We’re thrilled to welcome back well-known and respected pet behavior and training expert, and Vetstreet.com contributor, Mikkel Becker on our blog today! She’s talking separation anxiety in our pets… Take it away, Mikkel!
Countless canines become anxious when left alone. Stress upon separation spans from mild anxiety to an extreme state of panic. Whenever a dog is anxious at separation, it’s important to address the issue immediately, starting with a visit to your veterinarian. Stress upon separation rarely goes away without intervention, but more often, escalates over time. Caretakers of dogs who are anxious when left alone, find that normal tasks, like going to work or going out on a date, are difficult to impossible. The situation can become so severe the dog causes serious harm to themselves or to the home. Even for dogs who internalize stress, the state they are in emotionally is damaging long term to their health and affects their ability to cope with everyday stressors.
There are numerous indicators of a dog nervous with separation. Signs can include excess salivation, panting, hyper vigilance, whining, barking, acute anorexia, pacing and inability to settle. Anxiety can amplify to the point of self-injury where the dog causes themselves serious harm as they attempt to claw, bite and jump out of exit points. The household also suffers devastation. Doors, crates and windows can be damaged as the dog attempts to flee, while household items like couches can be ravaged from anxious chewing. Dogs become so nervous they may even lose control of bodily functions and have accidents in the home.
Dogs in this panicked state are literally helpless at their own behavior. Dogs don’t do these destructive behaviors out of spite as a way to teach their person a lesson for leaving them. Instead, their behavior stems from a root emotion of fear. To change the behavior, the root emotion must be changed.
In my profession as an animal trainer working in conjunction with numerous veterinarians, including my father, Dr. Marty Becker, I help address separation anxiety on a regular basis. Separation anxiety is one of the most common behavior problems in dogs, with 20-40% of dogs reported as having the condition.
Thankfully, with the right combination of training, environmental modification and veterinary intervention, separation anxiety can be decreased or eliminated. Whether a dog is only moderately nervous or in an all-out panic, it’s important to take the necessary steps to help a dog overcome their distress when left alone.
Keep in mind, before training begins, it’s important to train under the supervision of a veterinarian who can rule out any medical conditions contributing to behavior and properly diagnose separation anxiety if needed.
As an animal trainer, I want to share with you several of my top tips for addressing separation anxiety. The training is also helpful as a preventive tool against the development of separation anxiety.
Use a ThunderShirt. One of my favorite tools in my training arsenal is the ThunderShirt. Regardless of the size or breed of the dog, the ThunderShirt works on about 80% of dogs. Even without any training, the ThunderShirt drastically reduces anxiety with near immediate results. The ThunderShirt works to non-invasively calm dogs in a similar manner to swaddling a baby.
Many dogs dislike being crated, and some of their panic may stem from being shut in an enclosed area. If your dog dislikes the containment aspect of separation, find a more open area of the home to leave your pooch in that’s doggy proofed. The area of the home should have windows, as dogs feel less enclosed when windows are present. If you have a secure fence and your canine is not an escape artist or incessant barker when separated, consider allowing access the outdoors. By opening up the dog’s area, canines are less likely to feel trapped, and may relax as a result.
When you leave and when you come back, keep attention on the dog as minimal as possible. A simple, non-emotional goodbye or greeting will do, rather than hugs, kisses and emotional words. The more calm and nonchalant the greetings, the less worked up the dog will get. When you return, wait five minutes or until the dog calmly settles into a relaxed sit or down, before acknowledging.
Reduce departure cues. Throughout the day, even on weekends, randomly put on your shoes, pick up the keys, turn on the car, open the garage and do other cues that may signal you’re leaving. Often dogs become anxious even upon the perception of these cues, because they signal you’re leaving. However, if you do these cues with the end result being you still stay home, the cue loses its meaning.
Train your dog to enjoy time alone in their own area. Put the dog in a certain area of the home, like an xpen, or tether the dog with a leash and harness next to a comfortable area, like a dog bed. Place food puzzles or long lasting chews in these areas for the dog to nibble on. To begin with, sit a few feet away and get the dog comfortable with just a short distance separation. The training can be made more challenging later by giving the food item and leaving to go into another room or going outside. Return to the dog before they finish eating their food reward. The idea is to have separation happen with associated pleasurable rewards and at a pace the dog can remain relaxed at. Play classical music during separation, proven to calm pets, to further promote relaxation.
Protect your pet. During training, management techniques like sending the dog to doggy daycare or a dog sitter during inevitable long departures is helpful. In some cases, medication from your veterinarian added in combination with training, will provide especially anxious pets with the best chance of recovery.