SEPARATION ANXIETY, HELP!
There is really only one genuine form of separation anxiety. This occurs when the dog in question is extremely reliant upon the owner, such anxiety often occurs in the case of rescue dogs due to the fact that they tend to form an unhealthy attachment to their 'saviour' if not carefully checked. Unfortunately many dog owners love the attention that this brings and the 'hero worship' this offers so they foster this in the newly rescued dog. By the time they realise that they have a problem then the behaviour is already ingrained. These dogs will feed on attention and will follow the owner around constantly – even to the toilet and back. Unfortunately this makes for a very insecure dog if allowed to develop. These dogs will usually whine a lot generally and the barking as the owner leaves will be high pitched and intense. These dogs will usually not eat or play until the owner returns, instead spending their time crying and pacing. This dependence is wholly unhealthy.
I feel there are other route causes that present the same or similar symptoms so it is important to determine which emotions are present in order to create a suitable programme of rehabilitation.
1/ Genuine separation anxiety – this is evident by listening to the pitch of the bark (high pitched, sometimes a bit like a yelp) and by uneaten food on the owners return. Sometimes this escalates to panic and can result in destruction.
2/If the dog is bored then he will be either destructive, vocal or both.
3/If the dog is under exercised then he will become frustrated due to an excess of energy and will self-correct by venting his unspent energy - he may be destructive, vocal or both. A lot depends on breed. Movement or sounds outside may trigger long periods of barking in territorial breeds for example.
4/If the dog holds the position of 'leader' in the household then as a consequence he may be both confused and frustrated. It is not natural for ‘followers’ to control movements and make decisions on leaving the house. Although the importance that leadership/ranking holds between breeds and individuals varies, this is a genuine consideration for some. Temperament of the particular dog will determine how he reacts to this – a collie may attempt to prevent the owner leaving by nipping and circling, maybe positioning himself between the owner and the exit in an attempt to claim the territory and control the movements for example.
In all these cases the act of separation from the owner becomes a negative experience for the dog and creates stress, frustration and anxiety. Anxiety is always present in cases like this whether due to boredom, frustration, a build-up of unspent energy or through genuine panic at the owners absence.
For all of these root causes the plan of rehabilitation is the same, with a few variables dependant on breed, intensity and the emotion behind the behaviour; for example a very reactive or frustrated vocal terrier may benefit from the curtains being closed and the radio being left on during owner absence, but a bored hound may show improvement through access to a window so that he can choose the option of watching the world go by to relieve boredom.
In all cases I would advise a very tiring walk in the morning preferably encompassing some fulfilment of the breed – ball throwing for a Labrador or off lead running for a Greyhound for example. I would advise the owner to spend a bit of unhurried one to one time with the dog, at least an hour walk initially, a tired dog will feel happier being left, particularly one with delusions of leadership, but all dogs will benefit from feeling tired in this way. (It makes more sense for them to be left behind when they are feeling sleepy, in nature only the very young puppies would stay behind during hunting excursions etc.) I would advise this be followed by food and water on return home and then some quiet time. This calm time is important so that the dog does not feed from any anxiety on the owner’s part. Rushing around and swearing because the hair straighteners are not working whilst stuffing toast down your throat is not conducive to calm and we have to remember that this is the last thing you leave your dog with. Plenty of time should be allowed for the leaving ritual initially and no stress should be present ideally. I would advise that no fuss whatsoever should be made upon leaving. None. No “awww Mummy will be back soon!” or “look after the house. Good Boy!” - I would advise the owner to just leave calmly without looking at, speaking to or touching the dog. A selection of interesting toys should be given after breakfast - but not immediately before leaving. This will hopefully help to keep the dogs mind occupied whilst the owner is out -trying to get peanut butter out of a Kong is not compatible with barking. This will also create a positive association with owner absence. It is worth probing to see if the dog has a particular favourite food or toy that he cannot resist. If he does then this can be withheld for use only when the owner departs, many toys can be stuffed with something yummy and frozen. Frozen toys are more challenging and also act as 'time delay' activities. If the owner knows that they will be out of the house for five hours for example, then some immediately edible and chewable toys can be provided as well as a frozen stuffed Kong or similar for later activity.
