Separation anxiety


What is separation anxiety?

Dogs with separation anxiety become severely distressed when they are apart from their owners due to an excessive attachment to them. Some breeds tend to be predisposed to separation anxiety, but usually it results from past experience.

What are the signs of separation anxiety?

The classical sign of separation anxiety is destructive behaviour seen only in the absence of the owner. The owner may also notice the pet become anxious when he or she prepares to depart. Destructive behaviour may include:

  • Vocalising
  • Inappropriate elimination
  • Chewing, scratching and digging
  • Self-mutilation
  • Pacing, depression

Less commonly dogs will also show general signs that they feel unwell, such as not eating, vomiting or diarrhoea.

When the owner returns, a dog with separation anxiety may:

  • Get overly excited and seek attention
  • Eat and drink excessively
  • Follow the owner around

Are there other reasons my pet may be engaging in these behaviours?

Many dogs show destructive behaviours when they are bored or anxious for any reason (such as confinement or thunder). The main thing that helps us differentiate between boredom, other types of anxiety and separation anxiety is the timing of the behaviour. If it occurs only when the owner is leaving or out of the house and never at any other time, it is likely to be due to separation anxiety.

How is separation anxiety treated?

Treatment of separation anxiety focuses on behaviour modification rather than medication.

  • Focus on rewarding relaxed behaviour, and ignore rather than reprimand bad behaviour.
  • Spend time with your dog and give him rewards only when he is relaxed.
  • Set aside time for vigorous play and exercise every day.
  • Decide on a 'relaxation area' for your dog, and ensure the room is full of distractions such as toys, treats and a TV or radio. Train your dog to stay in this area alone for short periods while you are home, then gradually increase the periods for which you are away. Start by training your dog to 'sit', 'drop', and 'stay' in this room (see Teaching Commands Information Sheet).
  • 20–30 minutes before you leave the house, put your dog in its 'relaxation area' and ensure he has a distraction (preferably long-lasting) such as a treat, then minimise your interaction with him until it is time to leave. When you do leave, do so quietly and without fuss – don't say goodbye.
  • Minimise 'cues' that you are leaving, such as brushing your teeth, collecting your keys, putting on your coat. Try to do these things outside of your dog's sight or earshot. You might consider parking a few houses up on the street so your dog doesn't hear your car pulling out.
  • Provide 'cues' that you are leaving when you are not going to leave, so that your pet gradually learns that these cues do not necessarily indicate impending departure.
  • When you return to the house, speak calmly and quietly. Remove any treats. Do not reward your dog with attention until he becomes calm.
  • Practise 'mock' departures. Put your dog in its relaxation area with distractions and tell it to stay. Play a certain piece of music or TV program that the dog can learn to associate with short, 'safe' departures. Don't play that music or program at any other time. Leave for 30 seconds then return. Do this a couple of times per day for a few days, then increase to 1 minute. Gradually increase the length of time that you are leaving, but mix it up a bit (1 minute, 2, 3, 2, 5, 3, 5, 7, 4, 5, 8, 3 etc). If when you return the dog is anxious, then the departure was too long and the next one should be shorter. Teach the dog that you are only going to be gone for a short time. As your dog gets used to you being gone for 10–15 minutes, start including cues that you are leaving so that your dog associates these, too, with a short, 'safe' departure.

What is the role of medication?

Dogs that are anxious have reduced levels of a chemical called serotonin in the brain. Serotonin is associated with calm and happiness. Most medications used in the treatment of separation anxiety aim to increase the levels of serotonin. This can be useful in conjunction with behaviour modification techniques because an anxious dog can be too distracted by anxiety to learn. By using drugs to improve the pet's learning, we can reinforce good behaviour and teach the pet to cope in our absence. Once this is achieved, we can wean the medication and have a better-behaved, less anxious dog in the end. It is important to understand that medication alone will not solve the problem. Sedatives have limited usefulness, since they do very little to alleviate anxiety (they just make the dog too tired to act on that anxiety!).