Dogs are social creatures and fit naturally into our human society because they are biologically driven to form bonds with others. They love being in our company and are always happy when we give them attention, play time, or a walk in the park. Let’s face it; if dogs didn’t display so much affection for us, we probably wouldn’t be so willing to put up with the extra work of dog guardianship. Being greeted by our beloved companion when we walk through the door and sharing affectionate or fun times are some of the reasons why we get so attached to our dogs. Such deep bonds are inspiring and heartwarming, yet they can also come at a price for the dog. We live busy lives and in many families today both guardians are at work for the largest part of the day. As a result, our social and loving pooch is left alone for long hours. This situation is even made worst by the fact that dogs completely depend on us to fill all of their basic needs. With their caregiver gone, many dogs experience variable degrees of anxiety, from vocalizing or panting, to more troubling destruction and self-mutilation.
Separation anxiety is not exclusive to dogs. According to the American Psychiatric Association, separation anxiety disorder is characterized by “developmentally inappropriate and excessive anxiety concerning separation from home or from those to whom the individual is attached”. Even when human children are of age where they can understand when told their parents will be back (unlike our dogs), about 4% will develop clinical levels of separation anxiety and without treatment, about a third of those children will still experience such anxieties even as adults. In both children and dogs, anxiety about being left alone is normal, even critical for survival. Without the anxiety of being separated from their parent, the young ones may wander off, putting their life at risk. When all goes well however, the level of anxiety should diminish with maturity. In humans, research suggests that both genetic and environmental factors play a role in the persistence and in the level of separation anxiety. Parents who are anxious themselves may for instance discourage their child’s autonomy. Another risk factor for separation anxiety in humans is the child’s lack of control over his/her environment (Ehrenreich & al., 2008).
In dogs, separation anxiety accounts for 20-40% of the behavior consultant’s case load and is one of the most common behavior problems (McCrave, 1991). A recent research study in the UK showed that many dogs that don’t even show signs of separation anxiety still experience increased levels of Cortisol, a steroid hormone released in response to stress. Why do so many dogs get anxious when we leave? According to research, certain factors seem to play a role in the chances of a dog to develop this type of anxiety. Dogs living in a house with only one human for instance seem to be twice as likely to have separation anxiety than dogs living amongst several people. Neutered dogs also seem more prone to anxiety as are intact dogs (Flannigan, 2001) but overall, more research is needed to identify the factors involved. When looking at some of the findings in children, we can also add to the list of possible causes the fact that dogs have very little control over the environment they live in, especially over the coming and going of other members of the family or of their own wanderings. Sometimes a traumatic event such as prolonged time at a boarding kennel or shelter, or a change in the family structure may trigger the onset of separation anxiety.
Malena De Martini-Price, certified dog trainer, has devoted her life to understanding and treating separation anxiety in dogs and at the last APDT conference, shared her work helping dogs and guardians overcome this distressing problem. Separation anxiety, she said, can be divided into three different levels according to the severity of the problem:
- Mild: At this level, many dogs with separation anxiety go undiagnosed. When the dogs are left alone, they may pace, whine, bark and chew (e.g. their bedding). When the owners come back, they will greet them with more energy and excitement than normal, but will calm down quickly. Such dogs may follow their owners around in the house, but don’t seem overly attached.
- Moderate : At this level, dogs may bark constantly or howl. They tend to chew and scratch at the door and may cause a fair amount of damage. Some symptoms are now involuntary such as elimination, sweaty paws, panting, etc. Dogs will excessively greet their owners when they return and shadow them around. Dogs may get up even when in a deep sleep if the owner goes in the kitchen to get a drink. They will dash through doors and show signs of anxiety as the owner prepares to leave the house. Dogs may also show signs of mild depression. At this level, many dogs with moderate separation anxiety will still take food.
