|The information on this page is for educational purposes only and should never be used as a substitute for seeing your own veterinarian, with your pet, for a complete examination and individually prescribed treatment.
by Carole Machery DVM
WHAT IS IT?
Sometimes our pets love us too much – the fear of being separated from us becomes overwhelming. Some people believe it’s because they feel responsible for our safety and when we are not in their sight, we might be in danger. Others believe it is the sadness of separation.
Whatever the underlying cause, dogs suffering from SA have a dramatic anxiety response usually within 30 minutes of the owner’s departure. Dogs can cry, chew furniture, tear down blinds, urinate, defecate, self-mutilate, dig, and scratch at windows, doors and walls. They do this out of a sense of panic, NOT out of a conscious effort to punish the owner for leaving them.
Typical dogs suffering from SA display the panic with every departure – short or long. These are probably the dogs that follow you room to room around the house when you’re home, and that watch you carefully as you prepare to leave. When you return, they are likely to greet you with an exaggerated excitement. Many of these dogs dislike being outside unless their owner is out with them.
WHY MY DOG?
Some of the predisposing causes of SA are thought to be:
- Spending time continuously with your dog, not leaving the pet alone for some time each day from the beginning of adoption.
- A reaction to an unsettling event such as boarding, rehoming, being lost.
- Changes in the family’s routine such as a change in work schedule, a move to a new home, or the addition of a new pet or person in the home.
- Behaviors by the owner that foster dependency – you must be alpha!
WHAT CAN I DO ABOUT IT?
Milder cases of SA often respond well to the techniques discussed below. Severe cases can take time and patience, and can be quite challenging. Remember each dog is an individual and you must try different things – some might work, others might not.
- Avoid eye contact or interaction with your dog for 30 minutes before leaving him and for the first 30 minutes after you return. Basically, that means IGNORE him. Even if he’s jumping up, wagging hard, bumping you… IGNORE him. Pay no attention to him until he is calm, quiet and no longer trying to get your attention. If he’s in a crate, let him out but ignore him.
- Analyze your own departure routine – gather keys, put on coat, check the kitchen, pick up purse, say something to your dog, walk out a specific door. Then perform these things in front of your dog without actually leaving. This sends confusing signals and will begin to defuse some of the building anxiety they feel as they watch your preparations. For example, pick up your keys and purse but then sit down. Leave the house through a different door. Certainly ignore your dog. Doing this over and over should relieve your dog of a lot of the initial apprehension.
- Stage very short departures (literally seconds long, in some cases) so you return before any anxiety is manifested. Walk out the door and immediately return. Continue to ignore your dog. Gradually – very slowly – extend the length of your absence as you see acceptance of your absence. If there are regressions, you have to shorten the departure time again. If you can leave for 30 minutes without signs of anxiety, you can usually then increase your departure time in longer increments. If you can get to 90 minutes without a panic, then you can very likely leave for any length of time.
- Safety cues or distractions are sometimes helpful. Don’t use or do anything that has previously been associated with the anxiety behavior. Find something new. Leave an article of your clothing with your scent. Use a Kong filled with peanut butter. Turn on the radio or TV if you haven’t been doing it. Never use your safety cue if you are going to leave beyond what you know is his tolerance limit at that time. You want it to be associated with safety and sense of wellness.
- In very severe cases, anti-anxiety medications can help a dog transition into accepting your absence. Check with your vet. These medications are not to be feared. If your dog’s problem is not responding to the behavior modification techniques mentioned here, adding an anxiety-relieving medication may make a tremendous difference.
WHAT SHOULDN’T I DO ABOUT IT?
- Never punish your dog for SA behavior. This is not a behavior he is doing freely. It is a real panic attack.
- Don’t impulsively adopt another pet. It may or may not help, depending on the origin of your dog’s problem. If the problem is loneliness, it might. If it’s true SA, it probably won’t help.
- The effect of crating is different with different dogs. SA behaviors can certainly occur in a crate. If your dog is crated and has SA, you can try not crating him. And vice versa.
- Obedience classes will not address the underlying problem. Obedience classes can be fun and are almost always good to do, but don’t expect it to resolve SA.
SOME FINAL THOUGHTS
Most dogs can be helped through this issue. If you persevere, you will probably make significant progress. If you get discouraged, you can also seek professional help. I recommend the Appalachian Veterinary Specialists practice in Knoxville. Dr Shull and her associates are excellent and fully qualified to help both with SA and with other behavior issues such as aggression, noise phobias, obsessive/compulsive disorders, etc. You will need a simple referral from your veterinarian. There are only 37 veterinarians certified in animal behavior in the US, so we are fortunate indeed to have one so close.
||If you haven’t already read it, a book worth reading (several times) is The Dog Listener by Jan Fennell, available online through Amazon and other retailers. This insightful book guides you through a non-violent peaceful method of training and relating to your dogs, and the techniques described have been very helpful for many SA dogs.Also very helpful is another book called Leader of the Pack by Nancy Baer and Steve Duno. Again, the emphasis is on understanding why dogs behave the way they do and what behaviors WE do that send the wrong signals to our pets resulting in dominance issues, SA, barking, etc. This book is available through Grassmere Animal Hospital, as well as on line.
This page last updated 04/30/2006