Separation Anxiety: There is Hope
Separation anxiety is one of the most common canine issues. In North America, 20% to 40% of dogs who are seen by veterinary behaviourists suffer from it.
If you live with a dog that has separation anxiety, you may be familiar with seeing your dog panic the moment you leave the house and you may dread coming home because you are worried about what your dog may have destroyed. You may know all too well the feeling of being trapped in your home because you can’t risk leaving your dog alone. You may relate to how heart breaking it is to see your dog suffer in this way.
There is good news for you. The severity of the symptoms does not predict the outcome. The most heart wrenching cases can come to good resolution. In fact, statistics show that 70% of dogs with separation anxiety can recover from it.
The first step is to rule out any health issues. House soiling, destruction, disruptive barking, excessive licking, trembling and shaking are common symptoms observed in dogs with this anxiety disorder. They can also be symptoms of a health issue. Therefore it is best to visit your trusted veterinarian to be sure that you aren’t dealing with something that is masquerading as a behavioural issue.
One of the most successful strategies to help dogs with separation anxiety is to systematically desensitize them to the triggers that occur before departure. The most common triggers are picking up keys, putting on shoes, picking up a purse and putting on a coat. These pre-departure cues trigger the dog’s anxiety, so it is important to teach the dog that they do not mean you are leaving. Some triggers can be as subtle as putting on make-up, turning on the television or sitting in a certain spot to have breakfast. Humans are creatures of habit and our dogs pick up on all of the things we do when we get ready to leave the house as well as all of the things we do when we are not going to leave the house. One pet parent, for example, wore her bathrobe in the morning only on the days she left the house. The bathrobe became one of the dog’s triggers.
Another successful strategy is to very gradually increase the time the dog is left alone. You may be starting with simply stepping outside the door before coming right back inside and very gradually building from there. What has not shown to be helpful in treating separation anxiety is using the crate. In fact, many dogs with separation anxiety appear to be more distressed when they are confined. Giving your dog a special treat or goody before you leave can backfire. Dogs love finding patterns and if they see that they get the Deluxe Treat before you leave, then that treat will lose all of its appeal. After all, it now predicts your departure!
Separation anxiety, or more accurately separation-related problem behaviour is being studied more and more. Gone are the days of recommending that we completely ignore our dogs when we leave or when we come back. It is still wise to avoid the over the top greetings, but we do not have to intentionally ignore our dogs. A new study by Mariti et al. (2018) has shown that briefly petting your dog immediately before a brief separation was beneficial. The petting reduced the dog’s heart rate and consequently, it displayed calmer behaviour while waiting for their owner’s return.
There is hope. You can condition your dog to accept being left alone. Don’t rush, take your time and know that you are not alone.
Owner and Head Trainer of The Canine School, Chantal is a Certified Separation Anxiety Trainer (CSAT), an accredited dog trainer (Certified Professional Dog Trainer – Knowledge Assessed), a member of the American Association of Pet Dog Trainers (APDT), a member of the International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants (IAABC), a member of the Pet Professional Guild (PPG – the Association for Force-Free Pet Professionals) and Fear Free Certified. She regularly attends conferences, workshops, seminars and webinars to keep up to date with the latest in the industry. Chantal’s family includes Everest, a Canine Senior Citizen, who has retired from being the Ottawa Canine School’s Demo Dog and is enjoying other pursuits. Not to be forgotten is Ivan the Terrible, the eldest of the trio, feline and proud of it. The latest addition is Jo-Jo the Beta fish, who is learning a variety of new tricks and proving that all species can be trained! Hemingway, the Great Dane and face behind the Ottawa Canine School’s logo will be remembered as a goof with a heart of gold.
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