Separation Anxiety

My dog gets really wound up when I leave in the morning for work. And he’s even more excited when I get home in the evening, jumping up on me and barking. Now I’m seeing marks on the doors like he’s scratching and I even found a “mistake” on the carpet. He’s never been like this before. What do you think is going on?

Dear Reader,

It’s possible your dog has separation anxiety, which is a psychological condition in which an individual experiences excessive anxiety regarding separation from people or from home to which there’s a strong emotional attachment. Experts believe about 10-15% of dogs suffer from separation anxiety, making it second only to aggression among canine behavioral problems.

The excessive greeting behavior you describe falls under the category of hyperattachment, which also includes following the owner from room to room and constantly pestering for attention. You also describe a few of the other common signs of separation anxiety:

• Destructive behavior (scratching, chewing, digging)
• Distress vocalization (barking, howling, whining)
• Inappropriate elimination (urinating, defecating)
• Attempts to escape
• Loss of appetite, inactivity, depression
• Psychosomatic disorders (vomiting, diarrhea, excessive self-licking, circling, pacing)

Behaviorists aren’t sure why some dogs develop separation anxiety and others don’t although they share the same home and owner. It may have to do with genetics, traumatic early experiences or a current distressful event. There does appear to be a connection between dogs that have been abused and neglected and separation anxiety.

Hopefully you’ve recognized the signs early enough that some minor changes will help you dog cope with your absence. The first thing experts recommend is to change your leaving habits. That is, if every morning on your way out you make a cup of coffee, put on your shoes, and grab your keys or purse, try to change the order so your dog doesn’t pick up on the fact that you’re leaving soon and begin to get upset. Next, give your dog a distracting toy, treat or some other item of comfort that he only gets when you’re gone. Here’s a third idea: establish a “safety cue.” This is a command, a toy or even turning on the radio to signal that you’re only going out for a few minutes (say, to take out the trash) and he’s not to worry. Most importantly, ignore your dog the last 20 minutes before you leave and the first 20 minutes upon your return. Most behaviorists agree that attention from the owner is the reward dogs are seeking and if they have to sit quietly or lie down to receive it, excessive greeting behavior may go away. Finally, explore calming supplements as a way to rebalance your dog’s nervous system and allow new, good habits to take root.

If these methods are not enough to ease your dog’s separation anxiety, it may be time to take the next step, which is major behavior modification. For dogs this severely affected consider enlisting the help of a certified behaviorist or veterinarian, especially if prescription medication is necessary to assist with the retraining. Remember that drugs such as Clomicalm and Reconcile do not “cure” separation anxiety, they allow the dog’s mind to focus on the systematic desensitization techniques used to reduce the unwanted behavior.

Lydia Gray, DVM MA, is the Staff Veterinarian for SmartPak. Prior to joining SmartPak, Dr. Gray served as the first-ever Director of Owner Education for the American Association of Equine Practitioners. She has authored numerous articles in publications such as The Horse, Horse Illustrated, Western Horseman and a variety of veterinary journals and magazines. Dr. Gray is also a frequent speaker at horse expos, veterinary conventions and other events. After graduating with honors from the University of Illinois College of Veterinary Medicine and receiving her Master's Degree in Interpersonal and Organizational Communication, she practiced at the Tremont Veterinary Clinic for several years. Dr. Gray is active in the American Veterinary Medical Association and Illinois State Veterinary Medical Association. She enjoys training and showing her Trakehner, Newman, in both combined driving and dressage, and is a USDF “L” Program Graduate (with distinction). Find Dr. Gray on Google+

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Posted in Ask the Vet, Behavior, Canine Ask the Vet

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