Separation Anxiety in Dogs: A Holistic Approach

Separation Anxiety in Dogs: A Holistic Approach
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What is Separation Anxiety?

You know the feeling…

Sweaty palms, increased heart rate, dry mouth. These are all symptoms of the incredibly common feeling that plagues over 40 million Americans a year known as anxiety. Just as humans experience a wide range of emotions, so do our dogs and unfortunately, that includes anxiety. While dogs can experience anxiety for a multitude of reasons, only one is “the second leading cause of owners relinquishing dogs to dog pounds or euthanizing their dogs.”

Separation Anxiety is an anxiety disorder in which animals experience symptoms of anxiety or separation distress when they are separated from their owner. Dogs are particularly susceptible given the fact that they’re pack animals by nature. While it can be an incredibly frustrating problem to deal with, these is hope. Whether your dog shows signs of mild anxiety or falls apart every time you leave the house, with a little time and effort, separation anxiety disorder can oftentimes be beaten at home without the help of an animal behaviorist or prescription drugs.

What Causes Separation Anxiety?

Change in Routine

Like humans, dogs are creatures of habit. They become accustomed to your schedule. That means if you go from working from home to commuting to an office on a daily basis, your puppy is going to notice the change and could potentially develop separation anxiety.

Lack of Integration into Household

Some pets are not properly integrated into the household when they’re first brought home. They may be confined to a basement, a small crate, among other areas of the house. This has been known to cause separation anxiety in dogs as well.

Untimely Removal from Mother

There is an increased risk of separation anxiety if the puppy was removed from their mother too early or too late. The optimum time to remove a puppy from their mother and littermates is between 8 weeks and 14 weeks. Anything earlier or later could cause anxiety issues.

Change in Family Status

As mentioned before, dogs experience a wide range of emotions just like humans. That’s why it’s not surprising that they are capable of developing strong relationships with all members of the household. The human-animal bond is strong and if a family member passes away or divorce takes place, your dog may experience separation anxiety in response to the new family dynamic.

Abandonment

As you can imagine, abandonment in any form, whether its being surrendered to a shelter or given to another family, is an extremely traumatic event or our furry friends and will often trigger separation anxiety, even after transitioning to their forever home.

Moving

A change in residence can trigger separation anxiety in dogs as well. Even if the family stays intact, the unfamiliar environment can take some time to adjust to. Following a move, it’s important to be extra patient with your pup until they can adjust.

Making Arrivals & Departures a Big Deal

While you may want to hug and kiss your dog moments before stepping out the door for work, it’s important that you fight the urge. Making a huge deal out of arrivals and departures make your absence a bigger deal to your dog than it has to be. When saying goodbye or hello to your pup, keep it short and sweet.

Dog Unemployment

Whether it’s retrieving a rabbit, catching mice, or digging holes, most dogs were bred for some type of job. Dogs need a job to do and much like humans, unemployment can cause major anxiety. While you don’t need to invest in a farm filled with livestock to keep your dog occupied, it is important to keep your dog stimulated with various jobs. Bottom line: your dog brain is probably telling them to get a job!

 Symptoms

urinating

 

  • Urination/Defecation
  • Barking/Howling
  • Chewing/Digging
  • Escape Attempts
  • Pacing
  • Coprophagia (Eating Feces) 
  • Excessive Salivation/Licking
  • Acting Like They Haven’t Seen You in Forever When You Return Home

Other Medical & Behavioral Problems to Rule Out

 

 

Simulated Separation Anxiety

Dogs are constantly seeking attention from their owners and will go to great lengths to obtain it, even behaving badly. Simulated separation anxiety has the same symptoms as actual separation anxiety. The only real difference is the motivation for the bad behavior.

Simulated separation anxiety is learned, attention-seeking behavior that comes from a lack of leadership, self-control, and a need for attention. Dogs behave badly because they know it’ll guarantee a response from their owner, even if it’s negative. There is no real stress involved whereas true separation anxiety is a legitimate stressor.

The good news is…

Simulated separation anxiety is fairly easy to overcome. It all comes down to the owner taking a more authoritative stance and not rewarding bad behavior. For instance, if your pup barks non-stop while in their crate and you let them out so they stop barking, that sends the message: if you want out of your crate, barking will do the trick. A more appropriate response would be to wait until your dog stops barking and only then let them out of their crate.

Isolation Anxiety

anxious dog

Another behavioral issue that is commonly confused with separation anxiety is isolation anxiety. Isolation anxiety or distress comes about when the dog is left alone; however, it is not an issue as long as someone is there. That someone could be a friend, a neighbor, or even a second dog. While separation anxiety deals with anxiety that develops when the dog is separated from one specific person, isolation anxiety deals comes about when the dog is left alone in general.

