By Erin McGee
Separation anxiety is a common behavioral issue in many dogs that is defined as the fear of being alone. It is estimated that 17% of dogs suffer from this condition.  Some studies estimate that number to be higher. Dogs are social animals, and as such are not accustomed to being left home alone. While many dogs have adapted and handle this well, some dogs do not. Separation anxiety can lead to other behavioral issues which can ultimately end in relinquishment of the dog to a shelter or even euthanasia.
How can you tell if your dog has separation anxiety? Often times the condition manifests itself as other behavioral issues such as destruction, chewing, urinating or defecating in the house, or excessive vocalization. Many owners may believe their dog is simply upset with them and getting revenge by chewing up their possessions or urinating on the floor. This is a misconception and many times a result of an underlying anxiety. The worst way to deal with these behaviors is by punishing the animal, instead a careful behavior modification approach should be used.
Behavior modification can take months to be effective and includes daily training, changes in owner routine, environmental enrichment, and in some cases behavior altering medications. Owners should establish a comfortable place for the animal, such as a crate or bed where the dog has positive experiences and praise. The dog can be trained to go to this comfort place on verbal command using treats placed on the bed or in the crate. This allows the owner to direct an anxious dog to a comfortable place to calm down.
Some studies have shown that separation anxiety is highly associated with hyper attachment to an owner.  The same studied showed multiple person households had a 76.5% more chance of a dog developing separation anxiety. Increasing a dog’s independence will help decrease anxiety when the dog is left alone. This can be done by making a dog stay in a separate room away from the owner while he or she is home. The time should be increased each time and the owner should not return to the room until the dog is in a calm state, and not vocalizing. It is best to start with short sessions and return before the dog becomes upset, working up to a half hour at a time.
Many owners will attempt to reassure the dog before leaving. The exact opposite should be done, however, since this actually reinforces the dog’s anxious behavior. Care should be taken to avoid drawing attention to the pet up to fifteen minutes before leaving the house. It is also important to remember that some tasks, such as grabbing keys or putting on shoes, may trigger a dog’s anxiety by anticipation of the owner leaving. An owner can help reduce the dog’s anxiety by performing these tasks multiple times a day without leaving. In some cases, especially in the beginning of behavior modification, it may be best if the owner can find a dog sitter or use a doggy day care until he or she is able to work up to extended periods of time away.
As with any condition, it is easier to prevent separation anxiety than to modify the behavior. Puppies should be properly socialized when young and have scheduled alone time to prevent over attachment to the owner. It is a good idea to get the puppy accustomed to a crate and to make it a positive place. Confining the puppy to it when home and away, will help ensure that he or she doesn’t associate it with the owner leaving. Owners can place the puppy in the crate for short periods of alone time and work up to longer times. The puppy should only be released from the crate when quiet and a desired behavior achieved. It can be tempting to let the puppy out to stop its crying, but this is only reinforcing the negative behavior and can lead to vocalizing in the crate when gone. The crate should never be used as punishment or a “time out” spot.
Other ways to help dogs cope with separation anxiety can be utilized along with behavior modification. Providing environmental enrichment such as Kong toys or puzzle toys can help give the dog a mental distraction. Frozen treats can last a longer period of time and keep dogs busy. Owners can also rotate toys every three to four days instead of buying new ones to provide a new source of enrichment.
Medical ways of management include anti-anxiety medications, pheromones, and supplements. It is important to rule out other medical conditions that may cause similar signs. A complete physical exam should be performed by your veterinarian. Anti-anxiety drugs that can be used in dogs include Clomipramine, a tricyclic antidepressant, and Fluoxetine, a serotonin reuptake inhibitor. These work on neurotransmitters in the brain to help eliminate anxious behavior . Other options include pheromone diffusers or collars used to have a calming effect on the animal. Supplements, such as Solliquin, can help facilitate normal behavior and exert a calming effect . It is essential to remember that medication must be combined with behavior modification for a successful outcome in separation anxiety cases.
Separation anxiety can be a frustrating behavior problem to treat. It is important to remember, however, that it is a relatively common problem that requires lots of patience and a multimodal approach to therapy. Combining pharmaceuticals and behavior modification often is required to achieve the best possible outcome. If your dog suffers from clinical signs that may be linked to separation anxiety, talk to your vet or a certified animal behaviorist to come up with a plan that can work for you.
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