1. Causes of separation anxiety in dogs
Separation anxiety in dogs refers to distress in dogs when they are unable to physically access their owners and, more often, refers to distress when left alone. Behaviors observed range from mild to severe, with actions including excessive barking and whining when left alone, drooling and panting, accidents in the home, eating through doors, and pulling off window treatments. Dogs often engage in this behavior at approximately 18 months-3 years of age, but it can occur in much younger dogs as well.
Genetics and Separation Anxiety
Like all behavior, genetics and the environment play an important and inseparable role in its development. It seems that in cases where the behavior is earlier onset (i.e., 4-6 months), genetics may play a larger role and the behavior is more difficult to treat. For dogs who engage in this behavior as an older adult, the environment likely plays a larger role and treatment is relatively straight forward. Breeds that are bred for bird hunting and working alongside a hunter are particularly at risk. Such breeds include Vizslas, Weimaraner, and German Shorthaired Pointers, to name a few. From my experience as a behaviorist, the Shih Tzu seems to be somewhat prone to separation anxiety as well as various hounds.
Your Dog’s Environment and Separation Anxiety
For dogs who engage in this behavior as an older adult, the environment likely plays a larger role and treatment is relatively straight forward. Environmentally, separation anxiety seems to be controlled by two variables: comfort and escape from the space they’re enclosed in. In short, your dog behaves anxiously in an attempt to seek comfort from you or another caregiver. The intensity of the behavior can easily be increased overtime as you make an attempt to comfort your panicked dog. When previously successful comfort attempts no longer work, you may find yourself working harder and harder to comfort your dog. It’s important to note that dogs may or may not be aware of this and it’s certainly not done “out of spite.”
When you’re away and if your dog is confined, which is sometimes necessary, they may behave in this way to get out of confinement. A lot of dogs are successful in their first few attempts which simply reinforces the panicky behavior and strengthens it over time. Again, if previously successful methods of escape no longer work, the behavior is strengthened.
2. Managing a Dog with Separation Anxiety
Living with a dog with severe separation anxiety requires good management, sometimes even a lifestyle change, as well as intense treatment. It’s important that dogs get plenty of exercise. Typically a normal walk around the block isn’t nearly sufficient for dogs with separation anxiety. You may have to get creative with providing exercise. Off leash hikes for well mannered dogs, bike leashes, swimming, or long jogs can be excellent sources of exercise. If time doesn’t permit, such activities can be done every other day and spaced in a manner that is more conducive to your busy schedule. Dogs with severe separation anxiety generally do better when they’re not left alone for days on end. Certainly a 10-12 hour work day, or even an 8-9 hour work day, 5 days per week would be very difficult for dogs with severe separation anxiety. In addition to providing heavy exercise and limiting time alone, it’s important to avoid long bouts of attention in the form of touching and petting. This may seem counterintuitive and can be difficult but is incredibly important in creating a stress-free environment for your dog.
3. Treatment for dogs with separation anxiety
For treatment, not only are genetics and the dog’s history important, the current environment is largely considered. As previously stated, dogs engage in separation anxiety in attempt to seek comfort or get closer physically to you. Simply put, they seek comfort from you. They may also be seeking escape from a confined space.
You may not be surprised by this straight forward rationale. However, if you’re like many owners, you may not understand that providing such comfort can be problematic. Sadly, comfort solves the problem in the short term, but unfortunately worsens your situation in the long run. In other words, providing comfort in the form of attention, petting, or even physical contact to a panicked dog only reinforces that panic and strengthens it in the future. Even entering the room or house can reinforce the panicky behavior. Complicating matters even more, a dog’s behavior often escalates if you don’t return. In extreme cases, self injury or extremely destructive behavior occurs. The same happens with escape related behavior. It may feel like an uphill battle with little room for hope! Don’t worry, you can help your beloved friend.
