Separation Anxiety - Part 2


By James Leung

James - Managing Director

The Treatment Plan

The objective is to reduce and eventually eliminate the dogs underlying anxiety by using desensitization and counter-conditioning. Instead of anxiety developing when left alone the dog learns to relax and starts to find some joy in the experience. We can initiate this change by introducing a series of rewards that override the negativity associated with being alone.

Signs of anxiety separation start appearing once the dog realizes the owner is going to leave. People will often display a pattern of behaviours before leaving. For example upon waking the pattern might be going to the bathroom, showering, getting dressed, eating breakfast, checking emails, having a coffee, brushing teeth, putting on shoes and then leave. Dogs are masters at picking up on ritualistic behaviour. People often believe dogs sense such things but it's more likely the case of simply observing and recognizing our "leaving pattern".

So what to do? The first step is to change and mix up the pattern on a consistent basis. Each day should be different. This keeps the dog guessing as to when or if you are going to leave. Next we want to develop a positive association with being left alone which can be done a number of ways. Giving your dog a puzzle toy filled with goodies that will take some time to finish often works well. A Kong stuffed with frozen yoghurt, banana, kibbles, cottage cheese, canned dog food or any special food can be a great tool for counter-conditioning. Again using a variety of foods and toys will keep it interesting, fun and more rewarding for the dog. Upon returning home be sure to remove these toys. They should only be available to the dog when is on his own.

These tips are helpful for dogs experiencing mild cases of separation anxiety. Dogs experiencing high levels of anxiety are generally not food or toy motivated and usually refrain from eating at home unless their guardians are present.

Treatment for Moderate to Severe Separation Anxiety

Treatment for dogs suffering from moderate to severe cases of separation anxiety requires great patience and can be a lengthy process. Progress is usually slowly and the period of "alone time" is gradually increased allowing the dog to become accustomed to being alone. Start with many short intervals and then gradually increase the duration of alone time. Sessions should be conducted daily, as many times as possible, and over many weeks. During all stages be sure not to go above and beyond the dogs threshold.

Pre-departure Cues

It's important to observe the dogs behaviour. Notice if he starts to whine, pant, pace or becomes a little destructive as you prepare to leave the house. And notice when this starts occurring. If possible remove whatever action represents a trigger cue, if that is not possible try counter-conditioning so a positive association is made with that cue. For example perhaps the trigger is picking up your keys. To address this, when you are planning to spend time at home, pick up your keys frequently and reward him with something positive every-time.

In the event your dog has picked up on multiple leaving cues, you willl need to work on removing or counter-conditioning all of them.

With severe cases just the guardian being out of sight can be traumatic for the dog. Begin placing him inside a separate room with the door open so he can see you. Get him to stay there and then release him before he reaches his threshold. Heavily reward and praise for successful completion of the exercise. Increase the criteria gradually by adjusting the time frame of the stay, the location of the stay and eventually closing the door little by little. It's very important to work within your dogs threshold and not over step the boundaries as this may result in setbacks. If the training is done correctly his threshold should eventually begin to increase. After completing an exercise and before starting a new one, ensure the dog is completely relaxed.

Research suggests dogs will display anxious responses within the first 40 minutes that she is left alone. Therefore at the start of the treatment plan keep the time period of separation extremely short, a few seconds at most, and gradually build up the threshold. Once she can be left for forty minutes the period of separation increments can be extended to 5 minutes and later on to 15 minutes. Once you have worked up to 90 minutes she can most likely be left alone between four to eight hours.

This process can be successfully completed within a two to three week period provided you undertake several daily sessions during weekends and two sessions per work day - once in the morning before leaving for work and once in the evening should suffice.

If you are unable to spend the necessary amount of time at home that is needed here are some options to consider:

  • Take your dog to work with you.

  • Arrange for somebody stay at your home when you are not there.

  • Bring your dog to a sitters house or to a doggy daycare.

Keep your Dog Active & Engaged

By providing ample physical, mental and emotional stimulation it helps to relieve anxiety by directing his focus on fun and interesting activities. Not only will it help to build confidence but also drain nervous energy that contributes towards anxiety. In addition to walking and playing with your dog, try signing her up for agility, hoopers, rally obedience, trei ball and canine nose work classes. All these activities are a great way to provide stimulation in a positive manner and expend energy.

Medication as an Option

For severe cases, it's very difficult to start any of the treatments described until he is in a calmer state of mind. Medicating (at the beginning) under these circumstances can be very helpful and allow for treatment to begin. Consult with your vet before proceeding with this option.

What Not to Do

Never make a big deal when leaving the house or upon returning home. Wait for the dog to be in a calm state of mind before providing any type of positive reinforcement such as food, petting, praise and play. Using basic obedience commands to get her focus off anxiety and onto something else is beneficial. Particularly at the start, be heavy with the praise and always offer some kind of reward once you get the behaviour you are looking for.

Refrain from scolding and punishing as they will make the condition worse.

At Hong Kong Canine we offer private lessons for dogs with behavioural issues. We also offer a variety of dog sports and activities. Lessons are held either in-home and/or at our training facility. We work with all breeds and sizes.