1) What exactly is separation anxiety? Separation anxiety in dogs is the fear of being away from their owners or left alone for any given amount of time. This fear of isolation often results in undesirable behavior. Separation anxiety is one of the most common causes of canine behavioral problems. It is the fear of the owners’ departing and the dog not having a companion for any given amount of time.
2) In what types of dogs and in what social environment/history do we see this condition?
Separation anxiety is usually seen in dogs that had little or no socialization when they were puppies. Dogs that may have been moved around a lot or rescued from a neglected situation or from abuse also tend to have this condition. Socialization is a huge factor in sep anxiety; if dogs are raised with exposure to changes from puppy-hood, and learn to adapt to different situations and people, their coping skills are much better than those of a dog that has not had to develop any social skills.
3) What factors seem to be the precipitating cause? One of the contributing factors to separation anxiety can be an abnormal predisposition to dependence. Traumatic events can also be a catalyst for sep anxiety. Removing a puppy from its mother and litter mates too early can be a cause as well. A sudden change of routine or environment, such as the death of the dog’s owner or a new baby entering the household, can cause sep anxiety.
4) What are some of the signs exhibited when a dog has SA?
Some dogs will only exhibit one or two behaviors relating to sep anxiety, while others engage in many behaviors. Usually it starts with pacing; then the dog might start following you around every where as you start your routine for departure. They might start whining and whimpering and become very mouthy. Some salivate and shake. Others can get aggressive with you as you start to leave by nipping or even in some cases growling at you. Usually, destructive behaviors such as chewing and ripping things apart to climax within 20-30 minutes of the owner’s departure; then, after some time, excessive barking and howling might occur. In some cases dogs will defecate or urinate in places that they have never done before, such as your bed. Some dogs will not eat until the owner returns. In rare cases dogs have been known to self-mutilate.
5) What type of treatments are available for SA? Medically, there are a few useful drugs my veterinarians have prescribed for my clients’ dogs. “Clomicalm” seems to have proven results. It is also prescribed for fear aggression. “Bu Spar” takes two weeks to become effective, but it also has had great results in aiding sep anxiety. The most effective behavioral treatment is desensitizing the dog to departures and routines of their owners.
6) What are some of the non-drug based therapies available? One is systematic desensitization to departures. Perform all the routine behaviors that you would normally do before you leave, but do not leave. Open and shut the door, then do something around the house; repeat this several times. Ignore the dog’s pacing and panting behaviors. You can also depart for very short periods of time, starting with 30 seconds and building up to 1 minute, and then return; the next time, leave for 2 minutes, and then gradually build up to an hour. You can also feed your dog only out of interactive toys, so that the dog has to work for all its food. There should be a reward connected with your leaving. Do not give your dog any attention or exuberant greetings when you come home. Say hello, pet a little, and then go about your business. Once the dog is calm, then you can greet with excitement. A common mistake many owners make is saying over and over again that “it’s okay, it’s okay”. This only reinforces the fear.
7) At what point does SA become a problem that we need to do something about? Sep Anxiety is a problem once the dog shows noticeable behavior changes or begins destructive behaviors. Start management immediately by doing socialization exercises when they are puppies and have your dog learn coping skills at an early age.
8) What behavioral methods do you recommend? Training and socialization exercises.
9) In what breeds do you most commonly see Sep Anxiety? I see it in any dogs that have not had to develop social skills or coping skills. It does not seem to be breed specific.
Susie Aga, Atlanta Dog Trainer
Susie Aga is a Certified Canine Behavior & Training Specialist and a member in good standing with the Association of Pet Dog Trainers. She has four rescue dogs and donates much of her time and services to Rescue Organizations. Susie hosts The Animal Hour Radio Show which can be heard through her site, and is Turner Brocasting’s Featured Pet Expert.