Separation anxiety in dogs commonly results in destructive or otherwise inappropriate behavior when an owner leaves the pet or is not in close proximity to it. Behaviors that may be seen include vocalization, destroying objects, digging, or even depression. However, these behaviors may also be due to other conditions or environmental cues. Therefore, it is important for the behaviorist or veterinarian to obtain the dog's history before attributing separation anxiety as the primary or sole cause of the behavior.
Symptoms and Types
Separation anxiety causes some pets to be extremely destructive while their owners are away. Typically, separation anxiety occurs during the first hour of the owner leaving. They may also vocalize, attempt to follow the owner, or defecate or urinate in the house. Some dogs will stop eating, act depressed, hide, whine, or pant. These dogs will usually behave in an excessively excited manner when the owner returns home.
Other behavioral conditions may mimic separation anxiety, so it is important to analyze the symptoms and history of the dog. There may be underlying medical issues, so seeing a veterinarian is an important step. Also, young animals may have other reasons for similar behaviors. For example, teething kittens may need appropriate things to chew on or may not be fully housetrained and may not truly be experiencing separation anxiety.
Separation anxiety is based on fear. It is important to assure the dog that it is safe when the owner is not present and that the owner will return. Behavioral and environmental modification is important. By gradually eliminating the dog’s fear and fostering a sense of safety for the pet, many behaviors can change. The first step is to assess the current environment and behaviors:
- What does the dog do as the owner gets ready to leave?
- What does the owner do as he/she gets ready to leave?
- What does the dog destroy?
- Where is the dog? Are there other pets?
- What toys does the dog have available?
Environmental changes like rotating different toys, adding more interactive toys, and gradually getting the dog used to a crate or other type of environment can help. Behavioral changes start with cues from the owner. A change or elimination of the routine when an owner leaves or returns home may help. It is important for the pet to stay calm before an owner leaves and when the owner comes home.
Behaviors take time and consistency to change, so consulting with a behaviorist or experienced trainer can make a significant difference in the success of the training. Antidepressants or anti-anxiety drugs (anxiolytics) can be given to dogs with separation anxiety, but should not be relied on as the sole treatment for separation anxiety.
Living and Management
Being consistent when trying to change separation anxiety behaviors is critical. If behavioral symptoms do improve, an owner may be able to taper the amount of medication given and potentially discontinue using medications after a period of time. Other options that might work if behavioral and environmental modification do not help include doggy day care or a pet sitter.