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Dog behaviourist A dog's separation anxiety is similar to a human's panic attack

Dogs live in the moment so those that suffer from this type of anxiety believe they are permanently separated from their human carers, writes Suzi Walsh.

SEPARATION OR ISOLATION anxiety are very common issues that approximately one in seven dogs struggle with; dogs that suffer from these conditions have a fear and worry about being left completely alone or separated from a particular individual.

The severity may differ, but a dog’s emotional state at that time is comparable to a human having a panic attack.

Because dogs live in the moment, those that suffer from this type of anxiety believe they are permanently isolated or separated from their human carers. Separation anxiety in turn is also incredibly stressful for the human caregiver because it prohibits a dog being left alone for even a short period of time.

Separation anxiety can be difficult to treat because in many cases, a dog will begin to show anxious behaviours long before their caregiver leaves due to the anticipation of being alone or away from their person. Some dogs with separation anxiety are okay when their person leaves, but cannot handle more than a certain length of time alone.

Dogs are different

To you, separation anxiety might seem like an irrational fear and indeed it is but it’s not just dogs that suffer from irrational fears. Many human beings also experience irrational fears such as a fear of mice or spiders. If I tell you that a mouse or a spider is more afraid of humans and very unlikely to cause you injury or harm, that doesn’t mean that a human who has a fear of mice or spiders is able to say ‘Oh yes, now I’m not afraid anymore’. We don’t have control over our irrational fears and neither does a dog.

It’s important to remember that dogs are social animals and require human contact in order to thrive. They cannot choose where they live, so it’s up to us as pet owners to choose the best lifestyle for them. Yelling at or punishing your pup is not beneficial – in fact, it will only make their anxieties worse and do nothing to better the situation.

What’s happening in the dog’s brain?

When a dog experiences separation anxiety, their brain’s chemical balance is thrown off. The sympathetic nervous system is activated, causing them to respond with a fight, flight or freeze reaction to the perceived danger.

The release of hormones (such as cortisol and adrenaline) floods their brain and causes physiological responses that include increased heart rate, alertness, and more blood flow to muscles so they are ready to act. This physiological response is indicative of separation anxiety.

These physical changes in the dog are reflexive and involuntary, meaning they have no control over themselves. This means that a dog isn’t making a conscious decision to behave in this way and they are not purposely trying to aggravate you when you are not around.

When a dog suffers from chronic panic, it becomes harder for them to return to their pre-anxious state, or “under threshold”. This makes it more difficult for their bodies to flush away the harmful chemicals and to process emotion in the brain. As a result, they struggle with behaviour modification exercises designed to reduce stress when left alone.

What causes separation anxiety?

There is no one thing that causes separation anxiety, many things can contribute to a dog developing separation anxiety, including:

  • Genetics
  • Lack of social experiences during their critical development period as a puppy
  • Previous bad experience(s) when left alone
  • Being re-homed or growing up in a shelter environment
  • Never taught how to cope with being alone
  • Change in routine (loss or addition of a family member or canine companion)
  • Suffering from other anxieties (noise phobia, travel anxiety, reactivity etc.)
  • Canine cognitive dysfunction (doggy dementia)

How do you know if your dog has separation anxiety?

Some separation anxiety symptoms are more obvious than others. When evaluating a dog’s symptoms it is important that a dog is only showing these symptoms while alone or apart from their significant companion.

If a dog is also exhibiting these behaviours at other times throughout the day, the cause may actually be a different type of anxiety or an underlying medical issue.

It is important to note that nearly all puppies under the age of 16 weeks suffer from some sort of separation anxiety when alone. Puppies are very young and vulnerable so their desire to feel safe and secure is very strong, just like in human babies.

The most common separation anxiety symptoms seen in dogs are:

  • Vocalisation. Barking, whining, and/or howling
  • Destructive Chewing or Scratching. Especially destruction at exit ways (windows, doors, gates, crate doors)
  • Toilet accidents when otherwise the dog is fully housetrained
  • Pacing, drooling and/or panting
  • Watching the door expectantly for their person’s return
  • Licking or chewing on themselves repetitively. But this is only in extreme cases and the more likely reason for this behaviour is undiagnosed discomfort or an allergy
  • Following the person when they are home, and unable to relax without knowing where that person is at all times.

But the only real way to identify separation anxiety is to record your dog during your absence from the home and observe their behaviour.

Managing separation anxiety in your home?

