Separation anxiety afflicts many dogs and usually results in destructive behavior while the owner is away from the home. Dogs react in many ways to separation anxiety. Some of the behaviors that are more common include extreme vocalization, destroying objects around the house, intense digging, and depression. Because these behaviors can also be due to other conditions in the pet's environment it is advisable to take the animal to an animal behaviorist or veterinarian before diagnosing the animal as having separation anxiety disorder.
Signs & Symptoms of Separation Anxiety
For the most part, an animal suffering from separation anxiety will become destructive while their owner is away. Much of this destructive behavior will usually occur within the first hour or two of the owner's absence. Dogs at this point may become very vocal, try to follow their owner, urinate or defecate in the house. After this initial onset of separation anxiety they often turn towards a more destructive type of behavior.
At the other end of the behavior spectrum, some dogs may stop eating and drinking, become depressed, hide in a corner, whine excessively, or even pant uncontrollably.
The one common item amongst dogs that suffer from separation anxiety is that they often become overly excited when the owner returns. Sometimes a dog will become so excited that they will sometimes literally pass out from the excitement.
Diagnosing Separation Anxiety
Since other types of behavioral problems can have symptoms which mimic those of separation anxiety it is important that both the symptoms and history of the animal be analyzed. It is also possible that there may be a medical condition which is causing this type of behavior.
As a first step in diagnosing whether the dog has separation anxiety disorder is to always consult with your veterinarian. In some cases the veterinarian will send the animal to a behaviorist to further confirm whether the animal is indeed suffering from separation anxiety or some other condition.
Also, it is important to realize that in younger animals these behaviors are often a normal part of growing up. For example, destructive chewing of furniture and clothes is often a result of the animal going through the teething process.
Treating Separation Anxiety
To properly treat separation anxiety it is important to realize that this is a fear-based neurosis. Animals must realize that they are safe when you are not present and that you will return in a short time. Behavioral and environmental modification is an important part in treating this condition. With gradual elimination of the dog's fears combined with a sense of safety for the pet, many types of behaviors can be changed.
The best place to start is by assessing the current environment and behaviors. Start by asking yourself some important questions such as:
- What does the dog do as the owner gets ready to leave?
- What does the owner do as he/she gets ready to leave?
- What does the dog destroy?
- Where is the dog? Are there other pets?
- What toys does the dog have available?
Environmental changes that could have a positive impact may include rotating the dog's types of toys. Have more interactive toys for the dog to play with is always a plus in this area. Crate training may also be a plus in this area.
Behavioral changes always start with the cues that the owner gives to the animal prior to his leaving the pet alone. Animals are sensitive to these cues and you may notice the animal becoming anxious before you start to get ready to leave. It may be necessary for you to change or completely eliminate the routine in question. The important thing is to keep the animal calm and relaxed before you go out and after you return.
This is a slow process. It takes time and consistency to change an animal's behavior. You may need to consult with a behaviorist or an experienced trainer to accomplish any change in an animal's behavior.
In extreme cases the animal may require antidepressants or anti-anxiety drugs to help treat separation anxiety. However, these drugs should not be relied upon. They are only meant to combat extreme changes in behavior which the dog may not experience every time you go out. If you do notice a change of improvement in the behavioral symptoms you may be able to slightly reduce to dosage of the medication and eventually discontinue using the drugs.
The important point in treating separation anxiety in dogs is to be consistent. Animal behavior takes time to change and inconsistent routines always result in no change and sometimes in the condition worsening.