The science behind dog separation anxiety

Science popularisation article about dog separation anxiety.
By Laure-Anne Viselé, July 2012

Separation anxiety and science

To hear me talk of separation anxiety on iTalk FM radio, click here. For a fantastic handout by a vet for vets: Sherman – Understanding separation anxiety – 2008.

This article is part of a three-post series on separation distress. This article focuses on the scientific aspect of:

  • the root causes of the condition;
  • medication;
  • successful and less successful techniques; and
  • the treatment and prevention approaches.

Warning: The article is a little more technical than the rest of the series. But hang in there.

The two other articles are more focused on practice. If you are not that interested in the the dirty nerdy secrets, jump ahead to:

Separation distress vs. separation anxiety

Let’s start by being very pedantic – my favorite game. We should say ‘separation distress, not ‘separation anxiety’.

  • Separation distress is behaviour problems related to a dog’s aversion for being home alone.
  • Separation anxiety is one of the possible factors underlying separation distress.

These are the motivation factors that can play a role in separation distress (but do not necessarily all do) :

  • separation anxiety; and/or
  • barrier frustration (frustration towards the barrier preventing the dog’s attempts to resume contact with the desired resource, i.e. the door/wall preventing the dog from joining you); and/or
  • boredom; and/or
  • panic.

Some dogs’ separation distress can indeed be 99% anxiety-driven, for others it’s pure frustration. For most, though, it’s a fluctuating mix that can change in time. The moral of the story is, sure anxiety may have a role, but it’s not the be all and end all of separation distress.

And after all that… I’ll actually use ‘separation anxiety’ and ‘separation distress’ interchangeably, as ‘separation anxiety’ is the common parlance. No point in speaking above my station.

Separation distress: the signs

People are often quick to tag a behaviour separation distress. For there to be truly talk of separation distress, there would need to be one or more of the signs below.  The ones in italics are of particular differential value. They will help you distinguish the problem against similar signs with which they are often confused.

Sign 1: Destruction

One of the most upsetting, and costliest signs of separation anxiety: the destruction of household objects or furniture. This one has left many an owner so helpless the dog is often abandoned as a result.

An important differenciator between opportunistic destruction and separation-related destruction is that it occurs only at times of owner absence from the house (not just from the room), and particularly on objects smelling strongly of the owner.

This type of behaviour in a separation averse dog indicates that boredom and/or anxiety may play a role.

Sign 2: Signs of activity at exit points

Traces of saliva, biting, scratching close to exit sites (like the front door or crate door, or clear attempts to scratch and bite through a wall).

This is a sign that panic and/or barrier frustration may play an important role.

 

Sign 3: Elimination problems

Loss of bladder/sphincter control only at times of owner absence.

This is a sign that panic and/or anxiety may play a role.

Sign 4: Anorexia

Temporary anorexia, or at least much decreased interest in food (only at times of owner absence).

This is a sign that anxiety, and maybe panic, may play a role.

Sign 5: Agitation upon preparation for owner departure

Preliminary agitation when owner prepares to depart.

This is a sign that anxiety may play a role.

Sign 6: Vocalisation

Vocalisations associated that start immediately upon owner’s departure (yelping, barking), and intensify to a peak in the first 1/2 hour tend to indicate a strong anxiety component. For some dogs, the vocalisations continue unabated for the entire duration of the owner’s absence, whilst others gradually stop and get triggered again by an external stimulus (e.g. the sound of a truck passing by).

For some dogs, the vocalisation does not start until about half an hour into the isolation period, in which case the motivation is likely to be a mix of mounting frustration and boredom, which may also culminate into anxiety and even panic.

When in doubt

If you are in doubt about whether or not the dog’s problems are related to separation aversion, contact a local behaviour therapist for a diagnosis.

Prognosis

Separation anxiety is relatively easy to identify, has tried-and-tested treatment protocols, and, provided the owners can comply with the difficult beginnings of the programme, has an excellent prognosis. The bad news is that you will be under immense logistical pressure in the first few weeks, so a lot of people show find it difficult to comply to the protocol, which is where complications arise.

You may have to avoid leaving the dog home alone completely for the first six weeks of the treatment. I have thought of a a protocol that allows you some away time even during the early treatment period. These departures should be kept to an absolute minimum, especially in severe cases (I expand on this in ‘safe sessions’).

A reasonable final target is to teach the dog to be comfortable being home alone for 4-5 hours.