Any other factors should be taken into account. For example if the dog is reactive to noise then a radio can be left on at a suitable volume so that external noises can't act as a trigger. If the dog is territorial then the blind can be closed to create a cave like experience devoid of any visual stimulus to act as a trigger.
A web cam is inexpensive and can be useful to pinpoint triggers. For example; if the dog is quiet and calm until the postman posts the days mail, then begins a downward spiral of barking and anxiety (remember that barking is often self- rewarding) then this can be spotted and combated – perhaps through the use of an external post box at the end of the drive or by relocating the dog to another room.
It also really is usually easier for some dogs to achieve calm in a small room or a crate rather than the entire house. Maybe this is because an enclosed space limits pacing and simulates the den in nature - but for whatever reason a smaller room is preferable to the run of the house, the dog's accessible area can be increased over a period of time when the new calm behaviour is solidified if the owner wishes.
It is very important that the owner doesn't make a fuss of the dog upon their return. The dog should be completely ignored until calm. Any excitement should be ignored, I would advise the owner that the dog is not 'happy to see them' but rather 'unhealthily excited'. Another walk can then be given but not until the dog is completely relaxed, then the walk can act as a reward for relaxation and food can be offered on return.
There are other actions that the owner can take with regard to this issue dependent upon the root of the anxiety. In each and every case all effort should be made not to respond to whining and barking at any time, even if the owner needs to re-enter a room because - for example - the phone is ringing, they should not do so if the dog is anxiously barking, whining, scratching at the door, showing anxiety of any kind or making a demand/request. This will only reinforce the state of mind and the anxious behaviour and probably increase the intensity in future.
Some whole lifestyle changes can really help. For example if the dog is showing dominance and the anxiety is deemed to stem from confusion and frustration at the movements of lower ranking individuals then gentle rank reduction is in order across the board. If the dog displays excitement frequently and this leads him into anxiety then the owner can cease rewarding excitement completely; only feed when calm, walk when relaxed etc. and make a special effort to tire him out in the morning. If the separation anxiety is a genuine case of over-reliance on the owner then some distance needs to be introduced. This is very difficult for the owners but it is the best course of action for the dog. Becoming more aloof with a dog with this problem will really help the dog to gain confidence in himself and learn to be more comfortable without relying on constant attention. Sometimes mixing regularly with other dogs can help cases like this; they are often a little fearful initially but become more confident and outgoing having 'made some friends'. A plug in DAP diffuser can also be extremely beneficial – particularly in the early stages of rehabilitation.
It should be noted that there exist differing intensities of this issue, with some dogs feeling anxious when the owner is out of their line of sight, some feeling comfortable as long as there is someone within a comfortable distance i.e. in the house, and others only showing anxiety upon being left alone. Some dogs have separation issues only with 'their person' and others are fine as long as they are not left completely alone. The variables are massive but an intelligent assessment of the situation usually can usually point in the right direction.
For example if the dog is anxious whilst the owner is out of sight then a week off work to practise some exercises will help to gradually acclimatise the dog to the new ritual of being left alone. In this case I would advise the owner to leave the room and stand close by, waiting calmly until the noise and pacing ceases and the dog calms down before re-entering the room calmly. This can be repeated frequently for a couple of days until the dog becomes bored with the exercise and ceases making a fuss entirely. The owner can then progress this further by going outside for a spell. This naturally progresses to going to the supermarket or out for a couple of hours.
Toys etc. can be provided and the same rules apply to the short exercises as to the long absences. The difficult part is judging when the dog really is calm. Just because the dog is quiet this does not necessarily mean that he is relaxed. I have in the past put plastic bags under the dog bed in my kitchen in order to gauge when the dog has laid down to sleep by listening for the 'crackle crackle flump'. (It’s a bit mental but whatever works...) I recently advised a friend to set up a web cam for this problem – which he did – and streamed it straight to his mobile phone on a motion sensor. In this way he can pinpoint times of stress and can wait for his dog Sam to relax before walking back up his street after work.
This could be taken further for a very difficult case by leaving a mobile phone in the vicinity of the dog with a ring tone set for the owner’s number. The ring tone could be set to a very startling and loud alarm tone. In this way when the owner is out of the house he or she can distract from/correct behaviour remotely.