When treating dogs with separation anxiety, different circumstances call for different treatments – what is applicable and acceptable for one household, may not be suitable for others. The type and intensity of the separation anxiety, the available space, household routine and the carer’s attitude are all factors that affect the decision on how to treat the problem.
Although separation anxiety doesn’t have a single explanation, we do have some solutions. Unfortunately, there is no single cure-all.
The over-arching principle to treatment is to stop repeating the circumstances, and to do it now! ‘Maybe’, ‘possibly later’, and ‘we’ll see how it goes’ are not acceptable. You are not going to solve the problem in the long term if your dog keeps experiencing bouts of distress and severe emotional experiences. The more it happens, the worse it becomes.
Therefore, you need to immediately find some way of preventing a recurrence, even if it is highly inconvenient and only acceptable in the short term. Sometimes, in extenuating circumstances, you may need to resort to short-term heavy-hitting medication to give yourself breathing space while the long-term treatment kicks in, but speak to a qualified Vet Behaviourist before heading straight to the meds.
The importance of human company and interactions
The most powerful solution to treating dogs with separation anxiety is human company. Owners often think their dog misses them exclusively but, in reality, most dogs are tarts. As long as someone, anyone, is around they are much more content. That’s often why dogs escape backyards and settle in the backyard of someone who is home.
Even the chance to ‘chat’ across the front fence with passers-by may be all that is required to reduce separation distress. Usually, though, we need to call on neighbours, family, friends, doggy day carers, walkers or vet practices to take the dog in while we are absent.
A second dog does not always work
Some people think that a lonely dog will be fine if it just has some extra canine company. Alas, this is not always the case. Getting a second dog is a good idea, but don’t expect it to solve the problem. It doesn’t always work, as the human company is what your dog really wants, and they may not even end up liking each other very much. Just like us humans, dogs can have like and dislike others within their own species, and you might even make the problem worse!
Let them inside!
If you can’t arrange human company, the next method to treating separation anxiety in dogs is to provide an environment in which the dog can relax when nobody is home. For many dogs this is achieved by having access to inside the house. It was this surprising observation that led me to start thinking about the pervasive attitude that dogs should be kept outside and I have many opinions against this mind-set!
I realise, however, that allowing dogs inside may be unacceptable due to cleanliness concerns, damage or house soiling for some people. All I can say to this is that it’s been a simple and successful solution for addressing separation anxiety in the numerous households I have worked with who have been prepared to try it.
Another revelation to solving separation distress is the power of the bed. Given access to the whole house when nobody is home, most dogs will choose to lie on their primary carer’s bed. This has been the key to solving quite a few cases where restricted access inside the home hasn’t worked.
Dogs often choose to lie on their carer’s car seat, armchair or clothing. The dirty linen basket sometimes gets raided and the carer returns to find highly focused destruction of socks, jocks or other intimate apparel. Clearly, smell can be the next best thing to the person. In an enclosed air space, such as a bedroom, a bit of scientific ‘aromatherapy’ like a Dog Appeasing Pheromone diffuser has also proved successful.
Although it is extremely rare, we occasionally strike lucky and come across a ‘relaxation signal’. This is an object – such as a shopping bag – that the dog has learnt to associate with the owner returning after only a short absence. It is strange but true that by using the relaxation signal before prolonged absences, such as carrying the shopping bag when you leave for work, has had long-term success. The dog stays fooled, presumably because they are left in a relaxed state and remain that way.
Change your routine when heading out
In the long term, you would ideally train the dog to learn to cope by desensitising them to the departure routine. This means changing your routine that you tend to do the same every day before you head out to work. From the moment you wake up your dog is watching you and is already anticipating your next move, working themselves up into a state of anxiety before you have even left.
A way to help is to change your routine each day. Go out to your car with your keys and bag and come back in, sit down on the couch, turn the TV on and then head out again, only to come back inside again and do something else before quietly departing for the final time with little fuss. That way your dog doesn’t get to know your every move and works them into a stressed state before you’ve even left them. If you pop back in and out they can start to be desensitised to the departure a bit. This does take a lot of time and patience, but it is worth a try.
When medication may be needed
When none of the aforementioned techniques are possible or have been successful, you may need to speak to your vet about medication. A registered veterinary practitioner can prescribe drugs that can reduce the separation distress for periods of human absence. The type of medication used depends upon whether or not there is any history of aggression by the dog, as some drugs have made dogs more aggressive.
It’s a good idea to test the medication and its dosage under controlled conditions before it is needed. At the first indication of distress, you need to be able to immediately return to comfort the dog.
There are other medications, such as antidepressants, that can also be used with the intention of helping the dog learn to cope with separation or noise phobia, which is a feature of some cases. This group of medications needs to be given daily for at least a couple of months.
Be careful not to reinforce anxious behaviour
Theoretically, increasing the independence of the highly attached dog should help in treating dogs with separation anxiety. However, increasing independence has not always solved the problem. Maybe it is because we really don’t understand the mechanism of attachment by dogs to people.
What I do know is that many owners actually like the attachment and often reinforce their dog’s anxiety. This type of relationship is so important to some carers that they are reluctant to change it. Every carer needs to come to terms with what they are prepared to do to reduce the suffering for their dog.
Provide mental & physical stimulation
A useful method of assessing and treating dogs with separation anxiety is to record as much of the behaviour as practical when nobody is home and also ensuring they have plenty of environmental enrichment.
Leaving behind the dog’s normal daily food, packed into a hollow rubber cone as a sticky mixture (or other suitable food, kibble or treats in an Aussie Dog Monster Eye Ball or slow release Aussie Dog Tucker Ball, will later show whether the dog is relaxed enough to eat. Using slow release food and treat toys also forms part of the environmental enrichment package that keeps dogs’ minds and bodies busy and can help to relax them when home alone which is an important tool for treating dogs with separation anxiety.
The most informative and cost-effective method of assessment is to record the sounds made by your dog, either with an audio recorder or video camera. This will provide objective evidence about the dog’s activities when nobody is home and enable you to formulate a plan.
This could be a reassuring or a devastating revelation. Either way, it will provide the necessary information so you can be realistic about what is going on. And that has to be helpful to all parties when treating dogs with separation anxiety.
Once you have identified what is going on with your dog in your absence, then you can be better armed to determine the best course of treatment and find a suitably qualified trainer to help.
About the Author: Dr Robert Holmes is a leading animal behaviourist with unique insight into the psychology of animals. A gentleman and a scholar, he can be found at animalbehaviour.com and providing expert commentary in Series One of Pooches at Play.