Separation distress and other household pets

The literature shows no significant reduction in symptoms of separation distress from providing an already affected dog with a pet companion. The dog then appears to ignore the presence of its’ companion when in crisis. Please do not, therefore, acquire another dog for the sole purpose of addressing the resident dog’s distress. There is no guarantee that it’ll improve things, and it will bring problems of its own with it.

Related article: Thinking of getting a dog? Reality check – in case you are thinking of getting a new dog.

Interestingly enough, dogs who lose a pet companion may consequently develop separation distress. So perhaps a companion dog plays a role in prevention in susceptible dogs, but not in rehabilitation.

Predisposition: at-risk dogs

Predisposed temperament

  • Dogs with an anxious affect; and/or
  • Dog that is disproportionately attached to one person over other members of the household.

 

Predisposing events

  • Dog that has recently been re-homed (Note: the onset may be delayed by a few weeks, by which time the dog has had the opportunity to build a close bond with his new owner); and/or
  • Dog that was left home alone through traumatic circumstances (e.g. fireworks, burglary); and/or
  • Dog that has recently suffered a bereavement (human person or pet); and/or
  • Dog that has recently returned from a pension stay; and/or
  • Dog used to the continuous presence of owner, followed by the return of long periods of absence (e.g. returning to work after a period of  unemployment/holidays/health leave/maternity leave); and/or
  • Dog who frequently gets punished upon the owners’ return (at the damage done by his separation problem); and/or
  • Dog that got separated from its mother before the age of 8 weeks.

Predisposing habit

Dogs that relentlessly follow their owner around the house.
None of these things on their own are sufficient to trigger separation problems, and some dogs have separation distress without any of the predisposing factors, but dogs that obey one or more of these criteria are more at risk and a prevention and maintenance protocol should really be maintained with them (nothing more than a couple of little habits to take, really, nothing major).

Separation anxiety: when is it abnormal/maladaptive/pathological?

Every dog is separation averse

If your dog has been remotely socialised to humans, he will not like the idea of being alone away from you. Most dogs tolerate isolation, and spend periods of social isolation in a sleepy tedium.

The message here is this: don’t assume that being home alone is ever enjoyable for a dog, so please try to find solutions to break down the duration (dog walkers, dog sitters, neighbours, change of routine, working from home more). If you are considering getting a dog but your family is very busy, please have a hard think about whether a dog is a really a good pet for your family.

 

Having said that, whether dogs like it or not,  it is unreasonable to expect that they’ll be with us 24/7. They need to learn to cope with frequent periods of a few hours of isolation. Anywhere in the region of 4-5 hours is pretty much a normal requirement for any modern family (provided the dog can relieve itself).

Separation problems: when can we talk of ‘true’ separation distress?

So, if no dog likes to be left alone, can we say that they all have separation distress?

No, it’s not that simple. You can start calling it separation distress when the behaviour is ‘maladaptive’, when it does not serve the dog’s best interest to perform it, when the behaviour is (evolutionarily speaking) aberrant, goalless.

This in itself is somewhat controversial, as destroying furniture can very well have a stress reducing effect on the dog, so one could argue that it is an adaptive, ‘normal’ response to abnormal living conditions, or at least to conditions of isolation that the dog has clearly not been prepared to cope with.

But I am being pedantic here. The whole point is to determine whether the dog requires treatment. So the question becomes: is the dog’s quality of life or safety compromised if the situation is allowed to continue unchecked? And is the behaviour is causing you significant problems (neighbours complaining, material damage). The answer is yes, then you have to tackle the issue without delay.

Another question to ask ourselves is this: ‘When do we need to do something about separation aversion?’ The answer is: always.

Separation anxiety treatment: addressing each motivation

As separation distress is potentially driven by multiple motivations, a good protocol will help the dog deal with each component, focusing on the most significant ones (as explained above, the ‘top’ motivation for separation distress may change between dogs, or even in time for the same dog).

Here is a reminder of the main motivational factors generally at play, and a quick preview of the treatment approach:

Frustration

The following addressed by working with the dog in the presence of the owner.

Work on this needs to be lifelong and must be used preventively as well as during an active treatment protocol.

Exercises aiming at increasing tolerance to frustration must be integrated to all areas of the dog’s life: gradually improving impulse control and tolerance for delays of gratification.

It is also a good idea to provide the dog with a suitable outlet for its frustration in the form of adequate chew toy – that he would only gain access to during your absences.

Fear and anxiety

The most important treatment component of separation distress is called counter conditioning and desensitisation (C&D). OK, so now grab a hold of your chair tightly, this is going to get heavy. I need to introduce you to all sorts of concepts so you can understand C&D. Sorry, people, I don’t make the rules.

