Dogs are pack animals. They have been selected for their dependence on humans over 10,000 or more years. From the owner’s perspective, the emotional attachment between a dog and his/her owner has been found to be similar to that displayed by human adults and their children. In this way, both a person and their dog enjoys the synchronous emotional benefit of feelings of attachment and belonging.
Some of the most attractive characteristics of the Labradoodle, include an intuitive nature and an instinctual ability to bond. They make brilliant companions. Labradoodles do best as an active participant in every-day family life and thrive being part of a family. A reliance on humans, to feel safe however, can become problematic if suddenly the puppy or dog is faced with periods of being alone that he/she is not accustomed to.
What does separation anxiety look like?
Separation anxiety has been defined as distress in the absence of an attachment figure.14 The incidence of separation-related behaviour problems has been estimated at 20% of the dog population 20 so this is a relatively common problem.
Dogs with separation anxiety engage in unwanted behaviour such as destruction of property and excessive vocalisation when left alone, causing distress for both the dog and the owner. Additional and more subtle signs that your puppy/dog may be feeling distressed, when left alone include:
- inappropriate elimination (urination and defecation).
- increased or repetitive movements (eg, pacing or circling)
- self-harming behaviour (eg, over-grooming)
- attempts to escape.
- excessive salivation .
Factors likely to predispose dogs to developing separation anxiety.
LITTLE CHANGES CAN MAKE A BIG DIFFERENCE
Changes to routines, such as having a baby; changing jobs; no longer working from home; or a single traumatic event may increase the likelihood of your dog developing separation anxiety. There is also evidence that dogs can pick up on the anxiety cues of their owners so a stressed owner may increase the stress levels in a dog who is also predisposed to anxiety.
Prevention is better than the cure.
A RANGE OF SOCIAL EXPERIENCES
Protective factors include ensuring a wide range of experiences outside the home and with other people, between the ages of 5–10 months and stable household routines and absences from the dog.
TRAINING YOUR DOG TO BE SECURE IN HIS OWN COMPANY
A good rule of thumb to follow when teaching your dog to be comfortable in his/her own company is to establish “alone time”. Perhaps this is instructing your dog to stay on a mat and not follow you to the toilet or kitchen whenever you leave the room. Perhaps this is giving your dog some play time in the yard without your physical presence. Perhaps this is providing activities for the dog to engage in when left alone. There are many puzzles and toys on the market. I recommend the use of Snuffle Mats Australia Snuffle Mats and Balls; Puppia Nosework Activity Mats and Puppia NoseWork Toys and OutWard Hound Puzzles as some examples of items that can be given to your dog to entertain and distract them from an awareness of being alone.
Giving your puppy or dog an item of clothing such as a smelly dressing gown; or old t-shirt; or a plush toy or blanket may be a comfort when you leave for an extended period. There is a super duper product on the market called a Snuggle Puppy that comes with a beating heart beat and a heat pack. We have had great success with this anxiety relieving plush dog toy with dogs of all sizes and ages.
THE COMPANY OF TECHNOLOGY
Is it an option to leave the tv on, the radio; a video or an audio book playing? These measures may all distract your puppy from feeling alone.
Strategies for treatment and Management.
The most successful treatment for canine separation anxiety may be behaviour modification that focuses on systematic desensitization and counterconditioning, which can be supplemented with medication in the initial stages. Individual therapy from an animal behaviour expert is highly recommended. Punishment is ineffective and is best avoided in dealing with dogs with separation-related problems.20,43
WILL GETTING ANOTHER DOG HELP?
It has been suggested that adding another animal, such as another dog, to the household may help dogs with separation-related behaviour problems to cope with absences from their owner.38,39 However, evidence suggests that the presence of another dog in the household does not prevent another dog from developing separation-related problems.9,11,14
Some experts recommended this approach because once the dog is accustomed to the crate they rarely engage in the stress-related behaviours exhibited by dogs that have free access during periods of separation from their owner. The success of this strategy needs to be assessed on an individual basis however as some dogs respond really well to crate training and other dogs panic when constrained by a crate.
Pharmacological interventions such as clomipramine (Clomicalm®) and fluoxetine (Prozac®) may be used for the treatment of canine separation anxiety.45 These are antidepressant drugs used for humans to treat the symptoms of depression and anxiety. While pharmacological interventions may be useful when used in conjunction with behaviour modification, they are unlikely to eliminate a dog’s separation-related problem behaviours in isolation,39 and some behavioural therapy will still be needed.43,53 Many experts recommend drug support in the early phases of interventions for separation-related problems. These authors recommend medication combined with behaviour modification initially, and advise withdrawal of the medication over time.
Systematic desensitization is a technique similar to the treatment of phobias of humans. Initially, the dog is exposed to very short periods of owner absence. The initial separation period must be short to ensure that the owner’s absence is not associated with the whining or anxiety . Hence, the owner is advised to leave the dog, initially, for a few seconds, and then to re-enter the house or room and praise the dog. The length of separation is gradually increased. Repeating the short periods of absence should ensure the consolidation of the calm behaviour so that the time of absence can be gradually increased until it reaches the duration that is needed.
Systematic desensitization is often used concurrently with counterconditioning. The concept underlying counterconditioning is that emotional states like anxiety are incompatible with other activities such as relaxation and eating.55 Thus, when placed in a situation which usually elicits anxiety, the presentation of food should inhibit the dog’s anxiety.55 In this way, the previously anxiety-provoking stimulus will become associated with pleasurable states incompatible with anxiety. Burrinjuck Boutique sell a number of fantastic products that can be useful with this type of training. Kongs filled with something tasty such as mince and frozen will last for a few hours; there are also many varieties of slow feeders and lickimats that work to soothe and aid relaxation. Gnawing is a stress relieving activity so I also recommend wholesome and durable foods that can be chewed for an extensive periods. My list of “go-to” chews include goats horns; (can be filled with dog food and frozen); deer antlers; and bully sticks. We can also make you up a specific chewers pack which is great value for money. A product that is new on the market that may be beneficial is the Sporn Tasty Bones
Separation anxiety is a condition that can cause much distress for both owners and their dogs. There are some factors that may predispose dogs to the development of separation anxiety. There are also things that owners can do to prevent the development of canine separation anxiety. If your dog does develop separation anxiety, the problem may be reduced or eliminated through behaviour modification, supplemented in the early stages with medication. It is strongly recommended to receive assistance from an expert dog behaviourist to guide this modification program. Please get assistance with this issue as early as you can before the problem escalates as separation anxiety is the source of stress for everybody involved and can really detract from the joyful experience of dog ownership.
Have you had experience with a dog suffering from separation anxiety ? Would love to hear from you.