Separation Anxiety

Permission to reprint.
1st published Gundog magazine
Oct/Nov 1995

If you have owned only one dog in your life, chances are that you have seen firsthand some evidence of separation anxiety. And if you have owned several dogs, you almost certainly have had at least one dog that exhibited this problem.

The outward manifestation of separation anxiety can be as mild as panting and salivating or tearing up pieces of paper from the wastebasket. Then again, the dog might have ruined a door or taken up a few yards of broadloom. Your dog could also express his anxiety by self-mutilation; chewing its tail, or flea-chewing a hole into its flank, or breaking off teeth while amputating a table leg.

Perhaps you have arrived home to the sight of your best friend holding a mouthful of your favourite chair or, worse, the remains of your wife’s new two-hundred-dollar shoes. Or maybe your neighbour shouted at you over the fence, saying, “your damned dog barks and howls all day long, and one of these days I’m going to kill him.” Or, while on a hunting jaunt, you left your dog loose in the back of the station wagon while you had lunch in a small-town café. When you returned, the dog had chewed off the steering wheel and part of the dash. All this destruction, all the aberrant behaviour, all the looks of outraged innocence are the result of separation anxiety.

What is separation anxiety? What makes your good buddy suddenly, or maybe gradually, become a royal pain where the sun don’t shine? What happens is the dog gets into a state of high anxiety because he is separated from his most important person-you. What the dog does - dirtying the place, destroying something, especially something he associates with you, or self-mutilation - is his attempt to alleviate his anxiety. Do not mistake the dog’s behaviour as “telling you off” or in some way getting back at you for being left behind. Dogs are not vindictive; that trait is exclusive to humans. Your dog is not getting revenge or saying, “That’s for leaving without me.” Nor is the dog just spoiled rotten and throwing a tantrum. He is relieving his anxiety. He doesn’t know he’s going to catch hell when you get home, rather, he will be glad to see you when you return, at least the first time.

But then you see your ten-inch L.L. Bean boot made into a slip-on rubber shoe , and you lose it. You scream, beat the dog, and say dirty words. Next time you come home, the dog is apprehensive, but that is not because the dog feels guilty. He’s reading your body language, which is asking, “Well, what did you trash today?” You have made the problem worse in that now the dog is anxious both when you leave and when you come home.

Most destruction occurs in the first hour after separation. When you get home four, six or eight hours later, he doesn’t associate your bad humour with something he did as long ago as 3 to 7 hours. Therefore, punishment is not only useless, it probably is counterproductive. What the dog does out of frustration obviously cannot be fixed by adding more frustration. All is not lost, however. The dog was not always this way; something triggered it. Therefore, separation anxiety can be cured, but the cure can be a major problem in itself.

The hard part is determining the cause and defusing it. Few dogs exhibit separation anxiety the day you bring them home. Most are fine for a while, then suddenly go over the edge. Or, in a common scenario, the dog is okay most of the time and becomes destructive only when something else happens. For example, the dog only shows separation anxiety when left alone and a thunderstorm occurs. These two things happening together induce anxiety and result in a dog-sized hole in the basement door. Since this combination might happen only once or twice a year, the upside is you must replace one or two doors each year. The down-side is you must consult the Farmer’s Almanac to find out if you should go to work tomorrow.

Let’s first look at how separation anxiety can be prevented. By far, the easiest approach is to prepare your young dog by desensitizing him on day one. The first step is to give the dog a comfortable place – all his own – where he feels safe and secure. In other words, you must kennel train the dog. The dog must recognize that the crate, i.e., the kennel, is his and being in it is positive reinforcement; it must make him relax. He should sleep in the crate at night and nap in it during the day, whether you are in the same room with him or not. The crate must never be used as punishment. It should remain a positive place, not a place to send the dog when he is bad.

Once your dog learns to love his kennel, going there happily when you command him to do so and on his own to sleep, you have the best possible handle you can get. This is not difficult to attain because generally young dogs prefer being in a kennel, especially one with solid sides. Young dogs are like children and what kid doesn’t love crawling into a big cardboard box, just to sit there feeling cosy?

When your dog loves his kennel better than anything, gradually increase the time he is left alone in his crate, up to several hours. The security of the kennel, and knowing you will return, takes the place of any anxiety the dog would likely feel had you not kennel trained him.

