SeparAtion Anxiety

By Frania Shelley-Grielen. All rights reserved.

Separation Anxiety in dogs, is characterized by behaviors indicating severe distress when apart from an owner or other a dog is attached to. Separation Anxiety is one of the most common issues, second after aggression, owners list when seeking professional help or rehoming dogs. Reactions include excessive vocalizations, destructiveness (especially at points of exit such as doors or crate doors and walls), rearranging objects, inappropriate elimination, depression, restlessness, self-mutilation and more. Because these behaviors are mostly happening when a care giver is not home, not seeing evidence that they have occurred, does not rule out the dog that suffers in shut down silence. Research notes apartment dwellers are more likely to report this problem, possibly due to neighbor proximity alerting them to an event a more distant homeowner may not be made aware of. While we know, separation anxiety affected a good number of dogs pre-pandemic, it will no doubt affect an even greater number, as more dogs who have never been home alone, end up there. What is so important to remember, is that separation anxiety points to extreme anguish in the emotional state of the animal. These dogs are absolutely beside themselves and much of what we see in their behavior is how they are coping with their overwhelming panic and anxiety over being left alone.

Classic approaches to treating separation anxiety are limiting owner absence, removing punishment and behavior modification with counter conditioning (creating good associations with the bad thing) and desensitization (increasing exposure through minimal increases in duration or decreasing distance to the bad thing) while under threshold (the amount of time with or next to the bad thing which is not stressful or not so bad ). The challenge with working with separation anxiety, aside from not leaving the dog alone, is timing formation of positive associations close enough to threshold (in this case, the point where being left alone or knowing they will be left alone evokes a phobic reaction) and not exceeding threshold in duration. When anxiety does takes over, the brain is flooded with stress chemicals and learning or relaxation is not possible. Periods of time left alone in the desensitizing process have to be measured for the individual and counter conditioning has to occur with the dog under threshold so that anxiety cannot take over in either phase. This means when to offer reinforcers and desensitizing periods can be counted in seconds and minutes depending on the dog. It also means that there is no small a period kept under threshold that is not a big enough accomplishment to build on. ​

For maximum success, knowing how to tackle Separation Anxiety and determining threshold is the first step. Looking at the research on applying behavior modification approaches can yield a wealth of information and can be inspiring in keeping owners on track and motivated with protocols of baby steps and consistency.

Generic plans offer guidelines to start from, tailoring for the individual dog in treatments with specifics of duration, rewards and more can increase desired results. A study by Blackwell, Casey, et al. compared a generic treatment plan with a customized plan. Owners of 56% of the dogs in the generic plan reported significant improvement, while an additional 25% said the dogs showed slight improvement. All of the dogs in the customized plan were reported to have improved. As any owner or separation anxiety dog would tell you, we should not diminish improvements for those dogs no matter which group they are in. Still, we all want to do better for our dogs the more we look at the research, the more inspiration we can take that efforts, even simple and haphazard ones, can be rewarded.

Scientists, Takeuchi, Houpt, et al., looked at treatment outcomes and owner compliance with 52 dogs seen at the Cornell University Animal Behavior Clinic for separation anxiety. Owners given less than five instructions were found to be the most likely to follow them. Removing punishment, increasing exercise and provisioning a chew toy when leaving were the most implemented directives. According to the owners, 62% of the dogs improved. Another study, done in 2011 by Butler, Sargisson, et al. looked at a small number (eight) of separation anxiety dogs where owners were instructed to leave dogs in isolation with food treats 3-4 times per day. Starting with five-minute segments, increments were increased by five minutes until 30-90 minutes was achieved without phobic reactions. Food was to be provided immediately before leaving and on return. Leaving dogs alone otherwise was discouraged, as was punishment. Exercise was instructed for at least 15 minutes daily. Results showed six of the eight dogs improving even as compliance was uneven. Food (3 dogs), praise and toys (2 dogs), exercise (5 dogs), no exercise (3 dogs), punishment ceased for all dogs save for two who had never been punished (although the plan called for ignoring a dog and withholding food for 30 minutes on arriving when evidence, such as defecation, rearranging, etc. was found showing the dog had been distressed). The researchers concluded “systematic desensitization was a consistent factor in the improvement of separation related problem behavior” and “The consistency with which systematic desensitization was applied did not predict the speed of progress or final success.”

Again, removing punishment, limiting owner absence and increasing exercise are pretty universal. It is not uncommon to also see plans which introduce unwitting or negative punishment such as ignoring a dog on leaving and arriving. With a dog who is anxious to the point of panic over owner presence, this can be counterproductive and add to anxiety. Scientists Amat, Camps, et al. write on offering just the opposite in their paper on predictability and contextual fear in separation anxiety dogs. “Predictability is one of the main psychological factors that modulate the stress response” and “we recommend increasing the predictability of the owner’s departure”. (continues below)