By Matthew Kearns, DVM
A diagnosis of separation anxiety in understanding the cause of our dog’s behaviors can make it much simpler to treat. Treating separation anxiety requires patience and persistence to work. There are always steps backwards (even if you are doing everything correctly) and treatment is lifelong.
Modifying behavior is a very simple concept: reward the good behavior, and ignore the bad behavior. This is easier said than done. Coming home to a chewed/scratched up door or a nice smelly present after a long day at work would make anyone lose their cool. However, dogs live in the moment and do not understand why they are being scolded for something after the fact. They only understand that they were happy to see us when we arrived but we started yelling at them. This is not only ineffective, but also been can exacerbate the problem. We have to start with behavioral modification, or changing our dog’s behavior by changing our behavior. How can we do that?
Leave the room: Start by leaving your dog alone for very short periods of time and reward them for staying calm while you are gone. A short period of time refers to a minute or less in the beginning. Before leaving, put them in a relaxed sit-stay position: initially tell your dog to sit and, after they sit, tell them to stay before leaving the room. If the dog follows, do not scold them, just start over. If they do the sit-stay successfully, give them a treat when you come back. Don’t get frustrated if you are having little success. It can take weeks of training every day to try and get your dog to stay even for a minute when the condition is severe.
Change your schedule: Change up any clues that might let the dog know you are going out. If it is at set times, then mix up when you leave (even if it is for 15 minutes to get your dog used to being left alone).
Crate training: Crate training can start at any age but is best started when a puppy is very young (ideally, we start between eight and 12 weeks of age) and a dog with separation anxiety will not always adapt. Crate training (if instituted at the appropriate age and used correctly) is designed more as a “safety area” when you are out of the house. If one is going to try to crate train an adult dog with separation anxiety, reach out to a certified trainer to help you through the process. Confining a dog that already has a nervous breakdown every time you leave will set you up for disaster. You don’t want to come home to a broken crate and possibly an injured dog.
Medications: In severe cases, medications are used in conjunction with treatment. There are medications to use on an everyday basis (maintenance medications), as well as medications to use during periods of crisis. Medications, when used appropriately, are not designed to cure the problem, but rather help to treat in conjunction with behavioral modification. The goal is medication and behavioral modification initially. Then wean off medication and continue behavioral modification alone.
I hope this sheds some light on the condition separation anxiety and offers solutions to a very stressful problem.
Dr. Kearns practices veterinary medicine from his Port Jefferson office and is pictured with his son Matthew and his dog Jasmine.