Q: How can I cure my dog from separation anxiety?
The most effective way to correct a separation anxiety issue is to approach it on many levels. These approaches (explained further in this article) are:
1) Altering your departure routine 2) Decreasing your dog’s awareness of departure “triggers” 3) Modifying the sensory environment (sight, sound, smell, touch) 4) Assessing the containment environment (room, cage/crate, etc.) 5) Using diversion strategies 6) Proactive stimulation 7) Practice ICT (Impulse Control Training) and DT (Dominance Training) protocols 8) Random departure behavior modification drills 9) Homeopathic Anxiety remedies and ant-anxiety medications 10) Videotaping to discover which solution(s) provide the best results
ALTERING YOUR DEPARTURE ROUTINE Most owners’ departure routines are very ritualistic. They consistently perform them in the same way and order. When working with a separation distressed dog, we want to reduce the awareness and predictability of the owner’s impending departure. This can be done by restructuring or reordering activities that are part of your departure routine, such as when you:
- take your dog to the bathroom
- provide an exercise walk
- provide the dog a bone or chew toy
- place the dog in a crate or enclosure
- read the newspaper
- check e-mails
- eat breakfast
- feed the dog
- shower or apply makeup
- get dressed
- place work items in your car
- grab car keys
- open the garage door
- start the car
DECREASING AWARENESS OF DEPARTURE TRIGGERS Often there are key components of the departure routine that trigger your dog’s distress behavior. Typically, the triggers are owner behaviors that occur exclusively when the owner leaves, such as providing the dog a bone or chew toy, crating or enclosing the dog, placing briefcases or purses near the door or in the car, grabbing car keys, typing onto a burglar alarm keypad, etc.. Again, we want to eliminate the dog’s ability to predict your departure by making these actions more random. Try to perform any of these actions spontaneously and randomly throughout the day, regardless of whether you are leaving. As a result, the events will no longer imply your departure, and your dog may become less distressed when seeing them.
MODIFYING THE SENSORY ENVIRONMENT Modifying the sensory environment – 1) sight, 2) sound, 3) smell, 4) touch, prior to or on departure, can relax an otherwise distressed dog.
- “SIGHT” can be adjusted by placing your dog in a dark room with no lighting and closed curtains or by placing the dog in a well-lit room that has an open window with access to the outdoors, where he can observe people and wildlife. Some dogs relax in a darkened room, while others perform better in a lighted room with outdoor exposure.
- “SOUND” Using an electronic white noise machine that can produce either “white noise” or “pink noise,” (such as ocean sounds), can distract and relax your dog.
- “SMELL” Aromatherapy can reduce anxiousness or even instill a relaxed and confident state. Natural lavender and citrus potpourri, diffusers, or sprays can help to relax animals when applied several minutes before departing. Also, pheromone products like DAP® or Comfort Zone®, may provide an aromatherapy solution.
- “TOUCH” solutions may include: changing the floor surface where your dog is confined; providing play toys or chew toys; or changing the temperature of the room.
THE CONTAINMENT ENVIRONMENT Determining the best containment environment is an important part of the behavior modification process. If your contained dog is likely to chew parts of your home, expensive loose items, or items that are potentially hazardous, then (for financial and safety reasons) your dog needs to be confined. But, in many situations, isolation itself, or the specific isolation environment, increases the stress. This may result in risk of injury to the animal, due to escape behavior or stress-induced self-mutilation. Enclosure alternatives include a wire crate, a plastic Vari-kennel, an exercise pen, tethering with a chain leash to a piece of furniture, and baby-gating the dog inside a bathroom, bedroom, or kitchen, where the dog is comfortable. Confinement may not be necessary if your dog’s separation distress behavior DOES NOT include chewing, incontinence, or damaging escape behaviors.
DIVERSION STRATEGIES Often owners intensify separation distress by by communicating too much with their pet immediately prior to leaving. We recommend you make departures as uneventful and quiet as possible. Also, divert your dog with a play toy, chew toy, or background noise, so that your dog does not immediately notice your departure. Similarly, make arrivals as uneventful as possible.
PROACTIVE STIMULATION (Exercise and play) We believe in the saying: “a tired dog is a happy dog, and belongs to a happy owner.” Proactive stimulation will productively fatigue your dog 24/7. Stimulating your dog immediately prior to departure will naturally divert her, and more likely put her in a relaxed emotional state. There are three types of proactive stimulation: sensory, physical, and mental.
