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Separation Anxiety in Dogs

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Dogs with separation anxiety are usually overly attached to or dependent on one or more family members.  They become extremely anxious and show distress behaviors of vocalization, destruction, house-soiling, or inactivity when separated from the owners.

Many of these dogs begin to show signs of separation anxiety as the owners prepare to leave.  They often salivate or pant profusely, vocalize, eliminate, refuse to eat, and become destructive.  Some dogs simply become quiet and withdrawn.  Most dogs with separation anxiety also tend to become overly excited when the owner returns.

Because the underlying problem is anxiety, treatment includes reducing all forms of anxiety before the owner leaves, at the time of departure, and when the owner returns.  In addition, the dog must learn to accept progressively longer periods of inattention and separation while the owners are at home.

During initial retraining, it’s usually best to find an alternative to leaving the dog alone while you are gone, to prevent damage and vocalization problems.  Retraining involves developing a routine so that your dog settles down and relaxes before it is rewarded with attention.  In other words, use the very rewards that your dog is seeking to teach independent behavior and relaxed times away from you.  Until you can get your dog to settle and relax without attention when you are at home, your dog is unlikely to settle when you leave.

Formal retraining should be directed at teaching your friend to remain on its mat or dog bed, or in its dog crate or den area for progressively longer periods of time.  During these training exercises, try to keep the dog as calm and relaxed as possible.

Activities that you consistently do before you leave (eg, jangling car keys, grabbing a purse, opening the garage door) signal or cue the dog that you’ll be leaving soon.  Anxiety can be greatly reduced by preventing the dog from hearing or seeing any of these cues and by training the dog that these cues no longer predict a departure.  One way to do this is to go through your pre-departure routine, but then remain at home.  This is especially good to do when the dog is relaxed or otherwise occupied, so that the dog will learn that the usual cues are no longer a signal that you are necessarily going to leave.

As you depart, your dog should be kept busy and occupied, and preferably where it cannot see you, so that there is little or no anxiety.  Giving special food treats in a kong or dog bones that have been saved for departures (and mock departure training sessions) can help keep the dog distracted and busy while you leave.  Be certain that the distraction devices last as long as possible so that the dog continues to be occupied until you have left and been gone for a while.

Although medications can be useful during initial departure training, they do not improve separation anxiety.  A solid program of retraining is needed to help your dog become more independent and well behaved when away from you.

Q&A

What is separation anxiety in dogs?

Dogs with separation anxiety are usually overly attached to or dependent on one or more family members, so that the dog becomes extremely anxious and distressed when these persons leave.  This distress often takes the form of vocalization, destruction, house-soiling, or inactivity.

This sometimes happens before we even leave – how does the dog know?

Activities that you consistently do before you leave (eg, jangling car keys, grabbing a purse, opening the garage door) signal or cue the dog that you’ll be leaving soon. 

How is this condition treated?

Treatment involves behavioral training to reduce anxiety, with the goal of getting your dog to gradually accept progressively longer periods of inattention and separation.  Your veterinarian can set you up with a training program, or recommend a behavioral specialist. 

Can medications help?

Although medications can be useful during initial departure training, they are not a cure and do not improve separation anxiety. 

Credit: Reviewed by Amy I Attas, V.M.D.
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