by Jenny Turner
Many owners believe that separation anxiety is defined by destructive or annoying behaviours such as digging, barking or chewing. More often than not, those behaviours are associated with boredom. Separation anxiety is much more. It can most accurately be described as a combination of anxious behaviours taken to their extreme.
Dogs diagnosed with separation anxiety are likely to have a genetic predisposition for the disorder. However, separation anxiety can develop in response to an extremely traumatic event. Separation anxiety can occur not only when the owner is absent, but also when the owner is still in the house, but physically separated from the dog. Dogs can show anxiety when they are either totally alone, or if a specific person is absent, no matter who else may be with them.
Signs of true separation anxiety include pacing, excessive salivation, vocalisation, house soiling, vomiting, pre-departure anxiety (that is when the dog can sense that you’re about to leave and begins to exhibit anxious behaviour before you depart), or the dog may try to block the owner’s departure. Destructive behaviour is usually the biggest sign, but this is not just normal digging or chewing that can occur when the dog is bored, it is behaviour such as self mutilation or desperation to escape that is so acute it leads to injury. These behaviours are extreme and abnormal.
It is important to first rule out all other possible explanations before diagnosing and treating for separation anxiety. Other explanations include medical reasons, behaviour reasons such as boredom or poor housebreaking, destruction during play, external influences such as being tormented by passers-by or noise phobia.
No one treatment will fit every dog as each case will vary in intensity, however the first steps will do no further harm and are worth a try as a starting point.
Act like you are leaving, to the point just before the dog begins to get anxious, then don’t actually leave. This means grab your wallet and keys and walk towards the door, then go back and sit down on the lounge and reward your dog for being calm. The object is to get your dog to realise that just because you go through the motions, it doesn’t mean that you’re about to leave. Only when your dog is consistently calm during the first step, should you try the next step. This would be to go through the same motions as before then step out the door for only a few seconds, then come straight back in. Again reward your dog if he is calm. If he is not calm, then you’re moving too fast and you need to repeat the first step again. Do not make a fuss of the dog when you’re about to leave or when you return.
The only downfall with this kind of therapy is that it’s nearly impossible to stay with your dog every minute of the day. If you can find a way to take the dog with you everywhere you go, or can arrange for someone to be with your dog whenever you’re not at home, it will certainly make the retraining easier. If you must continue to leave your dog alone, confine them in a safe area where they can do no harm to themselves or your property.
As well as beginning some basic retraining as described above, it is essential to seek the advice of your vet, who may prescribe anti-anxiety medication and/or refer you to an animal behaviourist.