THE BLOG

Separation Anxiety And The Modern Dog Parent's Dilemma

This post was published on the now-closed HuffPost Contributor platform. Contributors control their own work and posted freely to our site. If you need to flag this entry as abusive, send us an email.

Recently I posted a piece titled "Separation Anxiety and Leash Aggression..."

You may wonder, what the two have common?

The answer is loads, at least from your dog's paws.

Leash aggression, while appearing defensive: "My dog is a bully," is most often a reaction to fear. A dog who may seem ferocious is just as likely to be lashing out because he's being dragged into another dog's personal space, unable to retreat.

Separation Anxiety (SA) occurs when a dog is fearful of being left alone. According to Nicholas Dodman, DVM, author of Pets on the Couch, 15% of our 78 million dogs suffer from this condition. In both cases, when a dog's stress triggers, it's a powerful motivator and a not-so-pretty scene.

Just think of it in human terms. Consider a kid, or even an adult who suffers panic attacks, perhaps due to a fear of the dark, flying, bugs, or even meeting strange dogs or people. Now imagine, tying this person down, so they're unable to get away.

Do you get the picture?

In today's blog I'll focus on SA; my next blog, fear-induced leash aggression. In both situations, it is fear of the unknown and your dog's inability to separate from or socialize naturally with others that cause what is to you, their frustrating behavior.

A dog's reaction to being left on their own can be extreme. Dogs caught in this state may:
  • Pace
  • Whine, howl, bay or bark excessively
  • Eliminate or mark repetitively
  • Chew destructively
  • Dig or work feverishly to escape home or yard (biting at walls molding)
  • Hyperventilate
  • Jump, claw or dig
  • Lick-obsessively (known as lick granulomas); or other self-mutilating behavior

In each case, however, your dog is not acting out to spite you. Instead, he is communicating distress in the only way he knows how. Have sympathy.

If you're not sure if your dog suffers SA, consider when he acts out? Is it only when he's left alone? While some of these behaviors occur in early puppyhood and adolescence (6-9 months of age), SA only happens when you're away from your dog.

Like dog, Like child
While isolation is hard on any socially connected animal, recent research shows that dogs have similar emotional capacities and reasoning to 2-3-year-old children. So imagine leaving a diaper-clad toddler alone while you ran errands. Now envision that toddler with teeth and claws.

But before you go out and hire an Aupair for your Airedale, remember that dogs do sleep more than people and with the right approach there is plenty you can do to help your dog tolerate your departures.

Whenever I consult on a fearful dog's reaction, I think of the cartoon character Chicken Little (CL). Remember him? After being hit on the head with an acorn, he's convinced the sky is falling. Living in a chronic state of stirred up: "What ifs?" CL is unable to consider a life free from concern.

Dogs in this state do not like being left alone; isolation causes worry-like reactions as listed above. Physiological symptoms can include hyperventilating, self-mutilation, increased heart rate and what the pros call stereotypies: routine patterned behavior like circling that can look like body rocking, especially when a dog is crated.

There is some confusion between Separation Anxiety and dogs who act out with frustration when left alone. Dogs who are frustrated, often guard the home while their parents are out, barking loudly at the window or door, marking or chewing to displace their tension, but frustrated dogs do not develop physical symptoms related to panic attacks, nor do they self-mutilate or develop physical symptoms related to stress.

TMI
For those of you who long for TMI (too much information) the brain center responsible for fluctuating emotions is the amygdala, also known as the fear center. The neurotransmitters that fire in relationship to a dog's level of arousal include:

Epinephrine (aka adrenaline) and Norepinephrine are short-term stress hormones responsible for fight or flight reactions.

Cortisol is long-lasting, and more emotionally taxing, a hormone that can remain in the bloodstream for hours, days, even a lifetime. It's said to lower disease resistance, and affect mood and memory in people.

You Dog is Talking: Use Your Eyes to Listen

While your dog is unable to talk, he is communicating plenty. The trick to listening is to use your eyes.

Need help? I'm proficient in Doglish, your dog's native tongue. To understand Doglish watch your dog in a happy state. Notice his eyes, ears, tail, and posture.

Happy dogs are relaxed: look at tails and ears: no big fluctuations? That's a good sign. Mouth slightly open? That equivalent to the human smile. Posture relaxed and steady? All good. You can and should reward, play and pet this dog. If you're leaving him home, offer him a puppy pacifier or bone and slip calmly out the door.

If your dog's pacing, tail down, ears back, pupils dilated, he's not happy, he's distressing. If you're getting ready to leave or have already left, he may well be suffering from SA.

Highly distressed dogs may inflict self-harm, as well chew or lick themselves obsessively. In worst case scenarios, dogs may develop diarrhea or a prolonged illness due to chronic stress.


Steps To Help Sooth Separation Anxiety

So how to sooth your dog if she's suffering SA? Follow the outline below to get started. If you need a little handholding, reach out to me; if you need step-by-step guidance ask your veterinarian for a referral to a local behaviorist or specialist, or call the Separation Anxiety queen, Malena Demartini.

Meanwhile...

1) Teach your dog to self-soothe. Get your dog addicted to a self-soothing activity, such as a bone, puppy pacifier, or puzzle toy. Offer one at a time, when you're home, to determine which one your dog prefers. Once you know, give the object/s when you must leave.

2) Control yourself. Consider your mood and reaction during your comings and goings.
Stay calm as you prepare to leave. Develop a routine that involves:
--Play and interaction at least 20 minutes before you begin your leaving rituals (shower, make-up, key-gathering, etc.)
--Feeding your dog on your way out the door
--Offering a busy toy or puppy pacifier,
Avoid drawn-out serenades and guilt-laden apologizes before you go. While they may relieve your sadness, it's too stressful for your dog.

When you come home, detach from your dog for a full 5 minutes. Frantic greetings are a sure sign of SA: your enthusiasm will encourage his stress at being left alone. When you walk in, offer a favorite toy or chew to play with while you unpack and unwind from your day.

Note: Do not correct misbehavior that occurs while you're gone. Human anger is terrifying to a dog of any size. Reactions that happen after you return will reinforce that separation is something to dread!

3) Condition happy reactions. When you're home, condition your dog to your departure routines. List all the subtle signs you're leaving, such as door activity, putting on your shoes, combing your hair, picking up your keys, etc. Repeat each separately as you pair them instead to the things your dog loves like toys, treats, play and attention.

Introduce a fun new chew, puzzle toy or games like Find it or Tug, and use it help your dog learn that your leaving rituals do not always lead to separation.

4) Practice short departures. Stage a snack run or bathroom break. Tell your dog "Wait" confidently, as you leave the room. Use gates, doors or tethers to keep your dog enclosed as you take care of business. Come back after 10-15 seconds. Is your dog acting like the sky is falling? That's a sure sign of SA.

Ignore the drama, but stay present. Once your dog is calm long enough to take a few deep breaths, offer her a favorite pacifier or chew, then pet her gently.

5) Create the right vibe. When separation is unavoidable, flip off the lights, pull the shades, and leave on soothing music. If shutting your dog in a crate stresses him too much, try closing your dog in a small, comfortable room with the crate door left open.

Stay one step ahead of your dog's stress by offering things like busy toys, pacifiers or chews before you begin your departure routine. Be relaxed as you walk out the door; once you've said your goodbye and offered your toys, do not look back.

Now draw a mental image of your return, and pray for the best. Separation Anxiety is so terribly stressful for dogs who fear even the thought of being left all alone. Be understanding and compassionate. Get help if you need it.