To get the best results with separation anxiety, ensure that your dog remains calm. Panic prevents learning and any effort to help will be useless if your pup is too scared to take it in. Establishing or restoring trust so that your dog knows you’ll return is the key.

Until they are more at ease, being left alone isn’t an option.

You may have to adjust your routine, seek help from friends or relatives to look after your pup when you’re away, enrol in doggy daycare, or hire a pet sitter for companionship. Though this “absence suspension” may feel intimidating, it is vital for progress in treating separation anxiety.

How do you help a dog with separation anxiety?

The best strategy to help dogs with anxiety is systematic desensitisation. The aim is to alter your dog’s negative association of your absence to a neutral association, through low-level exposure and repetition.

In order to overcome panic, you must prevent panic from happening.

If you can prevent your dog with isolation distress/separation anxiety from ever reaching a point of panic, you can slowly, gradually acclimate them to longer and longer periods of time alone.

Contrary to popular belief if you return to your dog when they are barking or howling it does not reward them for this behaviour. Your dog is in a state of panic, they are fearful and do not associate your return with a reward.

For example, if your dog shows subtle symptoms of anxiety when you put your coat on, you will practise putting your coat on and then taking it off again. Your dog starts to learn that putting your coat on doesn’t always mean you are leaving, and putting your coat on becomes a neutral action over time.

As you progress through systematic desensitisation, you start adding in more of your departure routine. This could be putting your coat on and then grabbing your bag or putting your shoes on and then picking up your keys. Over time, the process becomes your typical departure routine paired with short duration, and eventually longer duration, absences.

During this process, you never do more than your dog can handle. You only add on the next step of the routine when your dog is showing a neutral response to the previous step. With time, and patience, and the duration of absences slowly increasing from 10 minutes to two hours or more, eventually, the process will become your typical departure routine – allowing for more freedom for both of you!

Why video monitoring is important for separation anxiety treatment:

In order to prevent your dog from becoming anxious during training, you need to watch their body language for subtle signs they are starting to worry, and immediately return before they exhibit more serious symptoms. Using a camera and watching live means that your treatment is the most effective.

Does your dog need medication?

Your veterinarian may recommend supplements or prescription medications to help manage your dog’s separation anxiety. There are a variety of anti-anxiety medications, and your veterinarian will help you decide which may be best for your dog based on their health history and severity of symptoms. Medication will not cure your dog’s separation anxiety but instead, it provides your dog with some relief enabling treatment to happen faster.

Can music calm an anxious dog?

Playing music can help your dog feel less anxious, and calm dogs with separation, travel, or noise anxiety. Music can be a great tool to use alongside your training plan. The best music to use is one that is designed especially for dogs. This music is commonly found on all types of platforms.

Where should you leave your dog when you are gone?

Ideally, you would leave your dog in the space that they sleep overnight, this is already an established resting place and will likely help them to relax at a faster pace.

Should you use food to help treat separation anxiety?

While food used to be used in treatment for separation anxiety, an increasing number of behaviour consultants are not including food-stuffed toys or other treats in their treatment plans anymore.

Why is this?

When a dog is in a state of panic, they likely won’t show any interest in food. In many instances, even if they do eat, it is done hastily and does not help to soothe their anxieties.

Food can distract some dogs when you leave but does nothing to ease their panic when they finish and realise you are gone. In fact, the act of giving a dog a stuffed food puzzle or chew can become an additional trigger for some dogs as it only leads to predicting their guardian’s departure.

However, it is recommended to use food and treats as part of enrichment and other training exercises to help reduce overall stress and increase a dog’s confidence outside of a desensitisation treatment plan.

Does crate training help with separation anxiety?

A crate may help prevent separation anxiety in your dog, as proper crate training is essentially teaching your dog to relax when confined and away from you. But for dogs who struggle with being restricted in a crate or those dogs who have never been crate trained it is not recommended that you use a crate for treating separation anxiety as it will only likely increase their distress.

The best way to help your dog with separation anxiety is to have a good team onboard, a brilliant veterinarian alongside a qualified ethical dog behaviourist will help you and your dog build a confident relationship where your dog can be left alone for periods of time.

Suzi Walsh is an expert dog behaviourist and dog trainer. She has an honours degree in Zoology and a Masters in Applied Animal Welfare and Behaviour from the Royal Dick School of Veterinary. She has worked as a behaviourist on both TV, radio and has also worked training dogs in the film industry. 

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