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by Margaret Muns, D.V.M.

The following is paraphrased from a lecture by Dr. Victoria Voith a prominent behavioral specialist. (1995 Michigan Veterinary Conference, Lansing, MI Jan. 26-29, 1995).

About 1/3 of dogs presented to behavioral specialists are presented because of separation anxiety. The signs an animal may show when separated from the owner include vocalization, destruction of property, elimination, loss of appetite, excessive grooming, more intense greetings, hyperactivity, and depression. These signs can be extremely time and location specific.

The typical history of separation anxiety is that the problem occurs as the owner leaves or shortly afterwards. The key to diagnosis is that the behavior only occurs during the absence of the owner. This doesn't necessarily mean physical absence. All it can take is some kind of denial of access to the owner. A closed door may be all it takes. The difference between separation anxiety and a housebreaking problem is that with housebreaking problems, the dog will eliminate even when it has access to the owner.

Dogs with separation anxiety may exhibit pre-departure anxiety, Their anxiety level rises as the owner prepares to leave and then escalates in intensity after departure. The anxiety and resulting behavioral problems may persist for many hours after the owner departs. These dogs usually have a history of being abandoned during some time in their lives. They are dogs that either came from the shelter or dogs that are constantly in contact with people. The trauma of going to a shelter will predispose dogs to becoming over attached to humans.

Using a crate doesn't do much to stop the anxiety. In fact, crates are usually contradicted in cases of separation anxiety. All the crate does is condense the problem into one small location. Also, the crate keeps the house clean in cases where elimination occurs. However, the crate can be dangerous to these dogs. Many dogs will become so frantic that they will injure themselves in the crate.

The mainstay of treatment for separation anxiety is behavior modification. Some dogs can be helped by simply taking them with the owner at all times. However, this usually is impractical. Getting another dog to keep the first dog company usually is not a good idea. Only 50% of the dogs will be helped by companionship. Also, getting more dogs only puts more stress on the owner.

Behavioral modification consists of doing practice departures and changing the circumstances surrounding the departures. Owners must carefully identify all the circumstances surrounding their normal departures and do something to change them. Doing so changes the significance of the event and decreases anxiety. It also gives a dog clues that what is about to happen is a short departure and not frightening. For example, owners could turn the TV or radio on. The lecture described a case in which the dog was fine when the owner left the apartment to do the laundry. Consequently, the owner was told to pretend that this was going to happen every time she did her practice departures. The laundry basket and wash soap was the cue to the dog that nothing frightening was happening. Turning on the dishwasher can also be used.

Once owners have figured out what departures the dog will tolerate, you begin with your practice schedule. Start with leaving for less time then it takes the dog to become anxious. Owners may have to leave a tape recorder running when they leave to record what happens so they can time the length of their first practice departures. Once the owners have determined that length of time, they should setup their cues and leave without any fuss. When the time is up, the owners should enter the home nonchalantly. Avoid exuberant greetings and any rewards. Such greetings will result in the dog learning to expect them and will increase the anxiety level. Over time, owners need to gradually increase the time the dog is left alone until the animal can tolerate being left alone for a couple of hours. Once the dog is able to remain calm and relaxed for a couple of hours, it should be alright for the day. Departures should be practiced at different times of the day and on weekends so that the dog does not learn to anticipate what is going on.

After long departures, it is alright to reward the dog with an exuberant greeting and a reward. After several months of successful long departures, owners can gradually phase out the cue.

Drug therapy can help dogs with severe separation anxiety become more receptive to behavioral modification. They also help if owners can't do the repeated departure training for a long time because of their schedule. The drug of choice to help with separation anxiety therapy is Elavil. The drug is not approved for use in dogs. As with all behavioral medications, it should be begun on the weekend so that the dog can be carefully observed for side effects. Separation anxiety usually requires much patience and hard work on the part of the owners. The poorest prognosis for correction occurs in cases where the owners work very long hours and are gone on the weekends. Dogs owned by people who travel extensively also have a poorer prognosis. Canines are naturally extremely social animals who thrive on company. So it is not surprising that separation anxiety is so widely seen.

 

 

 

 

   

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