Separation Anxiety in Dogs

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Separation anxiety in dogs can be a heart wrenching thing to see. Dogs that suffer from separation anxiety can not only do harm to your home, but more distressingly they can likely harm themselves. As their guardians and leaders it’s our job to know the behaviors and signs so that we can begin to promote a healthy and safe environment for our beloved pets.

Common Signs of Separation Anxiety

  • Excessive vocalization (high pitched barking and whining). [You can know a lot about what’s going on in your dog by the tonality of his barking.]
  • Urination and defecation (even with otherwise well house trained dogs).
  • Scratching at doors, windows or floors.
  • Destructive chewing on furniture or other objects.
  • Obsessively licking or biting themselves to the point of redness and hair loss (when it has been determined it’s not linked to allergies or other health problems).

Of course, the behaviors above occur when you leave your dog alone so you won’t be able to witness them unless you setup a camera. But here are some observations you can make that will aid you in diagnosing separation anxiety in your dog:

Diagnosing the Problem

  • The behavior occurs when he’s left alone for short or long periods of time.
  • He follows you from room to room whenever you’re home.
  • He greets you with extreme excitement and takes a long time to calm down into a relaxed state.
  • He reacts with excitement, depression or anxiety to your preparations to leave the house.

It’s not fully understood why some dogs suffer from separation anxiety and others don’t, but it’s important to realize that the destruction and house soiling that often occur with separation anxiety are part of a panic response to the separation of the pack (i.e. you leave the house). Contrary to what many people think, your dog isn’t trying to punish you for leaving him alone. Dog’s minds don’t and can’t work like that. Humans have a great propensity to anthropomorphize our pets and imagine what they are feeling or thinking. Most of the time none of it is true or even possible. Here are some common scenarios that might have created the separation anxiety:

Possible Causes

  • A traumatic event (from your dog’s viewpoint), such as time at a shelter or boarding kennel.
  • There is a change in the family’s routine or structure, or a loss of a family member or other pet.
  • A dog accustomed to constant human companionship is left alone for the first time.
  • A dog receives too much companionship and becomes emotionally dependent on the human (yes, for some dogs there is such a thing as too much togetherness and it’s very unhealthy).
  • A brain chemical imbalance might be a contributing factor.

Although this behavior is painful to see, the good news is that you have a lot of power in resolving this issue. Keep in mind that while you will see some results quickly once you change your energy and dynamic with your dog, this is a long term process that requires commitment by everyone in the household.

Tips for Treatment

  • Don’t make a big deal out of arrivals and departures. When you arrive home ignore your dog (no eye contact, no touching, no talking) for the first few minutes until he’s in a calm state of mind. Then and only then you can calmly pet him and go about your routine.
  • Don’t allow your dog to sleep in bed with you. When a dog sleeps at the same physical and psychological level as the humans, it only reinforces in his mind that he’s higher in the pack order and it provides too much unhealthy attention to an already unbalanced and insecure dog. The goal is to allow your dog to develop a sense of independence, security and to ultimately be a well balanced pack member.
  • Don’t provide constant attention, love and affection. Don’t be confused here because many people think I’m saying “don’t love your dog”. Of course that’s not the intention, but rather give affection at appropriate times and in a limited manner as you work on this process. We see some cases where the dog spends more time off the ground or in someone’s lap than he does on four paws. Dogs actually don’t need very much affection. It’s obviously a part of the pack social dynamic, but not in the amount and manner that most humans display it.  It’s perfectly normal to want to show affection and spend time with your dog, that’s why we have them after all, but the last thing you want to do to an unbalanced dog is to lavish him with affection, coddle him and project your feelings of sympathy for his plight into him. Again, dog’s minds don’t work like human minds and he’s NOT thinking about that stuff.  This constant display of affection only teaches an unbalanced dog to become more needy. Remember, this is the tough love part of the program and the most beneficial for your dog.
  • Do reward calm, submissive states of mind and never encourage excited behavior upon your arrival or departure.
  • Don’t give in to demands of attention from your dog. Whether he just sits and stares at you or barks and scratches at you for attention, these are the times to ignore him (no eye contact, no talking, no touching) for a few minutes until he settles down. Once settled and calm, call him over to you (now it’s on your terms) and give him a few moments of attention. This again rewards calm behavior, not anxiety, excitement or demanding behavior.
  • Don’t forget that dogs pick up on your body language and energy. So don’t create a departing ritual where you express your emotions of guilt and anxiety (such as coddling) because as a creature who’s an expert at reading energy and body language, he will pick up on your anxiety and that will only trigger him to  become anxious as well. Dogs are mirrors to the energy in the room.
  • Don’t use punishment. Your dog’s behaviors are a result of a panic response and he will not understand or correlate being punished for those behaviors.
  • Do set up a safe space in your home where your dog can be left alone with little chance of destruction to property or injury to himself. A crate may not be the best idea for dogs with severe separation anxiety as they can harm themselves trying to escape. I have seen dogs with separation anxiety chew through the bars on metal crates to escape.
  • Don’t let frustration win. This will most likely be a process requiring dedication and discipline. Energy is key here. The human should always exhibit a calm, confident energy, never anger or frustration.  This alone will help your dog because dogs will feel more secure around someone who exhibits the energy of a pack leader. I know this process can be infuriating and discouraging at times, but never show that energy to your dog. Dogs can’t process anger and it will only serve to demote you in the pack order.
  • Do consult with your veterinarian if you think there may be a chemical imbalance contributing to your dog’s separation anxiety. There are safe medications that may reduce his fear and anxiety such as Fluoxetine (Prozac) and Clomicalm.

The purpose of this article is to touch on the main points of separation anxiety behavior in dogs to help you recognize it in your dog.  Most times it requires professional guidance to resolve. Make no mistake, there is a very rich dynamic taking place between you and your dog that needs to be understood to properly tackle the issue. If you’re challenged with this type of behavior in your dog, feel free to give us a call so we can assist you in learning this dynamic and maintaining the proper status within your pack so that you can help your dog become a well balanced and independent pack member once again.

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