The diagnosis of Separation Anxiety is only true when the symptoms occur within 30 minutes of leaving, or while the key attachment figure is gone.
When treating a dog with separation anxiety, the goal is to resolve the dog’s underlying anxiety by teaching him to enjoy, or at least tolerate, being left alone. This is accomplished by setting things up so that the dog experiences the situation that provokes his anxiety, namely being alone, without experiencing fear or anxiety.
Rule out physical stress that could be causing behavior changes. Underlying pain or discomfort from a physical issue can cause increased symptoms of separation anxiety. For example, painful arthritis or an undiagnosed dental abscess. The veterinarian may do some tests to rule out physical issues that are not obvious but may be causing pain and exacerbating separating distress.
Begin Psychoactive Medication
Behavior medications are routinely used in conjunction with a behavioral modification plan. These medications calm and relax the Pet’s mental state. The medications will help decrease anxiety and help get quicker results from the behavior modification process. The medication is tapered and discontinued when separation distress is no longer evident. These medications are contraindicated in dogs with seizures or some types of heart disease.
Document Existing Departure Symptoms
Begin keeping a diary of symptoms that are associated with the owner leaving. The improvement in these symptoms is how you will monitor the progress of the behavior modification plan. Rate each symptom on a scale of 1-5 and note if they are triggered by a cue the owner gives the dog that he is about to leave (i.e. owner picks his keys up and the dog begins whining). Once you have identified departure cues, begin to desensitize the cue by doing it randomly and frequently unit the dog no longer has anxiety associated with the cue. Avoid having dog see your departure routine in the future. You might try keeping your coat, shoes, and keys in a back bedroom where your dog will not see you getting ready to depart. Try varying your departure times and exiting through different doors.
Praise Calm Behavior
Begin ignoring anxious and excited attention-seeking behaviors and start marking all calm independent behavior with calm praise. The goal is for the dog to learn that being calm is more rewarding than being anxious.
Never punish a dog when you find household destruction. It is also important that you not let the dog see you clean up the mess he made because the dog may see this as indirect attention. Dogs need to trust that we are reliable and nonthreatening. Punishment can actually increase anxiety if the dog sees the act as a sudden attack.
Increase Dog’s Exercise
Exercise naturally relieves stress and anxiety. Begin to exercise your dog immediately before the regular departure. Make sure the dog is panting and lays down immediately upon returning home.
Avoid Emotional Greetings or Departures
Actively connecting with a dog around departures or greeting seems to make these events more significant and can actually exacerbate Separation Distress. The general rule is to ignore the dog for 30 minutes before departure and then when you get home, wait for several minutes, and until the dog is calm, to greet dog calmly after he sits when instructed.
Begin Independence Training
When you are home, practice long Down-Stays and begin kennel and close tether training. Start confining dog near owner but not touching. Praise all calm behavior. Gradually begin confining dog further and further away from the owner making sure that anxiety symptoms stay below the stress threshold. Ignore all attempts of attention-seeking and return to the Pet only when he is calm and quiet. Do not allow the dog to follow you from room to room. Use baby gates to confine the dog to one area in the home, or close doors to prevent the dog from following you.
Off The Furniture
Keep the dog off furniture, including your bed, until the separation anxiety is in remission. This may require you to tether or kennel your dog on the floor next to the furniture.
Avoid Excessive Physical Contact
When our dogs seek constant physical contact, we are encouraging them to be dependent on us for them to feel calm and relaxed. This can worsen separation distress. Require that your dog earn all physical affection by following an instruction to earn affection.
Distract Dog When Departing the House
Distract the dog by feeding in a food puzzle or providing a rewarding long-lasting chew or treat on departure. One way to do this is to fill a KONG Chew Toy with either softened food or peanut butter and freeze ahead of time. This will provide your dog with hours of enjoyable chewing that will eventually help your dog associate you leaving with something positive. The chewing also relieves stress by providing an energy release. You may need to teach your dog how to use the food puzzle ahead of time while you are home so he will readily use it on departure.
The earlier you intervene the easier it will be to help your dog get used to alone time. Better yet, start independence training early in the puppy’s life to prevent separation anxiety from developing at all. Separation anxiety is easier to prevent than it is to treat so save yourself and your Pet undue stress and anxiety and make independence training a standard in your home from the beginning.