But what if you hadn’t gone the kennel routine? Your dog never did show any anxiety and here he is 4 or 5 years old, weaned from the kennel to his dog bed from Cabella’s and – surprise! You arrive home to find the dog weeded the begonias by removing the top six inches of soil and undid the chain link fence to create a hole large enough to visit the neighbours. Suddenly, out of the blue, your dog has full-blown separation anxiety and you never now whether he will go ballistic when you leave him alone. Don’t blue-juice the dog; he can be cured, but it’s not easy.

First, analyse the problem. Try to determine what caused it. You know leaving the dog home alone was part of the cause, but maybe dog has been left home hundreds of times and didn’t tear up the turf. Look for something else that acted as the last straw. Maybe a thunderstorm occurred, maybe a power surge caused the smoke detector to beep, maybe a visitor banged on a door or two, then left. Maybe it was a combination of things, such as a lightning flash which caused a power surge, prompting the smoke alarm to beep, followed by loud thunder that shook the house. To the dog feeling a bit insecure at home, the flash becomes the cause of the loud alarm which shook the house. It’s all very logical to the dog, who starts digging a hole in the carpet. As he digs, there is no flashing-beeping-shaking sequence, so digging is reinforced by a decrease in anxiety. If this is the scenario, you can go about breaking the cycle.

First, crate-train the dog so he has his comfortable place, whether it’s a doghouse, a bed, a mat or whatever. Work on it so he stays at his place for up to a half-hour. Then desensitize the dog to the other anxiety-inducing things.

One way which is not recommended by most people who understand the behaviour of dogs and other animals is a process called flooding. In this case, that would involve flashing a strobe, beeping the smoke alarm, playing a recording of a thunderstorm, and shaking the dog’s house, all at high intensity until the dog just stops reacting. This is a make-or-break situation. The danger here is that the dog generalizes the scary things to everything and becomes a basket case.

Desensitizing the dog cannot be rushed.. If you do rush it, you may blow it and end up back at square one. Because the flash means something bad and, in the dog’s mind, caused the whole sequence of bad things to follow, start with the flash. While you do something pleasant with the dog like playing, feeding him, rubbing his belly, whatever he likes best, have a helper outside in the daylight pop a strobe light aimed away from you and your happy dog. Gradually, over several days, increase the flash intensity by doing this procedure when it’s dark outside (with the light on).

Then gradually bring the light source around to where it is aimed at the dog. Keep increasing the intensity until you and your helper are in the same room with the dog.

You must now repeat the whole sequence with the dog lying on his spot or in his crate near you and with the helper outside gleefully popping away with the strobe. If at any time the dog freaks out, back off, decrease the strobe’s intensity a few notches, and try again more gradually. Then repeat the procedure with the dog in his crate – or wherever – and you out of sight but peeking at the dog.

Desensitization to the flash works on the dog in two ways: he associates it with play or something else pleasant and no loud beep alarm, crash or shake follows. So, to the dog, the flash takes on a new meaning; because nothing bad happened, the flash no longer means something bad. That might be enough and you won’t need to desensitize the dog to the beep or the crash of thunder.

But, more likely, the dog is still upset when the alarm beeps even in the absence of the flash. After all, it is a sequence that has him spooked. No problem. Desensitize your dog to the beep the same way you desensitized him to the flash. Present the sound at low intensity, just barely loud enough to be heard, while you are playing with the dog, then gradually increase the sound intensity.

In a similar fashion, desensitize your dog to thunder. There are tapes and CDs available with magnificent thunder claps that are designed to blow your speakers and mow down the sensory hairs in your inner ears. But you don’t need to flood the dog by playing it as loud as your kids would crank up their heavy metal music. Start with the volume sounding like the storm is somewhere in the next county, then gradually increase the volume. After desensitizing the dog to each step in the sequence, you might need to go to combinations – flash and beep, or flash and thunder, or flash and beep and thunder. Chances are, however, that you won’t need to go to these extremes.

At the same time this is going on, remember that the dog should have a spot that is all his own with his own bed or mat, or be crate trained so he feels secure in his space and desensitized to being alone. Obviously, this technique takes time, effort and a lot of patience. And, like anything in dog training, the trainer must control the situation; July or August would be the wrong time for desensitizing to thunderstorms because a real flash and crash might occur – and obviously at intensities over which you have no control.

