Physiological Aspects of Separation Anxiety in Dogs

by Lynda Adame

Will you be home soon? Photo courtesy Ellie Goldstein

One of the most common complaints heard from the owners of companion dogs is that their dogs engage in disruptive behavior when left alone. (1) This disruptive behavior, commonly referred to as separation anxiety, is actually a distress response to separation from the person or companions to whom the dog is attached. Ex-racing hounds that are placed in homes as lone dogs often exhibit separation anxiety. This can be explained by understanding their unique past and realizing that they have never been alone or out of the company of other hounds before. Combine this with the fact that they may have never been inside a real home with humans that actually want to love and pet them, and you have a dog that could become anxious when left alone.

Separation anxiety behaviors are exhibited by male and female dogs with equal frequency and are not breed or age related (except at the time of weaning). One of the key differentiating features between other behavioral disorders and separation anxiety is that the dog engages in separation responses within a short time after being left alone — often within minutes. These behaviors typically peak within five to thirty minutes of being left, and then gradually decline. The disruptive behaviors associated with separation anxiety are commonly broken down into the following categories: Elimination behaviors; Destructive behaviors; and Excessive vocalization. (2)

Realize and accept that the dog is not being disruptive on purpose

Dogs don’t understand complicated human emotions like spite or revenge; they are simply responding to the stress they are feeling by acting out behaviorally and physiologically.

There is a fascinating sequence of events that take place inside a dog in response to stress. The sequence starts with the dog interpreting the situation as “stressful” in the cerebral cortex and then passing this information down to the limbic system via nerve impulses. The limbic system, the part of the brain where emotional responses are made, creates a physical display to suit the emotional response as well as physiological changes in the body. These physical adjustments — rapid, bounding heart rate, prolonged rapid panting, eye pupils large and dilated, extensive drooling and salivation, adrenaline release to increase blood pressure, and loose fluid bowel motion — occur automatically, with no conscious effort on the part of the hound. (3)

Punishing is not the key.

Because the dog is not doing this on purpose, punishment is not the key. Punishment used incorrectly can result in negative side effects that actually magnify separation anxiety. For example, a dog will not associate punishment with separation anxiety if it is punished at the spot of misbehavior after the owner returns; instead, the dog might learn to anticipate punishment when the owner returns and exhibit fearful submissive behavior which the owner interprets as guilt.

The goal is to gradually acclimate the dog to being alone.

Initially you should set up many short separations from the dog that last less time than it takes the dog to demonstrate the anxiety response. For some dogs, this period (initially) may only be one or two seconds long, and you might only go to another room in the house. As you have successes, gradually increase the duration of the separation periods. Present the dog with a safety cue when leaving. This cue should be a consistent statement (“Be Good. I’ll Be Right Back”) or action (leaving a TV or radio on). Leave the dog with something to occupy it like the Buster Cube or a hollowed out bone stuffed with peanut butter or a jerky strip. The Buster Cube is a toy that holds 1and a 1/4 cups of dog kibble inside its compartments and releases small amounts of the kibble as the dog works the cube and rolls it a certain way. Studies have demonstrated that dogs respond better to departures when the lengths are varied (e.g., alone one minute, two minutes, one minute, three minutes, two minutes, four minutes, one minute, four minutes, one minute, four minutes, three minutes. ad infinitum.4 A dog that can tolerate being alone for an hour can usually tolerate being alone for an entire day.

Confining a dog with separation anxiety may work, but the experts feel that the confinement of a crate can add to the panic and stress of the dogs. Crates are not recommended in the treatment of separation anxiety, but confining the dog to your bedroom with a baby gate can provide a soothing secure environment for the dog.

Drug Therapy

Drug therapy is the new frontier in treating separation anxiety. PLEASE be extremely careful when using any anti-anxiety medication on a hound or any sighthound because of their unique liver metabolism. Dr. Harry Newman, a sighthound-experienced veterinarian who works with adoption groups in the Buffalo, NewYork area provided this information: “In hounds as in other dogs, I strongly urge owners to try behavior modification techniques and only resort to anti-anxiety medication as last resort. I recommend running a complete blood panel prior to starting these drugs and a repeat panel one to two weeks after starting them. I closely monitor liver enzymes as well as all the other organ functions. Some of the current drugs used are Prozac, Amytriptylline, Buspirone, and Inderal. This type of therapy is new and there is not much data out on reactions observed in hounds.” Regardless of the drug or the dose regimen used, owners should be warned of the range of side effects, and it must be stressed that these drugs should be used temporarily.5

The Lone Dog

The subject of separation anxiety comes up frequently on the hound-l e-mail list and seems to afflict lone dogs. There is one cure to separation anxiety that has worked near miracles for the owners on that list, and that is the addition of a second dog into the household, preferably another hound.

1 Victoria Voith, DVM, PhD, and Peter Borchelt, PhD, Separation Anxiety in Dogs, University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine, Continuing Education Article #4, 42 Vol. 7 , No. 1, January, 1985

2 Ibid

3 Linda L. Blythe, DVM, PhD, James R. Gannon,BVSc, FACVSc, and A. Morrie Craig, PhD, Care of the Racing hound (Portland, Oregon, Graphic Arts Center and the American hound Council, Inc., pp 48-54, 1994)

4 Lynn McElroy, DVM, Separation Anxiety in Dogs,University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine, Continuing Education Article #2, 391, Vol. 10, No. 6, July 1989

5 Ibid

CG W 96

ALL RIGHTS RESERVED This article and any photos or artwork contained within may not be reproduced or reprinted without express written permission from the author, artists, and/or photographers. 


2 thoughts on “Physiological Aspects of Separation Anxiety in Dogs

  1. Good information, this is something we have been working on as we have a lone grey.

    To help out Deloris above. In the first paragraph, they are talking about the fact that ex-racers have always been around other greys, and lead a very structured life. Their trainers handled them on a strictly professional level. As a result, the hounds always knew what was expected of them. When left in their new homes alone, even for short periods, they can become confused. This is not always recognized by their new owners, as other pets can handle being left alone for short periods.

    With out writing a short book here , I hope this clears up this issue for you Deloris.

    Posted by Vic Parnell | April 11, 2010, 11:43 AM
  2. Interesting post, thanks. Can you explain the first paragraph more?

    Posted by Deloris Gregory | March 10, 2010, 8:26 AM
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