Separation Anxiety: by David Steele DVM

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“The Revenge of Fluffy”

After a long day of seeing patients I found a final note on my desk to call Mrs. Jones (names have been changed) about her dog Fluffy. I have been seeing Fluffy ever since puppy hood and have come to know Mrs. Jones quite well over the last 5 years. After the usual telephone pleasantries, Mrs. Jones asked quite bluntly, “Why in the world is Fluffy so spiteful, after all I have done for her?” The hurt in her voice was quite palpable. Of course I am intrigued and had to ask why she thought Fluffy was angry with her. “Well, every time I leave the house, I make sure she has herbed clean, plenty of water, a few toys to chew on and animal planet on the television. Everything the little dog could want. But lately, when I come home I find torn up magazines, the blinds are chewed and today I stepped in her poop! You know, she did so well with house breaking and she never has an accident. Those magazines belonged to Richard (her now deceased husband of more than 35 years) and she knows they are special to me. What have I done to deserve this? Why does she hate me?”

This conversation is not unusual in my practice and the reassuring thing for Mrs. Jones is that the relationship between her and Fluffy is not in jeopardy. After further discussion, we concluded that Fluffy is suffering from Separation anxiety. Fluffy is not alone. By some accounts as many as Seventeen (17) percent of dogs in the United States suffer from separation anxiety. This means that almost 10 million dogs (or more in my opinion) are afflicted with this condition, but few are receiving therapy and many are being blamed for being bad dogs.

The first key in helping dogs like Fluffy is to recognize the issue and differentiate it from other behavioral conditions. Most dogs with separation anxiety will exhibit one or more of these signs- distress, anxiety or nervousness when the guardian (owner) is preparing to leave the home; excessive barking, whining, crying when left alone; destructive behavior such as chewing the carpet, wall, blinds or personal items such as papers, books or clothing; elimination (urine or stool) when left alone; excessive drooling, pacing, panting when left alone; excessive, excitable greeting when the guardian returns home. It is important to note that these behaviors in order to be consistent with separation anxiety only occur when left alone or as the guardian is getting ready to leave. They typically are fine when the guardian is present. To date, no conclusive evidence has been found to say why this occurs, although I have noted that this behavior has a tendency to occur in those dogs that have a greater attachment to their guardians. Our office often refers to them as the “Velcro” dogs.

The first thing my clients like Mrs. Jones need to know is that this is not a spiteful dog. This can be a very serious anxiety related condition and they are only coping with it the best way they can. In fact, although we may want to throttle them for damaging our home and property, punishment will only make the condition worse. The dogs are doing this behavior because they are freaking out about being left alone. They have no healthy way of resolving their inner conflict, so they do other behaviors as an outlet and coping mechanism for this tremendous fear. The dog with separation anxiety is not only distressed over being left alone, but now it is also concerned about how the guardian is going to respond when they come home. Dr. Jacqueline Neilson, Diplomate of American College of Veterinary Behaviorist, says “dogs are social creatures and attachment behaviors are necessary for animals whose survival is benefited by group interactions as they serve to maintain social cohesion. It is normal for that animal to be distressed when separated. Normal dogs habituate to separations from their owners. Dogs with excessive distress suffer from separation anxiety.”

I have found that creating structure and providing rules of engagement can help profoundly in managing this problem. Creating a daily schedule can help alleviate anxiety simply by giving predictability to the day. Also, no longer responding to a dog when they are anxious, needy or excited can be very helpful. I instruct my clients that their dog must now earn their attention by giving them a command such as sit and they only get attention when they are calm, relaxed, independent and receptive (looking for that next direction). As for specifically treating the anxiety behavior we follow the basic protocol:

1. No attention the last 30 minutes prior to leaving. It is as though you are already gone. Take care of your business of getting ready to leave but make no interaction with the dog.

2. Give them something to keep their interest. Studies show that most of the anxiety and destructive behavior occurs in the first 30 minutes of leaving the home. Keep them focused on something during that time and they cope much better. There are various toys, treats, etc available. Some of my favorite products are Kong toys which can be stuffed with various gooey treats or puzzle toys such as Twist and Treat. Anything that will keep them really interested or active during the initial 30 minutes will do.

3. Do not say goodbye. I instruct my client to not do anything but leave. The longer you take to leave and the more things you say will only be detected as concern or anxiety and make your pet worse.

4. Do not greet the excited dog. When arriving home, do not greet or acknowledge your dog if he is excited. Instead, take him outside, give him a chance to calm down. When relaxed and calm, then give the command to sit and reward the calm behavior.

This works well by itself for those mild cases or for preventing this behavior in the first place. Some dogs, likely Fluffy are already way too anxious to even pay attention to this training and are in need of some help. This is when we use various medications such as Prozac or Clomipramine to help them cope with the anxiety. It is my intention that these drugs are facilitators in the therapy and are not the only part of the therapy. Behavior modification as listed above is still important. There are also natural therapy options available, such as pheromones that have been shown to be helpful as well.

The great news is that the most recent update from Mrs. Jones is that Fluffy is doing very well and is no longer angry with her for leaving her alone. She is content again to be left alone (albeit short forays) with her comfy bed, Animal Planet on the big screen and a peanut butter filled Kong toy. The love is back.

Some helpful web sites to find more information about this subject.

For more information on David Steele of Advanced Animal Care click HERE.


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