For those of you who don’t have the time for the above cure, there is a faster way to beat separation anxiety. The fast-lane route is to use one of the tricyclic anti-depressant drugs available through your veterinarian. The most recently (1995) touted drug is Prozac. A lot of it has been sold to mellow whatever ails you, but it can also be used on your dog. It counteracts neurotransmitter depressants and so can be included as an anti-depressant.

The term anti-depressant is a bit misleading. Anti-depressants have nothing to do with getting you out of a funky mood. They are drugs that act against depression of neurotransmission. In animals and humans, certain behaviours occur because depressants are at work overtime. Anti-depressants inhibit the function of the depressants and so inhibit the behaviour. The behaviours that result from the neurotransmitter depressants working overtime are usually aberrant and overdone. These are referred to as obsessive-compulsive behaviours. The weird things a dog does as a result of separation anxiety can be called obsessive-compulsive behaviours.

Behavioural pharmacology is an emerging field in the modification of behaviour via drugs. One school of thought is that a dog behaves in some unusual and crazy way because a neurochemical imbalance in the brain causes the dog’s undesirable behaviour. These unwanted behaviours happen when the dog is in a state of high arousal, as in a separation anxiety attack. The newer Tricyclin Anti-depressants (TCA’s) are anticompulsive or anti-anxiety drugs, or both; they do not make the dog tranquil but act to inhibit the re-uptake of noradrenaline and serotonin in the brains presynapse terminal of axons. An axon is the main trunk of a nerve cell. A synapse is where the nerve message jumps from one nerve cell to the next.

These drugs are not the cure in and of themselves, however. They must be used in combination with the behavioural modification techniques described earlier. The drugs do allow you to cure your dog faster, though. The drugs work because the dog associates lowered anxiety with things that previously caused high anxiety, like separation. Therefore dosage starts relatively high, is maintained for a period of time, and is gradually decreased. Eventually, the dog is weaned off the drug. Weaning is essential to eliminating the problem.

But things seem so nice when the dog is stoned that there is a temptation to keep him that way – sort of lobotomized. The trouble is that side effects are possible, such as drowsiness, vomiting, diarrhea, and urine retention. The most serious side effect is congestive heart failure if the dog has cardiovascular problems.

If you decide you can handle the drug route to curing your dog’s separation anxiety and your veterinarian agrees to prescribe one of the drugs suggested here, keep I mind that the drug is meant to help you and your dog get over the hard places, not to be a crutch. These drugs essentially rewire the brain, biochemically speaking, so the dog’s anxiety level is depressed and therefore, his arousal level is lower. Because he associates the relatively low level of anxiety with things that were previously causing high anxiety, he is learning to do nothing in response to you leaving and to whatever associated events spooked him. For these reasons, the behavioural modifications, desensitizing and general training should be done in conjunction with the drug use. As the dog’s behaviour improves, he must be weaned from the drug.

While anti-depressant drugs, kennel training, and desensitizing will help our dog, there are some actions you should not take because they are either useless, or worse. First off, do not get another dog to keep your dog company. This seldom has any beneficial effect. Chances are you will end up with two dogs suffering from separation anxiety and trashing your place. Hiring a dog sitter who will give your dog some brisk walks each day is helpful, but, please, don’t get a second dog.

Another don’t, because this is just plain useless for solving the problem, is tying the chewed object to the dog or applying some repellent like hot sauce to the chewed object.

The most important thing to remember is – Don’t punish your dog. He doesn’t associate the punishment with whatever he did because it’s ancient history. He killed your chair hours ago. Ignore what the dog did and ignore the dog. Neither punish nor praise him. Punishment can cause an increase in fear and have the opposite effect from what you intended.

Obviously there are many things that a dog can become sensitive to. Depending on the individual dog and particular situation, the behavioural modification techniques you should apply will vary. The potential for separation anxiety exists t some extent in all dogs. Generally speaking, the more dependent the dog is, the higher the probability of separation anxiety. However, even with no preparation a lot of dogs go through life without problems, but many don’t. So, take no chances. Start your dog out right. Kennel train him, exercise him enough and never make a big production over leaving. Then everything should be fine. But if your dog does develop separation anxiety despite your best efforts, remember that it can be cured.

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Updated 29th December 2004