Separation anxiety can be a hard problem to diagnose and a difficult problem to treat. It’s hard to diagnose because so many owners believe that their dogs have separation anxiety when they don’t. It is difficult to treat because, when a dog actually has separation anxiety, the behavior is hard to stop.
What Is Separation Anxiety?
Separation anxiety is characterized by the following behaviors:
- A dog may bark and whine when the owner leaves;
- A dog may drool and defecate in the house when left alone;
- A dog may follow the owner from room to room and not let him or her out of their sight;
- A dog may destroy clothes and other objects associated with the owner when left alone;
- A dog may chew on himself or hurt himself in other ways when left alone;
- A dog may chew his way out of a crate when left alone — he may break his teeth;
- A dog will ignore other people in the house when the owner leaves.
- A dog will ignore food while the owner is gone.
As you can see, separation anxiety can be a very serious problem. In fact, it is an anxiety problem, just as humans have anxiety problems. In this case there is also a fixation on the owner.
Some people say that the dog is not afraid of being left alone. Instead, the dog is afraid of something happening to the owner when he or she is out of sight — and then, “what would happen to me (the dog)?”
The Confusion about Separation Anxiety
The confusion about separation anxiety comes from owners who have dogs who also bark and whine when they leave them at home.
Many dogs may be lonely and bored when they are left at home — and many dogs are left home each day by people who have to go to work. It’s unavoidable. Guilty owners feel bad when their dogs bark and whine. Some of these owners begin assuming that their dogs are suffering from separation anxiety.
The truth is that most of these dogs go to sleep while their owners are at work. They may chew on things out of mischievousness or because they don’t get enough exercise. But these are not the same things as separation anxiety.
Separation anxiety is a veterinary medical condition that often requires medication for treatment and, at the least, requires behavior modification.
If your dog stops barking and whining when someone else in the house and starts playing with him – not separation anxiety. If your dog forgets about you leaving when someone gives him some treats – not separation anxiety. Finally, if your dog goes about his business while you’re home and doesn’t need to be near you — not separation anxiety.
What Kind of Dogs Get Separation Anxiety?
In most cases dogs with separation anxiety are dogs that have been abused, dogs that have been abandoned, dogs from shelters, and dogs that have not been socialized as puppies. These are emotionally needy dogs and they invest themselves very deeply into their owners.
Dogs that have been well-socialized as puppies and dogs that have lived normal, well-adjusted lives do not usually have problems with separation anxiety. There can always be exceptions, but they are not the prime candidates for this problem.
If you meet a dog that has separation anxiety, you should not assume the dog has been abused in any way. A dog can be well-loved and care for all its life but, if it hasn’t been socialized as a puppy and been around a lot of strangers, the dog can act fearful and clingy.
Some people confuse this kind of behavior with the behavior of a dog that’s been abused. The dog is only scared of the situation and the strangers. It’s not showing signs of living in an abusive situation or having an abusive owner.
Curing Separation Anxiety
If your dog does have separation anxiety there are some ways to treat the problem. Your first stop should be to visit your vet. He or she can do a basic check-up on your dog to make sure there isn’t a physical problem.
If your vet rules out a physical problem he can talk to you about using a short-term medication, such as clomipramine or fluoxetine (Prozac) for your dog. Both of these drugs have FDA approval for treating separation anxiety in dogs. Give your dog the exact dose as prescribed and it may take a few weeks to see a change.
The purpose of the medication is not necessarily to medicate the problem, but to change your dog’s reactions enough that behavior modification can be effective. Talk to your vet about working with a good dog trainer or canine behavior therapist who can help your dog unlearn some of his fear responses.
Working on Separation Anxiety at Home
There are some things that you can do for your dog at home. It helps to identify some of the things that trigger your dog’s anxiety. These may be things like picking up your keys or your purse to leave the house.
Once you have identified them you can start picking up your keys at various times to show your dog that nothing bad (i.e., leaving the house) happens when you pick them up.
If going out the door is a trigger for your dog, practice going in and out the door so your dog can see that nothing bad happens when you go out the door for a minute. If starting the car sets your dog off, practice starting the car and coming right back in the house. Get your dog used to seeing you do your morning routine without actually going anywhere. Go somewhere for five minutes and come right back.
It also helps to reduce your dog’s anxiety if you can stay as calm and drama-free as possible when you leave the house. Don’t be sad or let your dog see that you are upset about leaving him alone. Instead, be cheery and happy. Try to act like everything is normal.
Cesar Explains How To Fix Separation Anxiety With Your Dog
You can also do some things to make the house calm and relaxing while you’re away. Leave the TV or radio on when your dog is home alone. Many dogs find the sound soothing and it may remind your dog of watching or listening with you.
DAP has been used successfully in some situations. DAP is Dog Appeasing Pheromones, a device that releases pheromones that are supposedly soothing to anxious dogs. These devices have been used in animal shelters and with dogs with fireworks phobias. They are said to be helpful for dogs with separation anxiety.
Put out a special treat that your dog likes that only comes out when you’re not home. This may give him something to look forward to when you leave the house.
Treating separation anxiety is not easy but there are things you can do to help your dog. Remember that medication and working with a good canine behavior therapist can do wonders.
What To Do About Your Dog’s Separation Anxiety
Some dogs do have separation anxiety, but the problem may not be as widespread as some owners think. It does seem to occur frequently with shelter dogs that have been passed from owner to owner.
However, do not mistake a dog that is sad to see you leave the house with true separation anxiety. If you think your dog has separation anxiety you should have him checked out by your veterinarian.
He or she may suggest that you work with a canine behavior consultant and prescribe some short-term medication for your dog while you work on changing your dog’s behavior.