Does your dog go “mental” (not in a good way) every time you get ready to leave the house without him or her? Are you worried sick about how your dog feels whilst you are away? Read on to really understand what dog separation anxiety is, where it comes from and what (and what not) to do about it!
What is dog separation anxiety?
Separation anxiety is a very serious issue with hefty welfare implications for the dog and high levels of stress for humans too.
Historically, separation anxiety stems from a natural and evolutionary mechanism that exists in all social species (including humans). It serves to protect the young from the hazards of being left alone or straying too far and it keeps them safe and protected. Fear then, is a natural and normal element of life and as such it’s important not to think of separation anxiety as a disorder or an illness.
What are the signs of separation anxiety in dogs?
A dog with separation anxiety is experiencing panic and is overwhelmed by the fear and anxiety associated with panic. There are common behaviours that may indicate separation anxiety and they can vary but may include:
- barking & whining
- urination & defecation
- chewing & destroying objects
- repeated visual scanning
- self- mutilation
- scratching or digging at furniture, doors & windows
Can dog separation anxiety be cured?
There are many old fashioned attitudes surrounding separation anxiety that unfortunately many people still subscribe too. These include the notion that it is not treatable or even, the anxiety is caused by the owners or that the dog is being spiteful and even that it only affects rescue dogs or that it affects certain breeds more than others.
How long does dog separation anxiety last?
It’s true that there are no quick fixes but that is not the same as saying it can’t be fixed at all. Of course the process for helping these dogs is indeed a challenge that requires plenty of input from willing owners but they will find that there is available a systematic and incremental process that can be effective in reaching a resolution.
What to do for a dog who has separation anxiety?
When attempting to modify any behaviour it is paramount that the undesired behaviour is avoided (practice makes perfect). Desensitisation is by far the most effective tool we have in attempting to condition the dog to being alone. What does this mean?
Not leaving the dog alone is crucial when attempting to treat separation anxiety!
Not allowing the dog to experience separation anxiety will help the process favourably move towards resolution. The re-occurrence of stress should not be underestimated in its ability to prevent progress.
Don’t use food for dog anxiety treatment
We will read often that a way of addressing separation anxiety is to occupy the dog with a food toy while the owner is away. There are of course fantastic reasons for using food in dog training but experts these days do not consider it necessary and even note that using food in highly emotional situations can actually hinder the progress, particularly in the early stages of treating separation anxiety.
Dog separation anxiety training
With modern methods of treating separation anxiety we use predictability to our advantage. Instead of trying to uncouple the common ‘departure cues’ such as picking up keys and putting on coats and shoes, we train the dog to realise that these cues come to predict ‘safety’.
In other words we change the way the dog feels about you leaving!
These triggers will continue to indicate that an owner is leaving but (with desensitisation) the absences themselves are not scary. The picking up of the keys, the putting on of the coat and the changing of the shoes will always remain predictors despite attempts to trick the dog otherwise, but with training they come to predict a time alone from the owner that is both safe and under the threshold of emotional arousal.
Medication for anxious dogs
There is not much in the world of dogs (with the possible exception of nutrition) that raises temperatures quite so much as the use of medication in the treatment of behavioural issues. Conflict of opinion and opposing views are rampant with numerous strong beliefs, researched facts and bias on both sides. Of course, it is not ethical or professional for any dog trainer (or indeed any other non-veterinarian) to give advice or recommendations regarding the use of medication for any situation.
However, it is extremely useful for trainers and other dog professionals to be aware of what the client is considering and how it may or may not affect the separation anxiety training. Separation anxiety is a complex issue and it’s essential that owners, trainers and vets collaborate together in attempting to reach a resolution.
If your beloved dog is struggling with separation anxiety and you’d like to have a consultation, you can get in touch with the expert here.