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Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Separation Anxiety

Separation anxiety (SA) is basically when dogs panic when left alone.

How is this manifested?
Pet parents might come home to destruction, elimination, and/or escape attempts. These actions may or may not constitute SA.  Dogs with SA can also hyper salivate (drool a lot).
In her book, I’ll be Home Soon, Author Patricia McConnell says a good sign of SA is that the dog won’t eat when left alone.  In her book, Oh Behave, Jean Donaldson lists some things that are more exclusive to SA dogs:
Pre-departure anxiety. Dogs learn cues to your leaving (i.e. putting on lipstick, grabbing cell phone, etc..) and start getting anxious long before you leave the house.  Dogs might pant, hide, refuse to eat, tremble, etc..
Self-Injury (usually from escape attempts) i.e. broken teeth, bleeding paws or muzzles

What type of dogs get SA?
Some dogs are more susceptible than others in getting SA.  According to  Donaldson, “It’s currently impossible to identify susceptible animals in advance.”  Some dogs sail through SA triggering experiences with no problems. Other dogs can develop SA when there is a temporary disruption in owner access.  Boarding, death of a family member, rehoming are some events that can kick off separation anxiety."
Donaldson says that SA dogs typically present without other behavior problems.  SA dogs are often model dogs except when left alone.
For a dog who has true SA or just boredom or frustration issues, it’s always best to bring in a professional.  Below are some things that a professional might advise for dogs who present with SA, for dogs who are bored or frustrated and/or as a program for prevention of SA.

Never Punish
There are many reasons to never punish destruction or elimination when the pet parent arrives.  The main reason is that the dog will not know what the punishment is for hours after the act happened.  Additionally, dogs who expect to get punished when the pet parents comes home can get even more anxious, thereby making SA much worse.

Leaving and coming should never be a big deal
No long sorrowful good byes, no excited giddy hellos.

Reward calm behaviors
Do not encourage excited, hyper behaviors.  Punishing excited behavior is also counterproductive.

Physical Exercise
Take your dog on a long walk before you leave for extended time periods. What is a long walk? If you live with a young, healthy Aussie, Border Collie or Jack Russell, that might be 2 or more hours. If you live with a less active breed, your dog might be happy with a 30 minute walk around the block. Discuss your dog's physical needs with your vet.  Hard aerobic exercise might be okay for some dogs (not others - it could make them more frantic), but be sure the dog is relaxed when you leave. Don’t take the dog on a file mile jog, drop him off at home while he is still jazzed up and rush off to work.

Exercise the mind
Aerobic exercise is healthy and necessary but if you don’t exercise the mind, you might just have an athletic dog with a bunch of energy.  Mind games can really tire a dog.  Enroll in positive only obedience classes (no leash yanking, physical manipulations, spray bottles, can of pennies, etc..). Work on obedience training at home.  Give your dog food puzzles, play hide and seek, etc.. Jean Donaldson lists some great activities for dogs in her book, Culture Clash

Experts have some put together specific protocols to follow to help dogs who have separation anxiety.

I recommend pet parents start by reading Dr Patricia McConnell's "I'll Be Home Soon". It's a quick easy read.
But the book is a bit dated. I'd follow up by reading the Separation Anxiety Section in Dr Karen Overall's Manual of Clinical Behavioral Medicine for Dogs and Cats (the 2013 version). She has some precautions about some of the protocols in Dr McConnell's book,
Then I would read Malena Demartini-Price's Treating Separation Anxiety in Dogs.  The book is written for professionals. But there are some step by step protocols that pet parents can follow. (with the help of a professional)

De Martini-Price writes about different levels of separation anxiety. Read about it here.

Another book to consider is Oh Behave! By Jean Donaldson - this is a book that contains answers to a lot of behavior issues. It has one Chapter on SA

If a pet parent has a dog with serious issues, a consult should be made with a board certified vet behaviorist as soon as possible.  Or even if the issues are not serious, consult with a professional should be considered.

Other things to consider:

Medication.  Some dogs' issues might be serious enough that psychotropic medication might be needed.  It's best to work with a vet behaviorist. Or a general practice vet who can consult a vet behaviorist.  Be sure to thoroughly research any drug prescribed.  Be aware that some vets might prescribe acepromazine.  But many experts warn against using this drug on anxious dogs.

For those want to try non psychotropic drugs, a vet might be able to suggest alternatives like the ones listed here:

Day Boarding
- Make sure the business is well-established and has a great reputation. You don't want to leave your dog with inexperienced people who could make your dog worse. Make sure someone is with your dog the entire time.
You can try leaving your dog for a few minutes or an hour then see how he does. Then increase the time.

Professional dog sitters or dog walkers - once again make sure they are well-established and reputable.

Friends or family who can check in on the dog.

Start a dog sitting co-op in your neighborhood
Folks who work days can watch dogs who have night shift parents, etc..

A lot of dogs who have SA seem to be fine with any human. But some dogs will be upset if they have to be apart from one specific human. For those dogs, pet sitters might not be much help.  And day boarding might even make things worse

The Relaxation Protocol can be helpful for some SA dogs:

For very mild cases of separation distress, see the following ideas:

Many dogs who have true SA will panic inside a crate. Video your dog when you are gone. See how he/she does outside of a crate and inside of a crate. If the dog is worse in a crate, then consider not using one - as long as you can make your house safe. Of course if your dog is chewing through walls, this might not work.  A safe room (no garbage, electrical wires, etc..) might work. If you do use a crate, be sure to acclimate your dog to the crate. If you have a small dog, consider an exercise pen instead.

Dealing with SA can be expensive , behaviorists, pet sitters, etc..  Consider that the money you spend helping your dog might be less than the money you spend cleaning up elimination, fixing door frames, etc.. Also consider some things that are less important than your dog when trying to figure out some ways to come up with the money needed.

Caution: Do NOT leave SA dogs outside in the yard when you are gone. The chance of escape is too great.

Tell us about your separation anxiety dogs in the comments section below
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