Separation Anxiety & Your Dog
Amy DeMuth, MS, BCBA, UW-AAB
As summer wraps up and it’s time for the kids to return to school and adults to migrate back out into society, our pups may not be as thrilled as we are. Separation anxiety can happen when a dog who is very attached to his people becomes dysregulated upon the exit or disappearance of those people.
Common signs of separation anxiety can be seen in the form of excessive barking, howling, destruction of items in the home and/or crate, and house soiling, and in some cases, vomiting. Signs that can be seen prior to being separated are clinginess, following owners around everywhere, distress (excessive panting, shaking, whining, tail tucked, ears down) when owners are out of sight, and increased anxiety when typical routines of exiting are learned (getting your car keys, packing a bag, etc).
For dogs who are having a difficult time with the transition to being alone, veterinarians can prescribe medications like benzodiazepines and trazadone to help calm the dog’s nerves and reduce anxiety.
Natural products such as Adaptil, Harmonease, L-theanine, alpha-casozepine, Heavenly Hound bars, and Solliquin may also prove beneficial but should be discussed with your veterinarian for approval and correct dosage.
It’s hard to see your dog going through such anxiety. It would be so much easier if all we had to do was say “Hey buddy, I’ll be home in 20. No need to worry”. We can say it… but that means nothing to our pups. They see us leave and the fear of us never returning is there. So where do we start? First, we want to create trust in our pups that we are coming back for them and us leaving is only temporary. Here are some suggestions to make things a little easier on our furry friend:
· Establish that trust. Leave the house briefly and return. This can be as simple as going outside, counting to 30 and coming back in. When behaviors start to decrease (over time) extend your departure for a little longer. This lets the dog know that we did leave, but hey, we came back!
· Create a safe space for your dog. By not allowing full access to the house or using a crate, dogs can feel more secure and have less of an opportunity to engage in destructive behaviors. The aftermath of anxiety-provoked destruction can not only be insanely stressful for the owner who just lost their possessions, but also dangerous for our dogs who could easily get hurt while engaging in the destruction. This can turn into us coming home and our reunion with the dog now leading to our anger and their fear of punishment… This snowballs into more anxiety for everyone.
· If crating or blocking off an area, make sure there is some form of safe enrichment.
o If your dog destroys plush toys, try switching to a Kong or Nylabone.
o If your dog tears up a bed, try using a crate mat or a towel. If your dog begins to bite the bars of the crate, switch to a different type of crate to decrease the likelihood of teeth being broken and jaws getting stuck.
o For puppies especially, a heartbeat pillow is a great idea. It mimics the sound and feel of a mother’s heartbeat and can prove to be very calming.
· Give your dog a treat (Kong filled with peanut butter, crunchy snacks, etc. to help distract from your departure).
· When leaving, don’t make a big deal of it. Avoid hugs and kisses and long goodbyes.
· When returning, again, don’t make a big deal of it. Walk in and allow them to come see you on the sofa or the floor.
· If you are going to be gone for an extended amount of time, have a dog walker, friend or relative come over and let the dog out.
Things to Remember on the Human Side:
The number one thing to remember is that our dogs should not be punished for behaviors that occur due to separation anxiety. For a dog who suffers from separation anxiety, it is a very trying time for them and they are in fight or flight mode. If behaviors occur and are punished minutes or hours later, the punishment will not match the behavior that it is anticipated to match. For example, the dog tears up a shoe at 1:00pm. You arrive home at 4:00pm and immediately yell at the dog. The dog now associates your arrival with being yelled at. It has nothing to do with the shoe. That behavior happened in the past.
Fun fact: In order for a behavior to be punished or reinforced, the punishment or reinforcement needs to occur within 1 to 3 seconds of that behavior occurring for it to affect the correct behavior. Think about getting up to get a drink because you are thirsty. Several things have to occur before you get that drink. You stand up, you walk, you get a cup, you go to the fridge, you get your drink. You are reinforced with no longer being thirsty. You are not reinforced for simply standing up. Likewise, you spill the drink you just got… you are not being punished because you stood up.
Our dogs are creatures of habit. When their usual routine is disrupted, it can be very stressful for them. If it is to a point where it is unmanageable and you fear the dog will seriously become injured, reach out to a local trainer or animal behaviorist to help. There may be something more going on that needs to be addressed.
I am always happy to offer suggestions and help in any way that I can. Feel free to reach out to me at firstname.lastname@example.org