Separation Anxiety and Isolation Distress
Separation anxiety and isolation distress happen each time a dog is left alone and only when a dog is left alone. Dogs with this behavior often show anxiety in other situations, such as noise phobias or generalized anxiety. Like all forms of anxiety, dogs range from mild to severe in their reactions.
Isolation distress describes a dog that displays anxiety or panic when left alone, but doesn't show that behavior when another person is present. True separation anxiety, however, is when a dog displays this behavior only when a certain person or people leave, regardless of who else is at home.
A dog that chews up a shoe and has an accident in doors is not automatically displaying signs of anxiety. If they also have accidents and chew things when people are home, or they don't do this every time they are left alone, it's likely not separation-related.
If a dog is experiencing a high level of anxiety when left alone, it's easy to feel overwhelmed and even angry over the destruction you find when you get home. Try to remember that their behavior is a reflection of the level of stress they experience when you leave, not disobedience or retaliation.
LEARNING TO STAY ALONE
Each dog is an individual and the way to help them overcome their anxiety varies depending on their needs. This is a general guide for how to determine what your dog needs to feel comfortable staying alone.
Using a smartphone or wireless camera is a useful tool to help you track:
What your dog does when you leave
When the behavior starts
When/if the behavior stops
The most relaxed behavior you see
Dogs with mild separation anxiety may vocalize (bark, whine, or howl), pace, or scratch at the door for a brief time after you leave, but will eventually settle and sleep.
CONFINEMENT TRAINING. First, make sure your dog can be comfortably separated from you even when you’re home. See Confinement Training for more.
What about crate training? If your dog is not already comfortable in a crate when alone, crate training is NOT recommended for separation anxiety. This type of confinement can cause a dog to panic and even injure themselves, trying to escape. MORNING WALK. Take your dog on a long walk in the morning, at least 30 minutes. Allow your dog to stop and sniff along the way. The goal is to tire the mind and body, not just exercise. If walks aren’t an option, use this time for play or the mental enrichment ideas, below.
Can I just tire him out with fetch? High-impact exercise is fun, but also causes a spike in stress hormones like adrenaline and cortisol. I recommend not playing these games right before you leave your dog alone. Plan for at least the same amount of time for low-impact exercise like a walk with plenty of sniffing, or mental enrichment games at the end of the session, or save the high-impact games for the evening, when you don’t have to leave the house.
MENTAL ENRICHMENT. Physical exercise isn’t the only way to burn energy. Activities that take concentration are just as important. Some ideas include:
Feed all meals from puzzle toys
Scatter their meal throughout the house or yard
Teach a new trick
Practice training exercises like “stay”
Allow plenty of time to sniff on walks
GOODBYE TREAT. These treats keep your dog busy after you leave, and create positive feelings about your departure. These treats must meet two criteria:
High-value - something the dog really likes and only gets when you leave
Long lasting - takes at least 15 minutes to finish
Ideas: Stuffed and frozen Kong™, bully sticks, and other natural chews.
DEPARTURE CUES. Dogs pick up on little details that tell them we’re leaving even before we walk out the door. Some examples include:
Picking up your house/car keys
Packing your laptop
Turning on/off the tv or radio
Which door you exit from
Weekday routine versus weekend
Shoes vs slippers
Change the order of these activities or incorporate them into other routines to change their meaning. If you usually grab your keys right before you go, also pick up your keys before feeding your dog or watching a movie.
If these steps do not resolve the problem, your dog’s anxiety may be moderate to severe.
MODERATE TO SEVERE ANXIETY
Dogs with moderate anxiety may vocalize while you’re gone, but not the whole time. They may chew on shoes, pillows, or other objects, have house training accidents, and jump or break down gates or pens. These dogs may show some interest in Goodbye Treats, or not eat them at all.
Dogs with severe anxiety will vocalize throughout your absence, may injure themselves or damage enclosures trying to escape, cause significant damage at doorways and windows, or drool excessively (leaving large puddles). Housetraining accidents may involve diarrhea, or sometimes bloody stool. Some dogs even display aggression towards their owners when they try to leave.
For this level of anxiety, Kongs, music, and confinement training are not sufficient. It requires a combination of medication from the veterinarian and a more structured training to overcome the dog's distress.
BEHAVIOR MEDICATION. Anti-anxiety medications are a necessary step to reduce moderate to severe anxiety. These are not designed to “drug the dog,” but provide relief from stress. Note: It may take different doses/medications to find the right solution for your dog. Don’t give up after the first try.
MISSION POSSIBLE online course I highly recommend. Taught by a separation anxiety expert, this course provides complete steps for helping your dog, One-on-one remote coaching is also available.
Separation anxiety is distressing for dogs and the people who love them, but it can be improved or resolved with a program that is designed to meet that dog’s needs.
Visit one of these organizations to find a qualified behavior consultant in your area.
Serenity Canine Behavior Ⓒ2022 Lisa Mullinax. All rights reserved.
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