Before discussing ways of dealing with separation anxiety it is important to get an holistic view of the problem. There are various factors that make dogs susceptible to developing Separation Anxiety. These consist of evolutionary self-protective mechanisms, physiological effects, boredom, as well as dogs’ social nature.
Dogs are gregarious by nature. They have a strong need for companionship and are therefore not suited to living alone. Leaving a dog on its own on a regular basis for long periods of time is unkind and irresponsible and many behavioural problems arise from a lack of companionship. However, dogs can be taught to tolerate reasonable amounts of time in their own company without showing significant signs of distress. The key to this lies in early training. To work out how we can make these times acceptable for our dogs, we only need to imagine being left alone with no avenues of distraction.
If we look at the problem from an evolutionary viewpoint, it is easy to see that Separation Distress arises out of the self-protective instinct to keep in close contact with the mother, thus discouraging vulnerable puppies from straying away from her protection and coming to harm. This is a primordial way to ensure survival and the replication of genes. Whining and yelping make sure that the mother stays close, and once reunited there are positive feelings of relief from both mother and puppy. Research has shown that dogs are able to recognise the scent of their mothers after ten years’ separation, starting from the age of eight weeks. These findings show that olfactory memory and recognition is life-long in dogs. With this in mind and considering that dogs always retain their juvenile characteristics, it is easy to see why dogs are so prone to developing Separation Distress unless early coping methods are taught.
During the bonding process between human and dog, mutual feelings of comfort and well-being are experienced. The negative consequences are disruptive emotional and physiological stress on separation. Each partner provides important stimulation and has a calming effect on the other’s arousal level. This explains why studies have shown that Separation Distress and panic manifest themselves behaviourally like withdrawal from narcotics. A study of sibling mice was compared with a study of unrelated mice of a similar age. The sibling mice reunited after two months separation, showed higher pain thresholds within only two hours of being reunited. This shows the positive analgesic effect of being in the company of their siblings.
Some dogs first exhibit signs of separation distress after moving with their family to a new home. Familiar environment seems to calm some dogs. For instance a dog kept in a familiar part of the house may tolerate separation for a reasonable time, yet if this same dog were confined to an unfamiliar place like the garage or outbuilding it may become anxious. A regular schedule of departure and return can also be a source of comfort to a dog left on its own. However, if the time of departure and return is altered the dog can show signs of distress. Signs of distress are barking, howling, destructive-chewing, searching activities and elimination problems.
Protests by barking and howling and searching behaviours are aimed at finding the “lost” owner. Barking also helps the dog to relieve tension. Dogs can bark and howl without stopping for amazing lengths of time and this can be unacceptable to neighbours.
The act of chewing produces endorphins (calming hormones) which help the dog cope with anxious feelings. Personal items like shoes, clothing, the owner’s bed, TV remote, pillows and books are often chosen to give the dog a feeling of connection to the absent owner. The anxious dog may chew and scratch at doors and dig at carpets near doors in a futile attempt to escape and restore contact with the owner. The frustration of these barriers which prevent the dog joining his owner creates tension which the dog releases by chewing. The items chosen by the dog can indicate whether the dog is chewing out of stress or frustration, or to amuse itself and relieve boredom. In the latter case the article chosen will likely be something that is fun to shred and toss.
If the dog’s habit is usually clean in the house, but elimination problems arise when the owner is away, this is a reaction to the stress of separation rather than a spiteful deed.
The following programme will slowly teach the dog that you will return and that it can cope without you for reasonable lengths of time.
Place the dog in a familiar room of the house for short periods of five minutes. Do not go to the dog if it cries, barks or whines; only go in when the dog is quiet. Enter without making a fuss and do not respond to bursts of excitement or attempts to get your attention. Let the dog out of the room and pay no attention to it for a couple of minutes. Pet the dog only when it relaxes a little. In this way it will associate petting with calm behaviour. Slowly increase the amount of time the dog is left in the room to the amount needed. Make the least possible fuss when leaving the house. Desensitise the dog to any pre-leaving rituals: periodically put on your coat and pick up keys and handbag and then sit down and read a book or do something else unrelated to leaving. This will prevent the dog anticipating your departure. Take the dog out for a walk or game of ball before leaving for any great length of time. This may tire them sufficiently to induce sleep. Make sure that your manner is calm and relaxed when leaving. In a quiet, calm voice, say something simple like “see you just now”. Leave the dog with items to play with and chew to help relieve boredom. The treat dispensing toys are a good way to do this, because the dog receives a reward, a positive association, in your absence. A brown bag with tasty treats wrapped closed will also distract the dog for a short time while you leave the house and make a positive association with your going out.