Many dogs and puppies have separation anxiety. It is a medical condition just like diabetes or renal failure. Neurotransmitters in the brain convey messengers to different parts and these can have lots of effects on thoughts and feelings. The messengers bind to neuroreceptors which continue to pass the message along. If there are low levels of chemical messengers (e.g. serotonin or noradrenaline) or if there is an issue with the receptors this can lead to increased feelings of anxiety. Anxiety can present as behavioural, gastrointestinal or skin problems.
Dogs with anxiety disorders such as barking non-stop need more than just training. In fact dominance style handling and training can be detrimental and very confusing or frightening to anxious animals. Instead these animals need careful, kind and consistent handling to help them feel secure and safe. Management of an animal with separation anxiety takes time and patience so everyone in the household must be prepared to work hard to modify the dog’s behaviour. The key is CONSISTENCY!
The first step is a consultation with your vet to confirm diagnosis and discuss a management program. Below is a general overview of separation anxiety management.
Remember every animal is different and requires a unique treatment plan so consult your vet and/or animal behaviouralist before carrying out the management methods listed below.
- Your pet should be kept calm and relaxed. A “settle mat” can be set up where they can go to relax. Tethering a food toy to the mat is a good way to ensure they enjoy lying on the mat whilst enjoying their food. Make sure you do this whilst you are home and out.
- Reward calm behaviour by reassuring them in a soothing tone. Don’t encourage clingy behaviour. For example don’t cuddle them when they are begging for attention. Ask them to sit then reward the correct behaviour.
- Practice making them sit and stay calm for 3-5 minutes, 5 times daily. Start in a quiet area where they can focus easily then start adding in distracting elements such as noise, other people or other animals.
- You can use treats to reward good behaviour > keep some with you whenever possible.
Create a safe environment
- Crating the animal may or may not be appropriate depending on whether they cause themselves further damage if placed in a crate. If they are safe, you may be better off confining them to a small room, blocking off dangerous areas and removing valuable items.
- Enrichment is crucial. Toys are available that release food slowly and make the dog work for their dinner such as:
If you’re not keen to buy one, make one! A treat within a cardboard box within a cardboard box within a cardboard box works pretty well! Note it’s important to provide these when you are home as well so the dog does not consider them departure cues.
- If they are going to destroy items, give them ones that aren’t valuable! Newspaper, toilet rolls or old furniture are better than your brand new shoes or leather sofa! Old stuffed toys can be re-stuffed each time you leave the dog so he can destroy it again.
- Background noise has been proven to have a calming effect on dogs. Classical music at a low to moderate volume is appropriate or you can buy dog-specific calming music:
- Furniture or items that can’t be removed from the safe area can be sprayed with a bitterent to deter chewing (such as Woundguard).
- Make sure they have access to water at all times. If they are knocking over the bowl, consider freezing it so it gradual defrosts throughout the day.
Downplay your departure and arrivals
- Make all interactions 30 minutes prior to leaving and 30 minutes after arriving as neutral as possible. For example don’t shower them with attention but don’t ignore them either.
- Keep them occupied as you leave using treats or a settle mat
- Prepare as much possible ahead of time so there are less cues to indicate you are leaving e.g. have your keys ready, put your shoes on well before you leave.
- Avoid exposing them to the major triggers e.g. putting your coat on. You might be best to confine them prior to these triggers. NOTE – once they have improved you can start desensitising them to some of these triggers.
- Sneak out! The quieter and calmer you leave the better!
Decrease overall anxiety
- Exercise! In both human and animal studies exercise has been shown to improve anxiety levels. Take the dog for a long walk or a big play in the yard prior to leaving.
- Dog Appeasing Pheremones (D.A.P.) or ‘Adaptil’ can help reduce anxiety by using natural pheromones (mimicking a lactating mother’s) to help calm and relax an animal. Diffusers are available to plug in around the house and a spray can be used to spray on towels or bedding regularly. A collar form can also be placed around their neck which lasts for a month.
- Your vet will likely start your dog on anti-anxiety medication. This will probably involve an initial blood and urine analysis to establish baseline values and ensure their liver and kidneys are functioning normally. It is important to realise most of these medications take 4 to 6 weeks to take effect and cannot be stopped abruptly. Please discuss any side effects or concerns with your vet. If you feel the medication is not working, there are other options likely available so please do not discount medicating all together. Medications may be temporary (4-6 months) or long term.
- If your dog shows any sign of anxiety, do not use physical or verbal punishment as this will only increase his anxiety. If you come home and find something destroyed, do not punish them for this, they will only learn to fear your arrival.