Classical and operant conditioning to treat separation anxiety
Instead of providing comfort directly, provide food dispensing toys to comfort, relieve stress, and teach more self-soothing behaviors. Like so many other owners, you may have tried food dispensing toys with little to no success. The key is to shape your dog’s behavior of eating while you’re away by teaching Fido to eat in your absence. During the first week or so, continue using your previous plan to contain Fido when you’re away. He won’t be ready to be left alone using the new treatment for at least a week or two, but I understand life gets in the way. It’s not exactly feasible to stay home for 7-14 days!
Setting up treatment for separation anxiety
To start treatment, he should be hungry while he’s unable to access you. In many cases, meal schedules are altered to encourage a hungry dog as you train. It’s important to note that many dogs don’t eat when they’re stressed and left alone so all food should be fed during training. It’s critical that Fido eventually eats in your absence. If meals need to be restricted or altered, a consult with your veterinarian should be scheduled before training.
Initial training for separation anxiety
When you begin treatment, the degree of being alone and the effort to eat should be low, while the food remains valuable. A leash could be used to tether your dog away from you in the same room. Start by tossing chicken to pair being away from you (even if only 5 feet) with something pleasant. Don’t worry if he is whining or crying, just keep feeding by tossing at a distance. Go about your routine and begin spacing out the chicken. You should start to see small windows of calmer behavior. When you do, begin rewarding more calm behavior by tossing the chicken. Providing attention will slow down your progress and create more problems so avoid getting too close, praising, or touching Fido. Simply toss the chicken at intervals as you continue getting farther and farther away. Eventually stay away for longer periods of time. The distance shouldn’t exceed a room or two away and the duration shouldn’t exceed 2-3 minutes. After a few days, you should see a noticeable change in his behavior.
Increasing difficulty for your dog during treatment
Next it’s time to begin leaving your dog in a different room and away from you. Remember, the food should be valuable, the effort to eat should be low, and the degree of being alone should be low. For example, Fido could fed his dinner with canned dog food in a master bathroom while his owner gets dressed and makes the bed in the adjacent master bedroom. The bathroom door should be closed or a baby gate should separate the rooms. In this case, Fido is given wet food (i.e., high value food) out of a bowl (i.e., effort is low) in an adjacent room (degree of being alone is low). Fido is unable to access his owner, but knows she is in an adjacent room.
Once he is consistently eating he’ll be left alone for longer periods of time and at greater distances. Fido might be fed in the bathroom while his owner begins preparing her dinner in the kitchen. If he continues to eat, the effort should be increased. The bowl of wet and dry dog food might be partially frozen prior to him being fed. This process slowly continues until your dog is fed meals out of at least partially frozen toys while you’re away. The food should then be exchanged with a treat and picked up upon your return.
The general idea is to pair your absence with something pleasant. In this case, food—-which just happens to be very effective in classical conditioning. In addition, be mindful to not reward any panicky behavior by returning to your dog if he is whining or crying. To some degree, you should avoid pushing the alone time so much that you find yourself unable to enter a room because he is panicking. It may take two weeks or more to teach him to eat out of frozen Kongs, at which point leaving for several hours should be tolerated relatively well. As his behavior improves, slowly increase the amount he is alone, increase the difficulty of eating (i.e., frozen Kongs vs food in a bowl), and decrease the value of the food (i.e., dry dog food moistened with water vs chicken).
Getting back to life with your anxious dog
Fido’s new feeding schedule will revolve around the times you leave the house. All of his meals will be fed in your absence and preferably out of frozen Kongs. Again, speak with your veterinarian to ensure he is getting adequate nutrition and on an appropriate schedule. The volume of food should not change, only the way in which it’s delivered.
It is important to pick up any uneaten food when you return home. In doing so, exchange the item with a high value treat. It’s critical to begin preventative resource guarding exercises simultaneously to avoid additional problem behaviors. High value treats should immediately be given as you pick up the stuffed toy or bowl of food. If your dog already guards food items, consult with a Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist (CAAB) prior to training. This treatment will need to be altered to accommodate those individual needs.
Along with good management, training can be incredibly helpful in treating even severe separation anxiety. For more personalized help, contact Beyond the Dog or your local CAAB to help your dog begin living a more relaxed, low stress life.