Maybe it’s constant sounds of whining when you’re out of sight, or the damage to the trim at the front door, or even “puddles” around the house. Whenever signs like these are present when your pet has been left alone, the possibility of the condition of separation anxiety must be addressed. The internal state of a dog suffering from separation anxiety has been analogized to that of a human suffering a full-blown panic attack. The physical and psychological signs of distress in a dog with this condition occur only in the absence of their human caregiver.
Not bad pets, just anxious ones.
Without words, pets rely on their body language, vocalizations, and other behaviors to communicate their internal emotional state. Strong negative emotions like anxiety are difficult to experience for humans and dogs alike. The behaviors of a dog experiencing separation anxiety can be extreme. Most commonly they include urination, defecation, destruction of property (especially around doors and windows in an attempt to escape), excessive vocalizations (barking and whining), and pacing.
Discovering signs of anxiety early can aid in the process of helping your dog. Often, a dog will begin showing signs of anxiety as you prepare to depart the house. He may pant, whine, tremble, begin to pace, lick his lips, or excessively groom himself. If these signs are present every time you begin to leave the house, it is the time to take the power away from the so-called “departure cues”. These are actions we take when we prepare to leave the home. We may pick up our keys, put on a coat, pick up our purse or wallet and turn out lights. To make these actions less predictive of our departure, we can do these things then sit down and watch TV or go into the kitchen and prepare a meal. This can be the first step in helping our dog live with his separation anxiety.
The root of the problem.
Understanding why our pets have separation anxiety and the extent of the emotional trauma accompanying an episode of it can help us have sympathy and patience in working through this with them. Causes of this disorder may simply be genetic or result from repeated re-homing. If a dog has a history of rough treatment in a previous home, he may panic when the caregivers in a new environment are not there because he associates their presence with the improved conditions. Also, a dog with separation anxiety that is relinquished to a shelter may have a more profound case on subsequent rehoming(s). Finally, a dog who is suffering cognitive decline because of age or who is otherwise experiencing diminution of eyesight or hearing may develop separation related anxiety from fear caused by his loss of sensory input.
Thankfully, although there is no cure for separation anxiety, we can help our pets develop calm behavior when left alone. This can be done by reinforcing calmer states that your dog exhibits throughout the day or in a training session. In addition, by leaving him alone for ever increasing amounts of time through a carefully designed systematic desensitization program, slow, steady progress can be made. Obviously, to implement these behavior modifications, it is always best to employ a certified professional dog trainer or an individual that is certified as a behavior specialist. There are even specialists that work exclusively with this issue. Behavior modification with a dog with separations anxiety is more likely to be successful when in partnership with a veterinarian, whether or not anti-anxiety medications are prescribed.
Often, advice from the internet, or through friends and family, will promote the use of over-the-counter calming aids. These might be in the form of certain types of music, aromatherapy, CBD products, synthetic pheromones, or certain amino acids that purport to help with anxiety or other forms of stress. These products might help, and probably won’t hurt, but there are no studies that would suggest they work well. In any event, ask your vet before trying any of them with your dog.
Helping a pet through separation anxiety can be difficult, but with the right treatment and approach, both you and your pet can feel more relaxed. For more helpful information about your pet, visit our blog page.