The good news is…

Isolation anxiety can be conquered! You can hire a dog sitter, take your pup to doggy daycare, or, if you’re up to it, get a second dog for companionship. The important thing to remember when dealing with anxiety is abstain from additional stressors such as harsh verbal punishment, shock collars, and choke chains. These “training tools” will only add to your pup’s anxiety.

Medications

 

There are many medications that cause incontinence. Chat with your veterinarian to see if any of your pup’s medications could be behind their accidents.

Submissive or Excitement Urination

Some dogs urinate when they are overstimulated. It can happen when you return home from work in their excitement to see you or it could even happen when they’re being scolded due to feeling intimidated or submissive. Submissive urination has multiple tell-tale signs like flat ears, exposing their belly, low tail, or crouching. Luckily, both are easy to spot.

Lack of House Training

If your dog was never properly house-trained, then not surprisingly, it can lead to accidents in the household. If this is the case, it’s time to revisit that training manual.

Territorial Marking

Dogs are territorial and express it through what is called territorial marking. Unlike full on urination, territorial marking involves the dog peeing small amounts around the home, just enough show ownership over the household to any potential newcomers.

Boredom

Ever get antsy after being cooped up in an office all day? Well the same goes for your dog. This lack of physical and/or mental stimulation can result in your dog getting getting into all sorts of trouble while you’re away.

Juvenile Destruction

 

It’s 100% normal for puppies to exhibit destructive behavior such as chewing as they get more accustomed to their environment. On the bright side, young minds are easier to mold so you shouldn’t have any problem correcting their undesirable behavior.

Unfamiliar Sights & Sounds

Unfamiliar sights and sounds such as the mailman or a tree’s shadow through the window can send your dog into a barking frenzy. These bouts are fueled by the perceived threat and generally go away as quickly as they come.

Prevention

 

Exercise

A tired pup is a happy pup! Similar to humans, exercise boosts serotonin in dogs, causing a decrease in stress and anxiety. Before you leave for work, try to fit in some playtime or a walk. Be sure to wrap up the physical activity a solid 20 minutes before departure to give your dog time to wind down.

Positive Reinforcement

Creating a positive association with your departure is a great way to avoid separation anxiety. Taking off for work? Slip your dog their favorite treat. Before you know it, your dog will be pushing you out the door in anticipation of their daily dose of happiness.

Give Them Space

As mentioned above, our natural inclination is to make a big deal out of our arrivals and departures. However, if you’re trying to prevent your dog from experiencing separation anxiety, you should really do the opposite. Next time you arrive home, don’t acknowledge your pup until they settle down. If you don’t make it a big deal, neither will they.

Obedience Training & Discipline

Nothing can replace a good training program. Separation anxiety stems from a lack of patience and the unknowingness of whether or not you will return home. If you instill values such as patience, calmness, and respect at a young age, you will avoid a great deal of behavioral issues early on, including separation anxiety.

Give Them a Job

Avoid boredom and pent up angst by giving your pup a job to do. It can be as simple as a scavenger hunt. Before work, hide treats and/or toys around the house for them to sniff out during the day. The same thing can be accomplished with a Kong. These hollow toys can hold your dog’s favorite treat, or something even more enticing like peanut butter. It will take some time and effort, but we have a feeling your dog will be up for the challenge.

Crate Training

Crate training is a viable option when it comes to preventing separation anxiety in your dog. However, the way in which you approach crate training will make or break your dog your dog’s experience. Your dog should view the crate as a place of comfort and security, not one of punishment and isolation.

When crate training your pup, start slow. As much as you might want to force it, the worst thing you can do is lock your pup inside and cross your fingers that they get used to it. Instead, place the crate in an area of your home that your dog spends a good deal of time in and keep the door open so they have the ability to go in and out and they please. Add a toy or a blanket or even a treat to coax your pup inside. It will probably take several days but over time, your pup will come to look at the crate as a safe haven.

Treatment for Mild Separation Anxiety

Counterconditioning

Counterconditioning is a great way to tackle mild separation anxiety. Your dog has come to associate your pre-departure routine and your departure with something very negative: being without you. However, if you can transform that association into a positive one, you’re well on your way to combatting your pup’s separation anxiety. This is accomplished by consistently rewarding your dog with their favorite treat or toy moments before your departure. However, keep in mind that severely anxious dogs tend to avoid food so this method is only successful for dogs with mild anxiety.

