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Separation Anxiety

Author: Robert J.Weiner, VMD, ABVP (Canine/Feline)

A silver lining of COVID-19 is that many people took advantage of being home for an extended period of time to acquire new pets. I have seen more puppies from March through December 2020 than in the past several years combined. Many of these puppies will become dogs who have never been left alone. When their owners resume a normal schedule, they may be at risk for separation anxiety. This can be expressed as vocalization, destructive behavior (one of my dogs will dig through sheet rock when left alone), salivation, pacing, inappropriate elimination and other signs. Separation anxiety is considered a cascade phenomenon. Once a dog becomes distressed it is likely to recur more quickly and more severity so it is important, to the extent possible, to recognize and avoid events that trigger this response.

Dogs (and we) are creatures of habit and ritual. They quickly learn to pick up on the cues that lead to our departures. We may wear our work clothing, gather up our briefcase or backpacks, and car keys and maybe turn off certain lights. My dogs recognize when I log off my computer or put down my cell phone that I’m about to leave. A dog with separation anxiety will become anxious as you go about these things. The signs might include following your every footstep, barking, panting, pawing and drooling. When we leave, an anxious dog may urinate or defecate immediately after our departure. This is not due to the need to answer nature’s call. It is anxious behavior. This may be directed at something that is associated with us and our scent like a couch or a bed. Destructive behavior may be directed at an exit from the home like a door or a window and can be very significant resulting in expensive damage to the home and injury to the pet. My dog, previously mentioned, broke through a second story window screen and was saved by my neighbor who happened by, scooped him up and brought him to the office.

The first step in dealing with this is to ensure that your pet does not have a medical issue, like a urinary tract infection or colitis that results in inappropriate elimination. A detailed behavioral history will help distinguish this from other behavior disorders, like noise phobia, for example. Anti-anxiety medications can be helpful for some dogs but generally these medications are an adjunct to behavioral modification required to lessen the anxiety.

In broad stokes the goal of behavior modification starts with rewarding you dog for calm behavior. We tend to pay the most attention to our dogs when they seek our attention rather than when they sit calmly by us. Reward your dog often for doing absolutely nothing. Make sure your dog has a predictable time each day for quality time and exercise with you. Try and blunt the cues of departures. Maybe wear different clothing, leave you backpack and keys in the garage the night before. Alternatively, practice going through your departure ritual and then don’t leave at all. Reward calm behavior all the way along. Don’t make a big to-do about leaving and don’t reward the exaggerated welcome you dog gives you when you return home. Ignore him or her until he or she calms down. Some dogs will tolerate a confined space, like a crate but others will not. If your dog does tolerate a crate you can leave an article of your clothing, a T-shirt perhaps, that has not been laundered since you last wore it in the crate. Pheromones like Adaptyl (Dog Appeasing Pheromone) can be helpful for some dogs. Try and avoid stressful separations as much as you can. Doggie day care can be an alternative or maybe drop your dog off with a friend or relative who enjoys some additional canine company. The prognosis for canine separation anxiety is good but it requires persistent effort. Medication is helpful in some cases but the total solution is not in a pill vial.

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