By: Dr. Beth Williams
Last month we started our discussion on separation anxiety in dogs. If you have a pet that suffers from this problem, what can you do? First, discourage hyper-attachment. Dogs will often solicit attention from their owners. Resist the temptation of petting the dog with separation anxiety when approached for play or contact. Be aloof when greeted upon arriving home. Instead the human should be the initiator of contact with the dog. Do not allow the dog to settle down in close proximity (within one yard) of where the owner is settling down. Arrange objects on the bed or sofa or on the floor so that the dog must settle at a greater distance. If possible, verbally reward the dog for settling at a distance. If the dog normally sleeps on the owner’s bed, provide the dog with his own bed. You may need to start with the dog bed at the foot of the human bed before ultimately moving the dog bed to the floor or even outside the room. If there are other people in the home besides the primary dog caretaker, try to divide the care giving among the different people so that the dog is not as dependent on one person. Encourage independent play by using interactive toys that do not require human participation, like a Kong toy containing a food reward.
Second, it is important to create a positive environment while you are gone. There are several ways to achieve this. Provide a special treat (food, toy, or both) only available when the pet is left alone. Do not forget to remove the item when you return home. The D.A.P. (dog appeasement pheromone) diffuser is a plug-in scent-releasing device which help many dogs. The material released is a pheromone normally secreted by mother dogs to their puppies as a message telling them to relax and that everything is all right. The pheromone is odorless to humans. A pump spray is also available but the diffuser continuously releases its message to hopefully keep the anxious dog calm. More recently, a D.A.P. pheromone collar has become available so that the dog simply carries the biochemical message around with him. Leaving the TV or radio on helps some pets they will not be fooled into thinking that someone is home; the point is to recreate a sense of relaxation. Most people at home relax while listening to the radio or watching TV and the dog often sits in the room with them. The sound of the broadcast becomes a classically conditioned cue to the dog and may be helpful in creating a sense of comfort.
Third, desensitize the pet to separation. Pets readily learn the cues that indicate that the owner will be leaving the house soon. It is helpful to uncouple these cues from the actual leaving. At random times, the owner can go through some of the rituals of leaving: put on cologne, shower, wear work clothes, jingle the car keys, even go outside and lock the door – but then come in again. This helps the dog to remain relaxed when he hears or sees these cues at the times when the owner is actually leaving. It is important to repeat these cues so many times daily that they become meaningless to the dog.
Do not punish the dog for behavior demonstrated in fear. The punishment will have no positive benefits and could make matters worse. This usually only leads to more fear or more anxiety. Second, unless the animal is actually in the process of performing the behavior you wish to discourage, the dog will not understand what behavior is being punished even if you point it out to them. A dog’s memory doesn’t work like that. In severe situation, there are medical options that may be appropriate. Currently Clomipramine and Fluoxetine are the only FDA-approved drugs for the treatment of separation anxiety in dogs, however, other human anti-anxiety medications have a long history of use for this purpose. Clomipramine and Fluoxetine work by increasing levels of serotonin in the brain. Serotonin is a neurotransmitter associated with pleasant, relaxed sensations. When serotonin levels are high, we fall happily and cozily asleep. Serotonin is also involved with the pleasant sensations associated with eating chocolate, sun-bathing, and falling in love. Problems with reduced serotonin function can lead to anxiety, obsession, and mood disorders. These products may be used once or twice a day. Often a lower dose is started, gradually working up to a higher dose. Some owners report good effect right away but it more commonly takes 4-6 weeks for a steady blood level to be achieved. The use of pharmaceutical drugs is meant as a supplement to training and cannot be expected to work without proper behavior management. If actual panic is occurring and simply must be stopped, prescription medications may be appropriate. Sometimes these medications are initially combined with one of the above anti-anxiety medications to help control the situation in the short term.
Separation anxiety may persist lifelong but may be successfully managed or minimized with appropriate behavior modification therapy. Relapses are common when routines are disrupted by vacations, moving to a new home or variations in the family’s school or work schedules. Normal seasonal variations in routine may upset dogs with separation anxiety. If your dog has signs that you feel might be due to separation anxiety, see your veterinarian to confirm the diagnosis, dispense the appropriate medication and give you the guidance to successfully implement the behavior plan.
Remember, your family Veterinarian can help guide you through your pet’s health care!