The term “separation anxiety” likely originated in the mid-1980s with Dr. Victoria Voith, a board-certified veterinary behaviorist and Dr. Peter Borchelt, a Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist. The scientific literature on attachment contains numerous references to separation distress as a normal reaction to separation from individuals with whom an animal has formed a social bond. Puppies for example will whimper and cry if the dam leaves them, even if they are well fed and warm. Separation distress vocalizations begin to decrease around eight to ten weeks of age although they remain higher when puppies are alone in an unfamiliar environment.
Separation anxiety isn’t “over attachment”
The basis for separation anxiety problems has long been thought to be due to an “over attachment” to the owner. But recent research fails to support this interpretation. During an attachment test, dogs with separation anxiety showed no difference in the amount of time they spent in contact with or in proximity to their owners than dogs without separation anxiety. In the same study, 65% of the dogs without separation anxiety were reported to follow their owners from room to room. So these patterns are not reliable diagnostic criteria for separation anxiety.
Most dogs do not engage in the severe destructiveness, vocalizing or elimination as long as they are in the presence of someone. We’ve had cases of anxious dogs that escaped the yard and spent the day comfortably in the companionship of kind neighbors. Separation anxiety dogs that are well socialized with other dogs often do well at daycare as an alternative housing arrangement while a behavior modification plan is being implemented.
A shift in behavioral approaches
An alternative view of the basis for separation anxiety is that dogs with this disorder have difficulty coping with being left alone. This is an important distinction because some behavior modification protocols for separation anxiety recommend owners ignore their dogs and any behaviors from them designed to promote social contact. This is a harmful recommendation because it damages the human-animal bond and produces anxiety and frustration when the dog is powerless to initiate social interaction, and the owner is prevented from doing so. This goes far beyond the typical training advice to not reinforce annoying behaviors with attention, such as barking, jumping up or “stealing” clothing from the laundry.
Rather than focusing on the attention issue, behavior recommendations should help the dog be calm and relaxed, rather than anxious, when left alone. Although this problem is referred to as separation anxiety, a better term might be separation phobia, as many of these dogs are in a complete panic when alone. Not uncommonly, dogs harm themselves by breaking teeth or lacerating their mouths and feet in their attempts to escape the house, yard, or even worse, a crate.
Confining a dog with separation anxiety in a crate in an attempt to prevent further destructiveness or housesoiling is a truly dangerous recommendation. Close confinement seems to increase fear in dogs that are already panicked, particularly when they’ve not been previously accustomed or gradually acclimated to being left alone when confined.
Because this is a fear-related issue, separation anxiety problems respond well to classical counter conditioning and desensitization techniques, at least theoretically. The real difficulty lies in the implementation of these procedures. Regardless of the type of fear, it is well documented in the learning literature that continued exposure to the fear-producing event significantly interferes with the successfulness of these techniques.
Behavior modification works with medication
Because the fear-producing event is being left alone, the trick is preventing the dogs from being in this state, or alternatively preventing the fear response if they are. Veterinarians can help these patients if they can temporarily offer day boards for dogs until behavior modification plans have progressed and/or medication has taken effect.
Reducing the fear response is the reason for prescribing anti-anxiety medications, one of which (Reconcile™) has been FDA approved for separation anxiety problems, although others are commonly used off-label as well. Veterinarians have access to numerous references regarding medication (e.g. Simpson and Papich, 2003). In the authors’ experience, over-the-counter naturopathic remedies are not effective for the high anxiety of separation reactions. Those available by prescription only have a much better success rate.
However, it’s important to note that no medication has been shown to be effective in reducing separation anxiety without concurrent behavior modification. If the dog shows a visible reaction to the owner’s departure routine, classical counter conditioning and desensitization techniques should be created for the discrete events that comprise the routine, as well as for the owner’s absences themselves.
Desensitization is incremental exposure to a fear-producing event, and classical counter conditioning is changing the association between events so that the feared event (previously conditioned stimulus of being left alone) now predicts a pleasant event (a new unconditioned stimulus such as food or toys). The goal of classical conditioning in this context is to change the direction of the emotional arousal from fear to calmness or even pleasant anticipation. A sample desensitization hierarchy for a typical owner departure routine might be separated into the following elements, each of which could be paired with (immediately followed by) tossing a treat to the dog and then resuming regular activities (i.e. not leaving):
• Collecting items owner typically leaves with (purse, briefcase, phone, etc.)
• Triggering the garage door opener
• Picking up keys
• Walking toward the exit door
• Opening the door, then closing it and retreating
In extreme cases, each of these elements may need to be split into even smaller behaviors. Rather than opening the door, just reaching for the door knob may be enough to elicit a reaction in particularly fearful dogs.
The behavioral starting place for planned absences could be as long as ten minutes, or nothing more than leaving the room for 30 seconds with the dog prevented from following by either a leash or baby gate. The reason to prevent the dog from following is not to “decrease attachment” but instead to create an extremely brief “absence” the dog can experience without panic. Each out-of-sight experience or actual absence should be paired with irresistible treats. Stuffing the treats in a toy designed for that purpose not only holds the dog’s attention but prolongs the duration of treat delivery. The dog’s interest in the treats is also a way to gauge emotional arousal. Refusal to consume what would otherwise be extremely desirable food indicates a persistent high degree of anxiety and the need to further simplify the behavioral start point. Behavior modification for separation anxiety can be tedious and requires a committed owner. If you do not provide in-home follow-up, it’s advisable to work with a competent trainer, behavior consultant or certified behaviorist who can assist clients with implementation. In addition to appropriate partnership referrals, the veterinarian’s most crucial tasks are to educate clients about the nature of separation anxiety and prescribe medication as an adjunct to behavior modification at their discretion.
Appleby, D and Pluijmakers, J, 2003. Separation anxiety in dogs: The function of homestasis in its development and treatment. Vet. Clin. North Am. Small Animal Pract. 33 (2): 321-344Borchelt, P and Voith, V, 1982. Diganosis and treatment of separation-related behavior problems in dogs. Vet. Clin. North Am. Small Animal Pract. 182: (12): 625-35. Flannigan, G and Dodman, N, 2001. Risk factors and behaviors associated with separation anxiety in dogs JAVMA 219: 460-6. Parthasarathy, V and Crowell Davis, S, 2006. Relationship between attachment to owners and separation anxiety in pet dogs (Canis lupis familiaris). J. Veterinary Behavior 1: 109-120. Simpson, BS, and Papich, MG, 2003. Pharmacological management in veterinary behavioral medicine. Vet. Clin. North Am. Small Animal Pract. 33 (2): 365-404. Wright, JC, Reid, PJ, and Rozier, Z, 2005. Treatment of emotional distress and disorders – non pharmacologic methods. Pps. In McMillan F. Ed. Mental Health and Well Being in Animals. Blackwell Publishing, Oxford, U.K. More information on separation anxiety is also available from the authors through On Demand webinars at BehaviorEduationNetwork.com and on DVD from HelpingFido.com. Dr. Suzanne Hetts, PhD, CAAB, CVJ and her husband Dr. Daniel Estep, PhD, CAAB are award-winning speakers and authors, having lectured on four continents to animal parents and professionals. Their company, Animal Behavior Associates, Inc., provides pet behavior education to animal professionals at BehaviorEducationNetwork.com and animal parents at HelpingFido.com and HelpingKitty.com. [callout] Rather than focusing on the attention issue, behavior recommendations should help the dog be calm and relaxed, rather than anxious, when left alone.