Friday, September 28, 2012

Rehabilitating Separation Anxiety

Below is some general information on separation anxiety and its treatment.  Each dog is different so it is a good idea for you to get advice directly from a dog behaviorist or behavior consultant. However you may be able to implement some of the general tips below if your dog's separation anxiety is not severe.  For this article, I will use "she" to refer to the dog's gender.

First off I want to mention that just because your dog digs, chews, barks and potties inappropriately in the house does not necessarily mean that your dog has separation anxiety.  These may be symptoms of a bored adolescent dog that is not house trained.

True separation anxiety is when a dog panics when her owner leaves.  Dogs may display a variety of symptoms, including pacing, panting, drooling, shaking, non-stop barking or howling, destructiveness, loss of appetite, and even self-mutilation.  It's a good idea to video tape your dog when she is home alone, so you can assess her behavior and body language.

Some dogs have "isolation distress" rather than separation anxiety, which means that they are not necessarily hyper-attached to their owners, but rather they don't like to be left alone (without company).  These dogs might be fine if they have some other companion with them, whether it's another human, a dog housemate or a cat.

Other dogs have low "frustration tolerance," meaning they are used to getting what they want when they want.  They may whine and bark when you leave the house, but they eventually settle down and do not necessarily display severe or other stress signals.

Assuming your dog has separation anxiety, below are some steps you can take.

One of the things you can do right away when you are home, is not let your dog follow you around everywhere.  Close the door when you go to the bathroom and don't make eye contact or talk to her when you leave or return to the room.  Do the same when you go to your bedroom or garage or laundry room for short periods of time.  Your dog may whine a little at first, but she should start to get used to you being out of her sight for short periods.

Dogs with separation anxiety will pick up on cues that you are about to leave the house, including the alarm clock, your getting dressed a certain way, picking up car keys or purse, the car engine starting, your departure through a certain door, etc.  It's a good idea to identify all these cues/triggers and make a list.  You can desensitize your dog to those triggers, or else you can eliminate them.

An example of desensitizing would be if you have your car keys hanging on your pants all the time so she hears it jingling all the time when you're home; or you can pick up the keys, walk out the door and come right back in - repeat this process often so that your dog realizes that the sound of the keys doesn't necessarily mean you're leaving for a long time.

The alternative is to eliminate the cues, at least for a while.  An example of this would be: Park your car a little ways down the street so your dog doesn't hear the engine start; go quietly out the back door when your dog is not paying attention to you, etc.

It's a good idea to keep departures and returns low key - not too much eye contact, not a lot of petting or talking for the first several minutes, even if your dog is very excited to see you when you come home.  Same applies for departures.

You can also record a background soundtrack and play it on a loop on your stereo.  For example, a soundtrack of you and your family talking to each other, kitchen cabinet doors being slammed shut, microwave going off, TV in background, etc.  This will help in the beginning stages when you are leaving the house for short periods of time.

In order to eliminate your dog's separation anxiety you will want to implement a systematic behavior modification program.  It will require that you leave your dog for only short periods of time to begin with.  For example, you would start by leaving her for 3 minutes (with something delicious to eat such as raw bone or stuffed Kong with real meat, and not just kibble - see Food Toys section below).  When you come back after 3 minutes, take away the bone/food (the idea being that she only gets this good stuff when you leave).  It would be a good idea to video tape everything to make sure she is not panicking.  (If panicking, shorten time to even 1 minute.)

After dozens of repetitions of leaving her for 3 minutes and her being okay with it, increase the time to 5-6 minutes.  If that goes well for multiple times, increase to 8 minutes.  If at any time the video shows that she is panicking, then you will have to cut down the length of time you leave her alone, and slowly increase the duration over time.  Repeat the process until you can leave her for 15 minutes, 20 minutes, 30 minutes, an hour, etc.  It seems like this would take forever, but the beginning stages are the hardest (few minutes at a time), and expanding the duration later should be easier (e.g. 2 hours to 3 hours).

Ideally you will do many repetitions each day, rather than just one per day.

The above program requires that you do not leave your dog for more time than she is capable of handling.  If you and your family members work long hours from Monday to Friday, then you might work on the above programs on nights and weekends only, and manage the situation in other ways during the week. (See below for ideas.)

Below is a blog piece I wrote on Enrichment Food Toys such as the Kong.  It can facilitate the behavior modification if you use food toys with high value food.  You can also feed your dog's entire meals in food toys - just mix the kibble with something wet like canned food or peanut butter:

Here is my blog piece on Training Treats (and Raw Bones).  I recommend high value food for training and behavior modification:

(Note on the Kong if never used before: At first it might be best to make it easy for your dog to get the food out, rather than stuffing it too hard or freezing it. You don't want your dog to give up on it too easily.  Try the Kong while you are at home first, to see what level of difficulty she can handle.  Increase the difficulty with freezing or different consistency food as she gets used to it.)

It's a good idea to show your dog the distinction between her "safe" alone time (short periods under threshold) versus "not so safe" alone time (longer periods over threshold), i.e. you have to leave your dog at home for a long time because you don't have a choice.  You can show your dog the difference by having different cues.

For example, you may crate your dog either way, but when you are working on behavior modification, you can play your custom background noise soundtrack and leave your dog with a food toy.  When you are not doing behavior modification and you have to leave her for a long time, then you might just play regular music, and not give a food toy.  This will allow you to keep your new departure cues "clean" so your dog associates them with positive emotions.

As you probably know it's also good to give your dog regular exercise, especially before leaving her at home.  Not only will exercise make her more tired, but exercise also releases endorphins and reduces stress.  If physical exercise is not possible for whatever reason, you can tire her out with obedience training, clicker training and shaping exercises, etc.

A great activity for dogs with separation anxiety is nose work.  Nose work is an activity where a dog has to use his sense of smell in order to find his rewards, be it food, toy or a target odor.  The techniques are similar to those used for detection dog training.  In order for a dog to hunt, he has to work independently of his handler (the dog owner), which helps to build his confidence.  To read more about our nose work classes, click here

If your dog is not attached to you in particular and is okay as long as she is with any person, then other temporary management options include:
  • Dog daycare
  • Day boarding at a vet clinic
  • House-sitter - for example, there may be college students who are looking for a quiet place to study
  • Leave your dog with a friend who works at home or is a stay-at home mom
You might also try using products like Comfort Zone DAP, Thundershirt and Rescue Remedy to help keep your dog calm.  This would be good to use in combination with a behavior modification program and management.  If your dog is on anxiety medication, these natural remedies can be used as you wean your dog off of her medication.  Below are the links:

If your dog has severe anxiety, i.e. she is injuring herself, then medication may be a helpful option in combination with behavior modification and management.  Talk to your vet about it.  It's a good idea to make sure any medication is a true anxiety medicine and not just a sedative like Ace Promazine.  Below is an article explaining why:

If your dog suddenly developed what appears like separation anxiety when she never had this problem in the past, then it's possible the anxiety was caused by a sudden traumatic event like a burglar breaking into your house, or a really bad thunderstorm while your dog was home alone.

There are a few good books that address separation anxiety:  I'll Be Home Soon by Patricia McConnell and Don't Leave Me by Nicole Wilde.  They are both very good and I would recommend one or both.  I'll Be Home Soon is a shorter guide book, and Don't Leave Me is a full length book.  They are available on or from the respective author's website.

I hope all this information helps.  Unfortunately there isn't an easy solution for treating separation anxiety.  Again, I want to emphasize that the information above is general.  Each dog and case are different, so please consult with a professional if you need help with your dog.


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