Beyond Separation Anxiety: Part 4, The Grand Finale

     It’s hard to believe I have been able to cover so many differentials for behaviors associated with separation anxiety in just 3 blogs! The only other differential I want to briefly mention is predatory behavior. Destructive behavior (and even vocalization) can be seen when the dog is trying to get to prey; which could be in the form of rats behind the walls! The treatment is to remove the source as predatory behavior is different from other behavior problems in that it is not very amenable to behavior modification. Dogs are either born with it or not, making the prognosis poor for changing the underlying emotional response.

     In the first blog of this series, we discussed the signs for separation anxiety, so in this blog we will focus on what can be done about it! Confirmation of appropriate diagnosis is important. Separation anxiety is one of the most difficult behavior problems to treat as it is often extremely difficult to avoid leaving the dog home alone for most people (myself included). Like other behavior problems, the more the dog practices the behavior, the more difficult it is to change. Since not leaving the dog home alone for months and months while behavior modification is implemented is not realistic for most people, anti-anxiety medications may be prescribed by your veterinarian to facilitate this process. If the pet does need to be left alone, they should be left in the place they are most comfortable with multiple long lasting treats they can safely consume in your absence. The Kong Company has some great ideas for different long lasting treat recipes (http://www.kongcompany.com/recipes/). The dog should always be ignored for 10-15 minutes before leaving and until calm once the owner returns home in order to decrease the emotional highs and lows of these times.

     A key component to treating separation anxiety is to change the dog’s emotional response to being away from the owner. To do this, the dog first must be comfortable with the owner being in a separate part of the house. This is accomplished by implementing independence exercises. The dog is put on a mat with a favorite long lasting treat. Over many sessions the owner practices moving further away for longer periods of time. If the dog is not sleeping or relaxed and eating their treat, then the time and/or distance must be decreased during the next session. After many weeks, once the owner is able to walk around the house for 10-15 minutes out of sight of the dog, graduated departures can be started. This is an extension of the independence exercises with the owner being able to walk out the door for 1 second initially, working up to longer and longer (hopefully hours) periods of time. The long lasting treat should be picked up when the exercise is over so that your dog is rewarded for your absence, not presence. Using a video camera helps to monitor your progress once you are out of sight of the dog.

     Another part of behavior modification for separation anxiety is uncoupling the cues that tell your dog you are leaving from your actual departure. This involves practicing the cues when you are not actually leaving. For example, pick up your keys and then go wash the dishes or put your shoes on and sit down to read a book. Over time you can do more and more cues together until you are able to work up to a whole day’s routine without leaving. Remember that these are general recommendations and each individual patient should have a treatment plan devised by a Veterinary Behaviorist or Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist for safety reasons and the best outcome.

    Well, that’s it for my discussion of separation anxiety. Stay tuned for more behavior blogs. If there is a particular topic you are interested in please let us know!

Meredith Stepita, DVM, DACVB (Veterinary Behaviorist)