How to Treat Moderate to Severe Separation Anxiety

 

Desensitization & Counterconditioning

The best way to tackle severe separation anxiety is through a process known as desensitization and counterconditioning. This consists of starting with short separations (a few minutes even) and gradually increasing the duration of time you’re gone until your dog is comfortable. It’s a complex system that takes a great deal of dedication; however, it has a high rate of success.

Step 1: Pre-Departure Routine

You may not realize it but your dog is very attentive. They know when you’re gearing up to leave because they watch your pre-departure routine. Actions like putting on makeup or grabbing your purse and keys send the message: MY OWNER IS LEAVING. TIME TO GET ANXIOUS. The first step in combatting your pup’s severe separation anxiety is to show your pup that these pre-departure cues don’t necessarily mean you’re leaving.

For the next few weeks, perform some of these cues without leaving. You could grab your keys and go to the kitchen to do dishes. You can get dressed in your work clothes and then sit down on the couch to watch TV. This process will take many weeks given the fact that your dog has probably built up such a strong association over years of observing the family routine.

Step 2: Graduated Absences

The second part of the process entails getting your dog comfortable with longer and longer absences over a period of time. Start small. It can be as simple as making your dog sit outside of your bedroom while you close the door to get dressed. You can then work up to actually leaving your home for set durations of time while your dog sits calmly. Start with leaving for 5 seconds and then return. Each time you perform this exercise, you will increase the amount of time you are gone for.

This is the perfect time to integrate some of the other remedies we’ve touched on such as counterconditioning. It is important to remember that this process will take time and then every dog will move at different paces.

Never EVER do this…

Here’s the hard part: if you’re going to do this right, your dog can NEVER experience that which he fears so much, AKA being alone. This means for as long as the process takes, you will only be able to leave your pup in small intervals. If your company culture allows, bring your dog to work with you or see if it’s possible to work remotely. If these aren’t viable options, look into dog sitting or doggy daycare. It will take some planning and a good deal of effort, but the result will be well worth it!

One last thing to keep in mind is it’s best to abstain from harsh verbal and/or any physical punishment during this process. This will add to your pup’s anxiety and could set you back.

Products To Consider

Compression Jackets

Compression jackets such as the ThunderShirt applies a gentle, constant pressure to your pup. Similar to swaddling a baby, this jacket has been known to reduce anxiety and make dogs feel safer and more secure. While they were originally intended for dogs who showed signs of anxiety during thunderstorms, they have also been successful in combatting separation anxiety.

Essential Oils

These aromatic oils have a number of wonderful benefits for our canine friends. In addition to relieving anxiety, they also stimulate the immune system, fight viruses, bacteria, and fungus. Julia Henriques of DNM recommends the following blend: 8-10 drops of Sweet Orange, 4-6 drops of Lavender, and 4-6 drops of Ylang Ylang.

CBD Pet Treats

CBD is a highly therapeutic cannabis compound that offers the full spectrum of health benefits found in marijuana without the side effects. In addition to treating separation anxiety, CBD also acts as an immune booster and an anti-inflammatory agent.

Kong

This popular toy is a great option for dogs with separation anxiety as you can fill it with a variety of goodies. Whether it’s filled with peanut butter, cheese, or standard dog treats, the KONG is guaranteed to keep your dog occupied for quite awhile.

Busy Buddy

Busy Buddy Calming Toys are another great way to keep your dog occupied. This chamomile scented toy dispenses treats at random to help distract your pup from anxiety and/or other behavioral issues.

 

Classical Music

In humans, classical music has been shown to reduces anxiety, improve mood, and reduce blood pressure and heart rate. Not surprisingly, studies indicate that classical music also helps dogs relax, resulting in less barking and more sleeping. Next time you head out, turn on some Beethoven for your dog.

Dog Appeasing Pheromone

The Comfort Zone plugin emits what’s called the Dog Appeasing Pheromone (DAP) which is supposed to resemble a natural stress-reducing hormone produced by nursing mothers. While some pet owners rave about the positive changes in their dog’s behavior, others claim it had no effect.

Bottom Line

If your dog is experiencing separation anxiety or if you are looking for ways to prevent separation anxiety, there are many options at your disposal before paying for a veterinary behaviorist or turning to a prescription anti-anxiety medication. While an anti-anxiety drug may be necessary depending on the anxiety level, separation anxiety can oftentimes be tackled in a safe, holistic way if you have the patience and are willing to set aside a few minutes everday to improve your dog life!

Use this infographic as a quick reference!

Separation Anxiety in Dogs: A Holistic Approach

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