Do you return home from work or a brief shopping trip to discover that your dog has destroyed your house and possessions? Has he left "accidents" on the floor or your bed? Have your neighbors left notes or phone messages complaining about your dog's constant howling and barking? If these incidents occur on a regular basis, your dog may be suffering from a behavioral disorder called separation anxiety which has become more common because many households rarely have someone home all day to provide companionship for their dogs.
Domestic dogs regard us as their "pack" and undesired behaviors may be triggered by our absence (even for brief periods of time) like general destruction in the home, self-mutilation (wounds from excessive scratching, chewing and licking), house breaking accidents, and excessive vocalization (barking and howling).
However, these same behaviors may also be observed in dogs that are stressed, bored, haven't been properly housebroken or have medical problems. According to Pat Miller (author of "The Power of Positive Dog Training"), unlike dogs suffering from separation anxiety there are dogs that have "isolation distress" and don't want to be left alone but find comfort with other animals or any human. Dogs with separation anxiety are "hyper-bonded" to one specific person and the destructive panic attacks occur when that person is absent. In extreme cases, owners may decide to quit their jobs or seek jobs that allow them to work from home and limit their social lives outside the home. Sadly some owners become overwhelmed and relinquish their dogs to shelters or rescue groups.
Veterinary behavior specialists Dr. E'Lise Christensen and Dr. Karen Overall co-authored a chapter of "Decoding Your Dog" that specifically addresses separation anxiety and provides current information obtained from extensive research. They recommend that a consultation with a veterinarian is the first step to rule out any underlying medical conditions. Some vets may take a behavioral history, but if the vet is not comfortable treating separation anxiety a referral to a veterinary behavior specialist or certified animal behaviorist may be recommended for a diagnosis and treatment plan. They also recommend that the owner get a video of the dog when he is home alone for the behaviorist to view to determine a correct diagnosis by observing the dog's behavior.
Christensen and Overall list the following signs of separation anxiety when a dog anticipates being left alone:
•Watching the owner closely and following the owner from room to room with a tucked tail.
•The dog showing a "worried" expression (eyes wide, wrinkled forehead, tight facial muscles.
•Panting, pacing, whining.
Signs of separation anxiety when the dog is alone:
•Barking, whining, howling.
•Destroying objects that carry strong human scent (shoes, eyeglasses, clothing, remote controls, exit points like doorjambs, flooring in front of doors or windows, curtains, doorknobs).
•Urinating and defecating in the house.
•Sweaty paws (seen on hard floors).
•Signs of pacing (scratched floor, worn carpet).
•Vomiting, diarrhea, drooling.
•Freezing and shaking, being unable to move.
The behaviorist obtains a thorough case history from the dog's owner covering the dog's developmental milestones (if known), daily routine (feeding, exercising, interactions with humans, housebreaking issues), and possible stress triggers in the home (family or lifestyle changes, noise sensitivity, presences of other pets, etc.). After observing the dog's behavior from the videotape and reviewing the dog's case history the behaviorist a treatment plan is developed which may involve the behaviorist collaborating with the veterinarian if medication is to be prescribed. The treatment plan will be implemented by the owner and may include modifying how they interact with the dog such as reducing the drama of their departure from and arrival home because mushy good-byes and high-pitched greetings may trigger anxiety. Basic obedience taught by the behaviorist or a certified trainer may also be an adjunct to the treatment plan because dogs may feel more secure when owners routinely implement positive training techniques.
The following recommendations may help to reduce separation anxiety behaviors:
•Exercise the dog 20-30 minutes before leaving home. A tired dog is less likely to be anxious or destructive if he has less energy.
•Provide the dog with a safe area of confinement.
•Alter your routine to prevent your dogs's anticipation of your departure (put car keys in your pocket during the dog's final potty break, place briefcase in your car while still wearing pajamas, etc.). Exit from a different door or room.
•Five minutes before leaving give your dog a goody-filled hollow toy (like a Kong) to keep him busy when you leave.
•Play classical music because it has a calming effect on anxious animals.
•When leaving calmly and without emotion say, "I'll be back."
•Exit from a different door or room.
When you arrive home, ignore the dog for 10 minutes then pet hi and quietly greet him only when he is calm.
Separation anxiety is a perplexing and complicated dog behavior problem that is not a "quick fix." With a structured treatment plan, time, patience and the collaborative efforts of the dog's owner, behaviorist and veterinarian, separation anxiety behaviors may be gradually reduced and possibly eliminated.
Iris Katz serves as a member of the board of directors and as an educational facilitator for the Humane Society of Carroll County. Her column appears on the third Sunday of the month.