As people continue to return to the workplace, there is concern that their dogs may develop separation anxiety. This generally does not cause separation anxiety, but it can be a problem for dogs with separation anxiety.
Separation anxiety causes dogs to panic when they realize they are alone; it can even occur when the owner is home but out of sight.
While many dogs with separation anxiety are very attached to their people, not all clingy dogs have separation anxiety. Signs of panic associated with separation anxiety include destruction, usually focused on the door through which people leave, distress vocalization and house soiling.
Separation anxiety is different from anxiety related to confinement, noise phobia, territorial behavior and anxiety-provoking situations such as people coming to the door or yard when the owner is away.
Dogs can become anxious watching their owners getting ready to leave. These dogs have departure anxiety but not necessarily separation anxiety. Dogs with separation anxiety generally panic shortly after their people leave. This is best determined by using a video camera, webcam or cellphone set to video to observe your dog’s behavior following your departure.
Treatment of separation anxiety involves a combination of medication and modification.
Medications are often needed to treat anxiety so that dogs can learn to be alone and independent. The earlier you start anti-anxiety medications, the more successful treatment will be. In the beginning, a long-term medication is used with a short-term (panic attack) medication. Long-term medications can take four to eight weeks for full effect, and the short-term medications promote more rapid results and help get behavior modification started.
Teaching your dog to feel safe and independent is the goal of behavior modification. Feeding all food from a food-dispensing or puzzle toy before walking out of the room and teaching the dog to go and relax on a mat are a couple of many independence exercises.
Another approach is to teach the dog to want to have its people leave. You first teach the dog to sit and wait while you put four treats on the floor in front of the dog and teach a release command that lets it know it’s OK to eat the treats. You then gradually work your way to the door, getting farther away before releasing the dog to eat the treats. You gradually add turning the door knob, opening the door, stepping in the open door, etc. The first time you’re ready to walk through the door and close it, put down the four treats plus an extra-special long-lasting treat such as a stuffed Kong, bully stick or flavored rawhide. After closing the door, you return before the dog has finished or lost interest. Video is helpful here. Gradually increase the time you are gone. If you can get through 30 minutes, then generally your dog will be less anxious after that and wanting you to exit so it can get the release command and treats.
Most dogs do not “need” to be with their people 24/7. It is important not to confuse clingy dogs, dogs wanting to be with people, excitable dogs and dogs with panic related to other problems with those suffering from separation anxiety. But if your dog has a fear of being alone, then early and aggressive treatment is most effective.
Dr. Kenton Taylor is a veterinarian with Miramonte Veterinary Hospital, 1766 Miramonte Ave., Mountain View. For more information, call (650) 962-8338 or visit miramontevet.com.