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SEPARATION ANXIETY IN DOGS

Does your dog destroy everything in its path, drool excessively, urinate or defecate inappropriately, or bark non-stop once you leave the house?  If so, he may have a case of separation anxiety (SA).  SA is characterized by inappropriate behavior during owner departure and usually occurs at the time of perceived separation or within 30 minutes of departure.  This disorder is thought to be attributed to an exaggerated attachment to the owner.  SA can be precipitated by extended time periods away from the owner or a move to a new home.  Prior to these events, the dog may have never had any episodes of separation anxiety. 

One key to diagnosing SA is to recognize the signs.  It is extremely helpful if owners can video tape the dog’s behavior during those periods of anxiety.   Also, keep a detailed log of the dog’s behavior to properly determine the severity, likely triggering causes, and potential therapeutic strategies.  It is important to note that many cases of separation anxiety also show signs of noise or thunderstorm phobia.

Some clinical signs of SA include: excessive vocalization, inappropriate elimination, and/or destruction during the absence of their owner.  Sometimes, the dog will become anorexic, have gastrointestinal upset, or act “depressed”.  Before the owner leaves, the dog may hide, look anxious, follow the owner around, prevent the owner from leaving, or refuse to enter a crate.  When the owner returns home, the dog may act like velcro, staying attached to the owner, have excessive greeting behavior, and/or take a long time to calm down.  There are other behavioral disorders or medical conditions that can present similarly.  Therefore it is important for SA to be correctly diagnosed in order to properly manage and treat the symptoms.

SA is based on fear and there are varying severities of the condition.  The dog’s mental state is disturbed and as well as its sense of appropriate behavior.  Therefore, in treatment, we are using multiple strategies, including altering the environment, eliminating triggers through counter-conditioning, and pharmacological management.  Treatment is essentially a training exercise that may also require medication.  Success involves the owner just as much as the dog.  In order for treatment to work, owners need to be seriously committed.  There are 4 basic steps to follow.

Step 1:  Alter the environment.  Remove objects subject to damage from the dog or remove the dog from the potential site of damage.  Most often, this means crating the dog or restricting him to a small kennel.  Crating and confinement is a learned behavior and it can take several weeks of conditioning before the dog becomes comfortable.  It is important to gradually introduce this step.  First, place the dog in the crate with the door open, then close the door for increasing periods of time.  Environmental enrichment is also necessary.  Give the dog toys and bones to chew on.  Leave the television or radio on for distraction and entertainment.  Another thing to try is using DAP (Dog-Appeasing Pheromone) diffusers.  These devices plug into your electrical outlets, naturally keep dogs calm, have no side effects, and are one of few products that are FDA approved for use in dogs with behavioral disorders.

Step 2:  Discourage hyper-attachment and reward good behavior.  These dogs will solicit attention from their owners frequently.  Resist the temptation to pet the dog with SA when approached for play or contact.  Be aloof when entering the house and only initiate contact with the dog once he has lost interest in the owner.  Do not allow the dog to settle down in close proximity.  If the dog normally sleeps on the owner’s bed, provide them with their own bed on the floor.  Encourage  independent play.  When the dog settles down, is calm, and relaxed, then reward him for his good behavior.

Step 3:  Eliminate triggers and desensitize.  This step relies on eliminating learned cues of departure and return.  Examples of departure cues are: grabbing the keys or purse, or putting on a coat.  These cues should be practiced 30-50 times per day until they become meaningless activity for the dog.  Also, avoid using specific phrases while leaving or coming home.  The dog preferably should be ignored and occupied with a distracting toy or bone.  Graduated departure exercises (“virtual” departures) will help condition the dog to eventual return.  Using a “safety cue”, a signal that tells the dog the owner will return soon, such as a blanket, potpourri spray, or bell is recommended.  Act as though leaving for work, use the safety cue, leave the dog in his designated place, then return, remove safety cue, and allow the dog to calm fully.  Repeat at least 10 times.  After enough practice, the dog should become desensitized and remain calm upon departure and arrival.

Step 4:  Use medications as an adjunct if needed.  There are two drugs that are FDA approved for use in dogs with separation anxiety:  fluoxetine (Prozac) and clomipramine (Clomicalm).  These are pills that are used once or twice daily.  Both take several weeks prior to seeing a meaningful change and it is extremely important that any medication is used WITH training.

Separation anxiety is a very real behavioral disorder in the dog that not only causes a disturbed and fearful mental state in the pet, but can also create an unlivable disaster for the pet owner.  However, it is very treatable.  In extreme cases, a behavioral specialist consultation may be warranted.  In general, with proper behavioral training, adjunct prescription medications, and dedication from the owner, a successful outcome is likely.

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