Classical conditioning

Classical conditioning is learning a response to a previously irrelevant stimulus (e.g. you jiggling your keys) after the repeated presentation of this stimulus followed by a significant stimulus (e.g. your departure). If the two events are paired in sequence frequently enough, the dog will make that link.

Removing a classical association: it’s all in the percentage

The link will be stronger the higher the ratio of you departing after you jiggled your keys. If you want to remove that association between your keys and your departure, you’d have to reduce the ratio to around 50:50. At that stage, the keys lose their predictive value, as it’s pretty much down to chance levels whether you’ll consequently leave or not.

So 50:50 (or less) is the magic ratio you’re going for to remove a previously conditioned response. I talk about this in the protocol article, where I ask you to jiggle those keys.

Counter-conditioning

In this case, it is the reversal of a previously negative emotional association (e.g. fear and anxiety) with something change to a positive (pleasurable) one. The way we use this principle in the protocol is by pairing your departure with something the dog likes (e.g. food) IMMEDIATELY after you’ve grabbed your keys. What we want, is a dog who looks forward to you getting your keys and go, as he’ll get something great.

Here’s another dog training secret. The quicker you follow the previously not so nice stuff (your leaving) with the nice stuff (your giving food), the stronger the positive association between your leaving and the nice stuff. If you manage to start giving the food in under a second after you’ve jiggled your keys, you’re good. The response tapers off in speed of acquisition and intensity above 1 second.

Desensitisation is the decline of an emotional response (in this case, say, fear) towards a particular stimulus (in this case, say being alone, so any sign of your impending departure). This is not the same as counter-conditioning as you are not trying to make the dog like it, you are trying to make the dog find it irrelevant.

The technique here is by gradual exposure to the stimulus, starting with a really really easy situation for the dog, where he has no fear (e.g. walking toward your keys, not even touching them), and gradually rehearsing increasingly life-like departures until you can do the whole sequence without the dog batting an eyelid. Once you’ve reached the door, you also increase your absences using the same principle.

One of the most important aspects of desensitisation is that, when you are in session, the dog must under no circumstances be subject to stress or anxiety.

Safe sessions

As far as I know, ‘safe sessions’ is a concept of my invention. At least I can’t find it in the literature. It is a keyword used to tell the dog that he is in session and that, whilst he is in session, none of my normal pre-departure clues, or even absences, will be scary or unpleasant.

This allows owners to work in distinct sessions and not to let accidents in real life pollute good training progress (you are BOUND to have to pop to the chemist’s before the family is back home. In that case, you do not say ‘safe session’, as it is not a safe session. The dog may get upset, but at least you have not polluted progress in the ‘safe sessions’.

As the sessions (of desensitisation) expand and one session lasts, say, 4 hours without the dog getting upset (we monitor that remotely), you can use the word ‘safe session’ whenever you leave the house.

 

Sub-threshold and calming signals

So, ‘sub-threshold’ is trainer-speech for relaxed, not aroused. Essentially, when a trainer says you have to keep your dog sub-threshold (as you do during sessions) it’s just saying that you should not let it get aroused. If he shows the precursor signals of getting stressed, you have to close the session and let him recover. It means you’re in uncovered territory and need to gradually desensitise him to that.

Calming signals, and stress signals, are a great way to detect early whether a dog is heading for super-threshold (i.e. above threshold). They are subtle body language signs your dog is giving you to indicate that he’s getting a little uncomfortable. If you see one of these signals, it’s a good time to stop.

 

To identify precursor signs of stress, this chart (Sophia Yin body language fear) is very very very useful.

Chew toy

Not much of a technical term, but the technical point I am making here is that a chew toy is a valid tool when the separation aversion is motivated by anxiety, as chewing provides stress relief, and it’ll provide the dog with an appropriate outlet for his chewing drive (as opposed to your precious couch).

 

Boredom

If boredom is an important element of your dog’s separation problems, a good lifelong preventive measure is to try to provide him with as many suitable distractions as possible. In particular ones that’ll keep him busy for the first 1/2 hour of your absence. I give details about these in my protocol article. You can use things like Squirrel Dude or the Kong.

Please do not rationalise the guilt away if you are having to leave the dog longer than you know he can cope with. A Kong is not a silver bullet and will only distract him for a few moments. But it’ll take the edge off your departure. A Kong is very much part of the counter-conditioning and prevention/maintenance protocol.

The aim is to decrease the contrast between your presence and your absence somewhat  (in terms of mental stimulation).

Using medication for separation anxiety

Medication alone is never a valid strategy to tackle separation anxiety, as the symptoms have every chance of recurring if the underlying problem has not been addressed. In extreme cases, it is more humane to start the programme using medication.

