Take steps to stop separation anxiety

January 2011 / Centre Daily Times / State College, PA

Liza is a 5-year-old Golden Retriever. She is an extremely affectionate dog, well-behaved with visitors, gentle with children and other dogs, and well-versed in all of her obedience training. Liza's family loves her dearly but there is one serious problem. 

When Liza is home alone, she soaks the carpet with urine and the couch with drool, rips down curtains, chews windowsills and floorboards, and has even broken teeth attempting to escape from any enclosure in which she is placed. Liza's family has considered finding a new home for her because these behaviors have cost them hundreds of dollars in damages to their property and to Liza herself.

Distress caused by being left alone, typically called separation anxiety, is a common behavior problem in dogs. It is defined as any of three sets of behaviors - vocalization, elimination, or destruction - that occur ONLY when the dog is isolated in some way from family members. (For example, a dog that is just as likely to chew a shoe while alone or with family sitting right next to her is likely facing other training needs and not separation anxiety.)

Separation distress stems from the fact that dogs are a social species and bond with human family members as they would their own. Even brief separation of pups from their mother soon after birth causes innate, or reflexive, distress calls in the form of loud whining. Such behavior is adaptive for pups because it typically results in the mother coming to find and collect her straying youngsters.

In human households, puppies must be taught to tolerate separation in a gradual and systematic way. Crate training can be beneficial in this regard, because it teaches pups that they can safely be separated for initially short periods while learning to trust that family members always return. Pups should be provided with safe and rewarding activities while they are crated and they should first be crated when family is nearby, so that the crate is not exclusively associated with isolation. With a complete crate training plan that involves gradually teaching the puppy to be comfortable on her own, most pups develop into adults who can easily tolerate 40-hour work weeks home alone with no problem at all. 

For owners who missed that stage of training or who adopted an adult dog already exhibiting separation anxiety, the picture is more complicated. Often these families must work with an animal behaviorist to develop an individualized plan that takes into account their dog's own way of expressing separation distress and the situations in which it occurs. 

One of the greatest difficulties in treating separation anxiety is that it is a behavior that occurs, by definition, when the owners are not there to provide immediate consequences. Therefore, training and behavior therapy must focus on aspects of the dog's behavior that occur while owners are around. This typically includes rewarding the dog's independent behavior, ignoring excessive clinginess and attention-seeking, and teaching the dog to tolerate gradually longer separation from the owner in the context of positive-reinforcement-based Stay training. Owners must also be careful to minimize emotional encounters with their separation-distressed dogs, as owners' emotions often serve to reinforce the dog's distress rather than to assuage it. 

At least one medication, fluoxetine, has received FDA approval for use with dogs with separation anxiety, and may be used in combination with a behavioral plan prescribed by an animal behaviorist.