Dogs are highly social "pack" animals that prefer to live in groups. Separation anxiety is a common behavioural problem that occurs when the dog is separated from their "pack" which is usually represented by the owner/s. Separation anxiety is characterised by signs of distress when affected animals are separated from an owner or family group to which the animal is highly attached. Behavioural responses may include destructiveness, house-soiling, excessive barking, digging or pacing, among other signs.
The goal of treatment is to teach the pet how to be calm and relaxed during the owner's absence. It involves changes in pet-owner interactions, changes in leaving and return protocols, decreasing the anxiety associated with owner departure, teaching the pet how to be left alone, environmental changes and management.
Owners should consult their veterinarian for advice. They can either help you directly or they may offer referral to a veterinary behavioural specialist.
Changes in pet-owner interactions
The goal here is to facilitate the dog becoming more independent and less anxious. It involves ignoring attention-seeking behaviour and rewarding the dog for being calm and relaxed. This behavioural therapy is vital to the treatment of separation anxiety.
Changes in leaving and return routines
In an attempt to decrease the level of anxiety that these dogs exhibit prior to owner departure, it is recommended that the owner ignore the dog 15-30 minutes prior to leaving. Upon return, they are to greet the dog softly and quietly, and attend to the dog only when it is calm and quiet.
Decreasing the anxiety associated with departure
This involves changing the predictive value of pre-departure cues and re-teaching the dog that the 'routine' no longer predicts departure. This is accomplished through habituation, counter-conditioning and desensitization which are explained below.
Habituation is a decrease in response as a consequence of repeated exposure to a stimulus. The goal is to disassociate the pre-departure cues from the actual departure. Examples include picking up keys, putting on shoes, packing briefcase, etc. Using the picking up keys as an example, through habituation, the owner picks up the keys, the dog alerts, becomes anxious and comes to the owner; the owner ignores the dog and goes about routine; the owner does not leave the house. Consequently, the dog learns that the keys mean nothing. This is done with all of the pre-departure cues so that they no longer predict departure, no longer lead to an anxious response, and become less important to the dog and easier to ignore.
With counter-conditioning a response is elicited that is behaviourally and physiologically incompatible with another response. A dog cannot be anxious and relaxed at the same time. In the case of separation anxiety, the dog is rewarded for relaxation and the technique is used to decrease the response of the dog to departure cues. For example, the dog is taught to sit/stay near an exit. If the dog is calm and relaxed, it is rewarded with a food treat or a pat on the head and vocal praise "good boy" "good girl". This process is usually used in combination with de-sensitisation.
In de-sensitisation, the dog is exposed to a low-level anxiety-causing stimulus. This low-level anxiety response can be easily interrupted and diverted. Gradually the intensity of the stimulus is increased, ideally without eliciting the anxious response. In the example of the owner getting closer to the door, eventually the owner steps outside the door, but returns quickly. As the dog learns the task, the owner can increase the time away.
Teaching the dog to be left alone at home
This involves the implementation of graduated planned departures (GPDs), which use short absences to de-sensitise the dog to the owner leaving and being gone. Prior to this part of the treatment, the dog must have already been habituated to departure cues and de-sensitised to approaches to the door, etc.
Graduated planned departures are like real departures with two exceptions: initially the absences are very short and, as the owner departs, he/she leaves a new and consistent 'safety cue' or signal for the dog. Classical conditioning is used such that a neutral stimulus is paired with a conditioned stimulus and results in a conditioned response. In this case, the neutral stimulus, NS = owner departure; the conditioned stimulus, CS = 'safety cue'; and the conditioned response, CR = good behaviour, feeling relaxed. The safety cue can be auditory (bell), visual (a towel or rug that is put down just prior to departure), or a combination of auditory, visual and olfactory, such as spraying a can of potpourri.
Environmental changes and management
Suggestions include increased play and exercise – taking the dog for a walk in the morning may help to reduce their anxiety levels when they are alone during the day; 'Doggie Day Care', organizing a dog walker to walk the dog during the day, 'mixing up' departure cues, masking departure with noise while dog is busy with toy in another room; providing food treats in dog toys "kongs" so the dog can preoccupy themselves trying to access the food treat for a time or organizing a ‘dogsitter’.
We suggest you have a look at the options available in your area and contact your local vet clinic for more information.
In some cases, for example where the dog may be a danger to itself (eg a dog that causes serious physical injury to itself due to anxiety) veterinarians may suggest a combination of medication and behavioural modification/training to help the dog. Pet owners should discuss this directly with their vet.
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