 

Psychoactive drugs

The following antidepressants are often used in acute separation distress cases:

  • SRI (serotonin re-uptake inhibitors), like Cloripramine, or
  • SSRI (selective serotonin re-uptake inhibitors), like Fluoxetine

Only a veterinarian can prescribe these, but it is always best to take the decision with your entire para-veterinary team, including your behaviour therapist.

Be careful, though, the disadvantages of using medication are numerous:

  • There’s no such thing as a free lunch. Using meds will affect your dog’s physiology. Especially as these are not delivered topically (it’s not like you smear some cream directly on the dog’s brain!), so it will pass through and affect the dog’s GI tract and circulatory system. So it’s always best to keep medication to the absolute bare minimum;
  • It is more difficult to measure progress when the dog is on behaviour medication. You have to wait until the drug is fully active to measure a new baseline (intensity/frequency/duration of the behaviour before the behaviour modification treatment programme), and that can take weeks. Also, there may be some trial and error from your vet as they try to get the best dosage possible for the dog, so it might be weeks before you have a stable concentration of the drug delivered to the dog’s brain.
  • Intrinsic progress is not visible and is masked by any progress attributable to the drugs alone, so there is a risk that difficulties only come to fore once the dog is gradually taken off the medication.
  • It takes 8-12 weeks to really assess how effective the SRI is. If the first attempt was not effective, the vet may well prescribe SSRI medication, and on you go for another round of gradually increasing the dose and testing for progress. So if you want medication for have a quick and clear solution, it will not do the trick.

Pheromone therapy

An increasing number of studies suggest that DAP (Dog Appeasing Pheromone) does provide significant reduction in signs of over attachment and separation distress. DAP is administered in the form of an odour diffuser and is simply inhaled by the dog in the course of his normal routine, so it is requires no invasive procedure. With proper use, DAP also has no documented side effects. DAP does not need a prescription, and is relatively cheap.

But like medication, the potential of DAP is also its drawback: if it is effective, you lose visibility of the progress attributable to the behaviour therapy protocol.

Myths about separation anxiety

This is my favourite part: let’s review some myths.

Get him used to quick in and out absences

Very often, you are advised to repeatedly leaving and entering the room again to get the dog used to your departure. The thing is, it takes the dog hours to come down form its state of anxiety after he has been aroused. Doing it repeatedly has a cumulative effect, so you are not habituating him, you are… sensitising him!

The guilty look

People have SWORN to me that the dog had a guilty look in its eyes because he KNEW he had destroyed the furniture or had ‘an accident’ on the carpet. They’re not wrong in that he was showing active submission gestures to pacify them, but that is in anticipation of the (in the dog’s eye) unexplained punishment he gets once in a while when his owners come home.

This is what you think the dog thinks: “I’ve destroyed the couch, they’re going to go ape”

This is what your dog thinks: “Munch, munch, munch” (destroying sofa). (goes off to do something else) “Oh, there’s bits of sofa all over the place” (upon seeing sofa). He wouldn’t know that he was the “agent” that destroyed the sofa. That is far too abstract a notion that implies a grasp of complex causality, especially of a past event. Sure they can link events together (often in a superstitious kind of way), but he DEFINITELY has no idea that you are shouting about the destroyed sofa. If he looks at the sofa, he doesn’t even know that HE’s destroyed it!

Sorry, people, but Lassie was a fictional character…

What will happen if you frequently punish your dog upon your return home, is that he is going to feel conflicted about your return, and that he will therefore feel intense stress which may, if the elation and fear are strong enough, result in completely disorganised behaviour because of an unsolvable emotional conflict. And that causes what? Yes, you’ve guessed it, separation anxiety.

A crate is not a therapy tool for separation anxiety

A crate, when used humanely, can be a wonderful way to prevent little puppy accidents when the pup is not yet 100% toilet-trained. But it is by no means a therapeutic tool for separation anxiety! Crating a dog that strongly separation-averse needs to be, at best, a very temporary management measure to prevent the dog from hurting itself. But I would argue that a dog that already shows destruction behaviour should no longer be left home alone until the end of the treatment.

Conclusion

Now that you are a specialist in separation anxiety, here’s a bit of light reading on prevention tips and the treatment.

Comments

  • Are you coping with a dog with some form of separation anxiety?
  • Are you a therapist dealing with sep-anx cases?
  • Have you tried a successful approach to separation anxiety?

Whatever your comment or question, I highly value your input. Don’t be shy, and write a quick comment.

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