “ flow chart” such as: when “x” takes place… “y” follows. They have learned the meaning of keys, running gear, folks brushing their teeth and kids’ lunches being prepared.
• Excessive barking and or howling – intermittent or for the duration of the time being left alone.
• Pacing: intermittent or for the duration of the time being left alone.
• Excessive salivation.
• Intent to reconnect with person thus the dog tries to use points of exits or entries such as doors or windows, in the process they can hurt themselves very badly, and of course, create destruction of these points of entry/exit.
• Unable to “relax” or settle.
• Mutilation (please do not crate your dog if he is not comfortable in a crate already – play it safe.)
• Excessive or frantic greeting displays when reunited.
It is also possible that while in the past a dog was okay with being left alone, the dog is suddenly experiencing distress when alone because something really scary took place when the dog was home alone. Classical associations are very powerful. And just like us humans, a dog’s brain tends to have a bias for “scary” stuff. I once worked with a terrier mix that exhibited most of the typical symptoms of full-blown SA. As I was conducting the Initial Consult, I realized that there might also be some noise sensitivity behind’s the dog’s anxious behavior. Upon further questioning, my client and I were able to pinpoint a series of events – the loud trash collection every Tuesday as the antecedent for the dog’s now panicky behaviors. If indeed noise sensitivity is part of the reason the dog is now not comfortable being left alone, this too has to be taken into consideration and resolved in some way so that the dog does not continue to experience the fearful behaviors that lead to the anxiety in the first place.
Treatment of Separation Anxiety:
This is one of those instances where management will play a very part in the resolution of the case. By management I mean that the dog should not experience ANY anxiety as a result of being alone. Which, of course, means that the dog cannot be left home alone for the duration of the behavior modification program. A program like this will depend on a few factors but one most salient factor is how severe is the SA in the dog.
In addition to not leaving the dog alone at any time, the dog must be taught how to self-soothe when left alone. This will require that the dog in treatment learns first not to shadow its owner at home. If he is not able to be alone while the person is in the home what are the chances it can be left completely alone without going into a panic attack? None!
If one does a search on the web about how to treat SA, the person will find references to desensitization of departure cues. While this is another vital component of the program it is often wrongly thought of as a “stand alone” procedure.
Remember that first and foremost, the dog being treated should not experience panic while being treated. As such, one of the first skills the dog has to learn then is to get busy with a food puzzle or a chew bone, and at the same time, tolerate being alone (in another room say) while not completely alone in the home. No “real” departures should take place at this point. This is one of the areas where it’s easy to push too hard or too soon, and can only make things worse for the dog. Slow is really the only way to play this “game” with the dog being the one signaling that he is ready for more advance stuff.
As you can imagine, being able to keenly observe a dog’s body language and understand how to interpret it is an indispensable tool and skill anyone wanting to help a dog should have. This is the only way we can infer the dog’s emotional state.
Management: how to do it well:
As I previously stated, managing so that the dog is never left alone is one big chunk that needs to be resolved. Patience, and lots of it, empathy and resources will go a long way. It is important also to be creative in finding ways and support so that the dog is not alone at home. Below are some of the options folks should consider.
• Day care (if there is a reputable one near your home and your dog enjoys other dogs).
• Pet sitter or friend that stays at home with your dog when you cannot.
• Taking the dog to work (this is ideal and I sure do wish more business would allow this).
• The car: many dogs with SA do tolerate stays in the car better than at home stays because they have learned that these are usually short. Now here is an important caveat: You need to be super mindful of the weather. Dogs die every year because they were left in a car in hot temperatures. Here is a simple guide to help you ascertain if it’s okay for your dog to stay in the car. Dogs should never be left in a car with temperatures above 70 degrees, as the temperature in the car are always higher than 70 degree atmospheric temperature. This applies to having the windows open, it is still too hot to safely leave your pup in your car for any length of time. I would also recommend not leaving your dog in the car when temperatures are in the high 50’s and lower. Use a well-suited garage structure that will protect your pup from too much heat or cold. Ideally you check on your dog to give him an opportunity to stretch out.
In my professional experience, true cases of separation anxiety do not resolve on their own- that is without a careful intervention of behavior modification and desensitization. This can only take place once the dog has learned strategies for self-soothing and coping. This is a very gradual and detail-laden process. In a best-case scenario, pet parents with dogs suffering from SA will work with a reward-based trainer that has experience with SA.
Whatever you do, please know that your dog is really suffering and not being dominant, stubborn, stupid and destroying your home and encouraging your neighbors to sue you because of his constant barking to plot against you. They are truly in emotional distressed. Using any form of correction or aversives will only make things worse because using these will add to your dog’s overall anxiety in the form of: … here it comes, the smack! I will be yelled at and that scares me!
All dogs deserve that we look at a given situation from their canine perspective but especially so any dog that is suffering from an emotional issue such as fear (or aggression the other side of fear) or anxiety.
Do know that more and more qualified trainers who have experience with SA are helping folks and their dogs remotely. Here is a fantastic website that does just that. www.malenademartini.com
In addition, I recommend the following book by Nicole Wilde: Don’t Leave Me! Step-by-Step Help for Your Dog’s Separation Anxiety. I suggest pet parents of dogs suffering from SA read this book so that they can better understand what is at stake. While not always possible, ideally the pet parent should be working with a pro. SA can be solved, but it is not for the inexperienced even when a desire to help is very strong.