- Severe : Dogs with severe separation anxiety experience the equivalent of a panic attack. They will escape, chewing or scratching their way out of the room or crate they have been left in. Involuntary symptoms are more severe and such dogs will salivate and drool to the point of drenching their coat. They may shed excessively, throw up and have diarrhea. Dogs at this level often show signs of severe depression and need pharmacological intervention.
Treating separation anxiety is not easy. The protocol requires time, energy, commitment and difficult life changes from the part of the guardians, all of that with no guarantees of success. The alternative of ignoring the problem as long as there are no complaints from the neighbors or damage to the property or to the dog herself, should not be an option. All it takes is to place a camera in the room with the dog and watch his or her reaction when left alone to realize how much emotional distress the animal is experiencing while we’re off to our daily routine. When this goes on hour after hour, day after day, the animal’s welfare is in question.
So how can we treat separation anxiety? For the treatment to work, the very first step is to make sure the dog is never left alone for longer than he/she can bear. Even when we work all day, options must be found so that the dog is never alone. Daycare, dog share, the help of neighbors, friends and family, dog walkers, taking the dog to work or local sitters, are all acceptable solutions. With these options the dog is no longer on the lookout for cues that indicate that the guardian is about to leave and the stress is reduced, promoting better learning and shorter treatment time. In addition, the guardians are highly motivated to keep up with the protocol, which again increases the chances of success.
Since the dogs tend to shadow the guardians around the house, an important part of the process is to reward the dog for moving away and choosing to lie down on his/her bed instead. By using a remote trainer, such as Pet Tutor™, we can dispense treats to the dog at a distance, away from the human, rewarding Fido for going to his/her bed. With Pet Tutor™ set to automatically dispense treats at different intervals, we’ll gradually increase the duration on the bed. With time, the dog should start choosing to go on the bed on his/her own. Staying away from the owner now becomes easier and a source of good things happening.
The next step is to set up a confinement area, a place where the dog can learn that being separated from the owner is OK. Using baby gates, we’ll create a space where the dog can still see the guardian, but is physically separated. To help the dog develop positive associations with this space, we’ll give the dog interactive feeding toys of all sorts (Kongs, Tug a Jug, Buster Cube, Nina Ottoson interactive toys, Pet Tutor™, etc.), encouraging mental stimulation and helping the dog build confidence. We’ll want to make sure; however, that the dog runs out of food. We’re teaching the dog to relax when left alone, not to eat while we’re gone. Without this precaution, the dog may show signs of anxiety later in the protocol, as soon as she’s done eating. Once the dog is comfortable and relaxed in the confinement area, we’ll slowly build distance from the dog, starting with just a few seconds while standing right outside the confinement area. Little by little, while always staying under threshold, we’ll start increasing the duration and the distance away from the animal. With patience, seconds start turning into minutes, then into hours.
Understanding that nothing will happen unless the guardian fully complies with the protocol, De Martini-Price mentors her clients every step of the way, connecting with them daily, monitoring progress and encouraging the guardians who may get discouraged when after several weeks, they can only leave the house for a few minutes. Technology plays an important part in her success rate. Seeing how the dog reacts in the guardian’s house in the most natural setting is critical. Using Skype, Google Hangout and Icam, she can watch the dog and adjust the protocol when needed.
With about 20 million dogs in the U.S. alone suffering from separation anxiety (about 17% of all dogs according to De Martini-Price), treating separation anxiety has become a matter of welfare. Treatment protocols may be long and difficult to implement, but with success rates of 70-80%, the few weeks or months spent addressing the problem are well worth it. We also need to put more effort into preventing separation anxiety altogether, teaching the dog to go to a bed or a space away from the owner, providing mental stimulation throughout the dog’s life and systematically including preventive protocols into any puppy class. Man’s best friend can suffer from the love and attachment they develop for us. Our responsibility is to help them develop confidence and feelings of safety in their own home, whether we’re with them or not.
Jennifer Cattet Ph.D.