Separation Anxiety vs. Separation Fun
I frequently receive calls from clients who are stressed, annoyed, and panicked about their dog's behavior, "I think he has separation anxiety!" They often then proceed to describe a dog who likes to chew up shoes or furniture while they are away, bark for hours on end, have potty accidents throughout the house, tearing apart paper towels and rolls of toilet paper, chewing up cats, houseplants, ripping through the rubbish bin and the most expensive electronic equipment available. One adolescent Boxer I had the privilege of working with even figured out how to open the refrigerator and freezer, spreading the contents throughout the owner's home.
More often than not, in these situations what the owner is actually dealing with is not separation anxiety but what Dr. Ian Dunbar called "separation fun" at last year's APDT conference in San Fransisco. The Boxer mentioned above was not anxious, she was having a blast! These are dogs that are particularly good at finding fun things to do when they're bored, even though those "fun" activities are not generally approved of by humans. The solution for dogs that are exhibiting "separation fun" is a combination of increased mental and physical stimulation combined with strict management protocols.
One day my phone rang and on the other end of the line, I hear the same frantic, panicked voice. "My dog has separation anxiety." This dog truly did exhibit signs of clinical separation anxiety. A five year old Chow mix, the dog had broken teeth tearing through her metal crate. The owner then left her in the house, where the dog ate through the door (literally) and broke through a window to escape. After this, the owner decided to leave the dog outside in the fenced in yard. She chewed through the wall to get back into the house and, when the owner had covered the chewed area with metal plating, chewed her way out of the fencing - her owner arrived home to find the dog sitting, exhausted, dirty and bloody, on the door step.
I'm very lucky in that I'm only about an hour away from Cornell Veterinary Hospital, so I was able to refer this case to a veterinary behaviorist and work in conjunction with her on a behavior modification plan for this lovely Chow which did incorporate the use of pharmaceutical treatment. (As an aside, working with a veterinary behaviorist is always a fantastic learning opportunity for me!)
Signs of clinical separation anxiety may include:
- inability to be separated from object of attachment even in the house (you cannot go in the bathroom for a shower without your dog displaying anxious behavior)
- self mutilation
- destructive tendencies, particularly near points of entry for the home
- display of anxious behavior even when well-stimulated physically and mentally
- inappropriate toileting behavior, often in many locations. Stools often appear very soft, like diarrhea.
- anxious behavior happens even when the dog is left alone for very brief periods
- signs of anxiety begin as the owner readies to leave the house and often continue after the owner returns home
If your dog fits in the "separation fun" category, you may attempt addressing the issue by providing more mental and physical stimulation prior to your absence and managing the environment to prevent your dog from rehearsing the unwanted behaviors. If your dog has "separation anxiety," it is best that you consult with a behavior professional who can work with you to develop a treatment plan. For severe cases, your behavior consultant may work closely with one or more veterinary professionals to determine if medical treatment must accompany the behavior modification plan.
One of my favorite authors, Nicole Wilde, is set to release a new book Don't Leave Me! Step-by-Step Help for Your Dog's Separation Anxiety later this year. I was thrilled to receive an email from Nicole asking me to contribute to this book, one I feel is very much needed. Those of you who are familiar with Nicole's work know to expect a book that is reader-friendly (her writing style is engaging and humorous) with easy to implement, practical strategies for success.
You may also find behaviorist Patricia McConnell's I'll Be Home Soon: How to Prevent and Treat Separation Anxiety to be a helpful resource. I'll Be Home Soon is a great booklet in the same series as Cautious Canine and Feisty Fido.
Separation Distress and Dogs by James O'Heare is yet another great resource for the owner of a dog with separation anxiety.
Finally, here are two great (free) articles from my friends and colleagues on the topic which you may find helpful:
Stacy Braslau-Schneck Separation Anxiety in Dogs
Dianne Garrod How to treat separation anxiety in dogs