Dogs are social creatures and it is natural that they want to be with their ‘family’. But in todays society, our busy lives mean that we often have to leave pets alone for extended periods of time. Many dogs cope with this by spending their time sleeping (an average dog sleeps/rests for 16 hours a day), utilising food puzzles and chewing on bones, or interacting with other pets within the home.
However, it is not uncommon for people to report that their dog shows signs of distress when left alone. Unfortunately it is usually only those owners whose dogs become destructive, overtly vocal or repeatedly escape the premises that are aware of their dogs suffering.
It is likely that these dogs are just the tip of the iceberg and that there are many others who suffer ‘in silence’ or whose behaviour (urinating/defecating in the home for example) is misdiagnosed as a training issue.
All behaviour is due to the interplay between an individuals’ genetics, its early life experiences and its current living environment.
We know there is a genetic predisposition for anxiety, including that which occurs when left alone, but many dogs with such a predisposition avoid developing separation related problems. This is because the predisposition (for anxiety to develop) is over-ridden by good early socialisation and/or their current living environment does not contain the triggers required for anxiety to occur. An obvious example is the little dog who lives with a retired person and is never left alone, so the problem doesn’t arise.
It is when an animals’ genetic predisposition is met with poor early life experiences and/or an environment the animal finds stressful, that behavioural problems occur.
Is it separation anxiety?
True separation anxiety relates to the distress shown when the dog is not in contact with a particular individual (usually the owner) to whom it is most closely bonded. This may be actual separation (as in the case of the owner being at work) or visual separation (the owner is in the bathroom with the door closed). A dog with separation anxiety should behave ‘normally’ when the owner is present. If the animal is showing signs of anxiety or abnormal behaviour in the presence of the owner, then the diagnosis is incorrect or the dog has a concurrent anxiety disorder.
The term separation anxiety is often misused for those dogs that don’t like to be left alone but this is really something different and is best described as isolation distress.
Animals with isolation distress cope ok as long as they have some company – they are not fixated on the presence or absence of just one family member (as is the case with true separation anxiety).
It may seem pedantic, but correct diagnosis is vital if we are to treat these dogs appropriately. The triggers are different, therefore the behavioural management techniques employed need to be different too, if they are to be successful. One obvious example is when a client asks whether ‘they should get a second dog to keep the first dog company?’ The answer is ‘it all depends’. If the dog is bonded to a specific owner then a second dog will be of no benefit (and in some cases can make the situation worse). If the dog just doesn’t like being alone, then a second dog can potentially help. I often recommend ‘trialling’ a second dog if the first dog is friendly and has a canine playmate in the local area that can be ‘babysat’. By videoing the dogs when left alone, you can gain an insight into whether the company of a second dog might be beneficial (or not).
Treatment – is there hope?
Dogs can cause significant damage when left alone to both themselves and their environment; so the problem can often feel overwhelming and hopeless.
It is a major reason why they are relinquished to shelters and pounds worldwide.
However there is hope. As with ANY behavioural problem getting the correct diagnosis and treatment is vital, as is owner commitment.
The aim of treatment is to STOP the unwanted behaviour, CHANGE the emotional state an animal associates with a particular situation/trigger and REPLACE with a more appropriate behaviour (such as relaxing on their bed).
Like any other behaviour problem treatment has three main elements: Medication, Management and Behavioural Modification.
Treatment plans must be personalised to the specific situation. Some owners have no choice but to leave their dogs alone, due to work commitments and lack of external help. For these cases, we may have to rely more heavily on anxiolytic medications at the commencement of the treatment plan, so we can successfully stop the unwanted behaviour from continuing (and the unwanted neural pathways in the brain from strengthening).
Acepromazine (ACP), a medication traditionally utilized in such cases, is NOT appropriate and will make the animal more anxious over time. But there are many other genuine anxiolytic prescription medications such as the benzodiazepines (as well as over the counter products like Adaptil® and Zylkene®) that have a role to play in successful treatment.
In all cases, minimising the dogs overall arousal level is important. We know that any arousal pushes a dog towards its threshold for reactivity so taking steps to keep your dog within its emotional green zone is vital. This includes things not directly related to the dog being left alone – feeding dogs within the household separately, teaching relax, massages, playing classical music or reading books all contribute to positive emotional health and reduced arousal.
Crate training is often advised on many internet forums. This can work but it HAS to be done so the dog forms a positive association with being confined inside the crate.
Many dogs are inappropriately crate trained which causes increased (dis)stress. If in doubt, seek advice from a (positive reinforcement) behaviour professional.
The exact behavioural modification techniques employed during treatment depend on what trigger/s the individual animal has. But the premise is always the same – we want to change a negative association to a positive (or neutral) one.
Sometimes this can be relatively straight forward to fix – breaking the association between the owner picking up the car keys and the owner leaving the house, for example. Others can be more difficult. Again, accurately diagnosing what the triggers are for the particular dog we are treating, is imperative.
I recommend owners set up a video system, not just to record when the animal is alone, but also when they first get up in the morning and go about their daily business. Often, by watching this back, we can pick up subtle stress signals the dog is displaying (and therefore better accurately identify its triggers) in the build up to the owner leaving. The dogs’ anxiety may be starting to brew as soon as the alarm clock goes off.
In cases of true separation anxiety (where the dog is hyper-bonded to one specific individual) practices like getting all members of the family to feed and walk the dog are imperative as part of the treatment plan. However, in isolation distress, this will have no effect.
An appreciation that dogs with mental health issues, such as separation anxiety and isolation distress, are going to be ‘a work in progress’ is vital. Just like in human mental illness, animals have peaks and troughs in their emotional state, and therefore their behaviour, over time. New stressors may develop, such as canine cognitive dysfunction, and geriatric dogs can suddenly start to show signs of distress when left alone they never did before.
As with many other unwanted behaviours, prevention is better (easier) than cure. When bringing a new canine addition into your family, monitor its behaviour, and set it up for success. Seek out the advice of a suitable trainer or behaviour vet to help you with this; prognosis for change in behaviour is always more favourable the earlier appropriate intervention occurs.
Dr Emma Hughes BSc; BVSc; MSc; MANZCVS (Veterinary Behaviour).