- PROACTIVE SENSORY stimulation can occur via more frequent and/or lengthy walks, where the dog gets to see, hear, smell, and touch new and different stimuli. In addition, a long walk within an hour of departure can relax a normally separation distressed animal.
- PROACTIVE PHYSICAL stimulation results from rigorous exercise like running, bicycling, roller-blading, swimming, ball sprints, or Frisbee. Choose the exercise that your dog most enjoys and that best fits with your schedule and abilities. Rigorous exercise for 20 minutes completed immediately before departure can be very effective in reducing separation distress behavior.
- PROACTIVE MENTAL stimulation comes from obedience training. For 10 to 30 minutes per day, practice basic commands with your dog so that she performs the commands more reliably and responsively and/or teach your dog new commands, agility, scent detection, or tricks. Challenge your dog mentally to productively tire your dog and to give you tools that better enable you to manage your dog’s behavior.
IMPULSE CONTROL TRAINING (ICT) Separation distress is an impulsive behavior. The distressed dog impulsively assumes a highly anxious emotional state. They don’t make the connection that you tend to return at about the same time each day. Impulse Control Training (ICT) is designed to teach general impulse control, so that your dog may become more level-headed and less impulsive, both in your presence and on your departure. ICT consists of teaching your dog:
- patience when waiting to be fed
- the Sit-Wait-OK protocol for feeding
- proper loose-leash walking
- the Sit-Wait-OK protocol for going through doorways, stairways, or transitional points
- patience and restraint in allowing you to start, stop, and win at play
- patience and restraint in allowing you to start and stop affection
- sitting or coming on command to receive affection
- patience and sitting (in lieu of jumping) during greetings
DOMINANCE TRAINING (DT) If the separation behavior shown by your dog includes barking, whining, howling, racing you to the doorway, blocking you from departing, or biting, Dominance Training (DT) is also advised. To complete DT, you should be highly consistent with all the ICT protocols above. In addition, you should:
- remove your dog from all positions of height, such as beds or doorways
- highly control and structure all play and exercise activities through the use of a leash and/or commands (e.g., “take, bring, give” to sequence stages of a retrieve game)
- teach your dog to down stay for at least 5 minutes
- teach your dog more intensive and higher levels of obedience where you take a strong, but caring and enjoyable leadership position
RANDOM DEPARTURE BEHAVIOR Random departure behavior modification drills create unpredictability regarding the length of your departure. Set your dog up as if you are going to depart. Then, leave for only 15 seconds. Don’t return unless your dog is calm and quiet. Once your dog is regularly calm with you departing for no more than 15 seconds, lengthen the departure to 30 seconds, 1 minute, 2 minutes, 5 minutes, 10 minutes, 15 minutes, 30 minutes, one hour, and longer. It’s essential to insert random shorter departure intervals between repetitions of the longest departure duration.
HOMEOPATHIC REMEDIES AND PHARMACEUTICALS Homeopathic remedies, such as Bach Flower Remedies, Bach Rescue Remedy, or melatonin, may reduce your dog’s general or immediate anxious state. Plus, various pharmaceutical products work well to reduce the anxious state of dogs. The Novartis drug, Clomicalm, has received FDA approval for the veterinary purpose of reducing the effects of separation anxiety in dogs. Clomicalm is available by prescription from veterinarians. If Clomicalm is unsuccessful, speak to your veterinarian about adjusting the dosage or switching to an alternative medication.
VIDEOTAPING Lastly, as part of the solution plan, we recommend videotaping to discover which solution alternatives provide the best outcomes. Many parts of the above solution plan involve choices, as there is no universally effective one-solution-fits-all plan. To decide which choices work best, or whether solutions are working effectively, (e.g., dark versus light room; crate versus x-pen or gated room, or freedom; which play toys or chew toys interest the dog; how long he whines, barks, or howls) videotaping provides the best evidence of actual results.
Please note that the above article is written principally for informational purposes. Since separation anxiety is often a complex behavior that is difficult to resolve, we highly recommend the services of a skilled trainer or behaviorist when diagnosing the condition and implementing the recommended solution plan.