Goals of Treating Separation Anxiety
Separation anxiety is something that dogs experience when they become excessively distressed by being apart from the person to whom they are the most attached. It can lead to a number of problems, including inappropriate elimination, vocalization and episodes of highly destructive behavior, among many others. There are various ways to address separation anxiety that are both medical and non-medical in nature. The overall treatment goal is to change the dog’s behavior so that it no longer becomes distraught when separated from its owner, but instead remains safe, calm and content.
The hallmark of treating canine separation anxiety is behavior modification. There are an almost infinite number of ways to modify a given behavior in a given dog, depending upon what that behavior is, the skill of the veterinarian, trainer or behavior therapist, the surrounding physical environment, the temperamental makeup of the dog and the commitment, diligence and persistence of the owner.
In acute or dramatic cases, separation anxiety is considered a medical emergency. Dogs should not be left alone during these episodes. If necessary, medical management in times of crisis may require pet walkers or sitters, doggy day care, boarding at a veterinary hospital or other facility, taking the dog to work, or any other safe and creative way that helps to alleviate the dog’s distress and reduce the chances of self-trauma. Owners should work with their veterinarian (and with other animal behavior professionals whom their veterinarian might recommend) to work out the details of a long-term behavior modification regimen that is tailored to their dog. Generally, the process involves desensitizing the dog to the owner’s departure and return, and teaching the owner not to intentionally or inadvertently reinforce the dog’s panic-related behaviors.
Non-medical techniques for managing separation anxiety can include things as simple as increasing the amount of regular daily exercise and play time that the dog gets. Working owners can enlist the help of friends or professional dog-sitters who can spend time with their dog and provide necessary distractions when the owner is not home. This can help the dog lose its focus on destructive behaviors and gradually become desensitized to its owner's absence. A dog with separation anxiety should be helped to relax in a variety of different settings, both with and without its owner. The amount of time that an owner spends with or focuses on his dog might be decreased temporarily to a level where the dog can become less dependent on its owner for stimulation. This again might be accomplished by involving friends and neighbors in the day-to-day activities of the dog. Increased play time, more frequent walks away from home, car trips to new places and increased personal interaction with a variety of people can help decrease the dog's obsessive dependence on its owner. Dogs that suffer from separation anxiety might also benefit from enrollment in an obedience-training course, so that their self-confidence is reinforced.
A number of other desensitization and counter-conditioning techniques have been suggested to be helpful for dogs with separation anxiety. Some techniques that may be appropriate, in addition to medical treatment and managed behavior modification, might include massage therapy to reduce anxiety and stress; training and participation in performance activities such as fly ball, obedience, agility, tracking, utility, field trials, sledding, weight pulling, etc.; possible application of acupressure techniques; use of herbal or other non-regulated supplements or “remedies”; or other forms of exercise and supportive care which might help to promote relaxation, calmness, confidence and comfort. Some of these more non-traditional, alternative or adjunct approaches lack controlled studies of their effectiveness and may not have established quality control methods or ways to assess their benefit to dogs with separation anxiety. While these approaches are beyond the scope of this article, your veterinarian and referral behavior professionals can discuss them with you in much more detail. What owners of dogs with separation anxiety should know is that help is available. When a dog is gently, kindly and consistently desensitized to new situations in its owner’s absence, that dog can learn to accept those situations in a calmer fashion.
Punishment should never be used as a form of “treatment” for dogs with this disorder. It doesn’t work, and it can be extremely harmful to the dog and possibly to people around the dog as well. Similarly, dogs with separation anxiety should not be rewarded for their behavior. Unfortunately, many owners with the best of intentions inadvertently reward separation anxiety by comforting and reassuring their frantic dogs when they come home. Experts suggest that this should be avoided, with homecomings generally kept low-key. Treats, attention and affection generally should only be offered when the dog is calm, quiet and relaxed, to reward the desired behavior.
If all else fails, certain prescription and over-the-counter anxiety-reducing medications are available from or upon recommendation by your veterinarian. These can and usually should be given concurrently with tailored behavioral modification techniques. As with any medications, adverse side affects from anti-anxiety drugs are possible and should be discussed with the attending veterinarian. The theoretical goal is to eventually reduce or even discontinue drug therapy once the dog's separation anxiety has been corrected, if that is possible or realistic. Unfortunately, most dogs with significant separation anxiety require life-long medical treatment.
The prognosis for dogs with separation anxiety is quite variable. Successful treatment depends largely upon the owner’s commitment to the process, as well as on identification and resolution of the underlying causes of the separation anxiety. As with most disorders, the prognosis is better for dogs that are diagnosed and treated early and consistently. If your dog displays signs consistent with separation anxiety, consider scheduling an appointment with your veterinarian. The behaviors associated with this disorder almost always worsen without treatment, so the sooner treatments are started, the better. While it can take many months of continual behavioral modification exercises and medical therapy before the condition is corrected, most dogs usually improve with time and eventually regain a normal or nearly normal quality of life.
Owners should remember that separation anxiety is not caused by a dog being spoiled, being inherently mean or being disobedient. It is a real medical disorder that requires long-term treatment and a long-term commitment by a caring owner. If your veterinarian is not comfortable treating separation anxiety, he can refer you to a veterinary behavioral specialist who is. Don’t give up on a dog that misses you too much. In most cases, you can work with that dog and with your animal care professionals to successfully manage the problem.