Separation Anxiety 2

Separation anxiety in dogs.
The second most common behavior problem.

The animal behaviorists call it separation anxiety, but the dog owner knows it by its signs—the chewed up carpet, the mutilated door frame, the shredded slippers and socks, the house training rules broken in various places about the house. More often than not the neighbors know it by the incessant howling, barking, and whining from the dog left alone, not necessarily all day, but no longer than 30 minutes to an hour in many cases. And as if the owner returning home to confront all of this did not have enough to engage his or her attention, there is that ultimately frustrating manifestation of separation anxiety—the effusive, almost hysterical greeting and relentless pestering by the dog upon its owner's return.

There is no doubt that the behavior problems stemming from separation anxiety are widespread and serious. In general, all studies agree that these problems are second only to canine aggression in causing a final break in the human/companion animal bond, another way of saying that the human has given up in despair or disgust and has sent the animal off to a shelter and his or her likely fate there.

In one of the most recent examinations of separation anxiety, Dr. Victoria L. Voith and Dr. Peter L. Borchelt say that separation anxiety accounts for up to 40 percent of cases in behavior clinics or practices throughout the United States and Europe. Destruction wreacked on household furnishings during the owner's absence has been attributed to separation anxiety in study after study. Barking and howling, two of the most common manifestations of anxiety, do not leave any visible signs except for strained relationships between the dog owners and their neighbors. In many commmunities, however, the assaulted neighbors have succeeded in getting laws passed against this nerve-wracking form of noise pollution.

Fortunately, there are ways to correct the problems associated with separation anxiety. But as Cornell's animal behaviorist Dr. Katherine A. Houpt cautions, the problems of anxiety, especially destructiveness, are not always easy to solve and may be less amenable to treatment than the more dangerous (and more common) problems of canine aggression.

Perhaps the most frustrating and distressing aspect of separation anxiety for the dog owner is that the pet is almost always well behaved and easy to deal with in the owner's presence—the misbehavior becomes something like a phantom problem out of the owner's reach. But in spite of all the inherent difficulties associated with attempting to change behavior, there are a number of well-tested methods that have worked in even the most seemingly intractable cases.

Why dogs become anxious

Separation anxiety arises from the most natural causes. As Dr. Voith and Dr. Borchelt explain, "Attachment...is essential for animals whose survival is benefited by sociability." Dogs are, of course, highly social creatures and form strong attachments with the people with whom they live. Because they have little understanding of the reasons why the owner should be absent, they develop all the signs described above. Dogs that usually enjoy close, daily contact with the owner may be especially conditioned to react negatively to a separation. Most baffling are the cases where a dog that has tolerated separation well suddenly exhibits signs of anxiety during the owner's absence. Closer investigation usually reveals that in the majority of cases the separation was preceded by a period of especially close and uninterrupted contact to which the dog evidently became habituated very quickly. Separation anxiety may also develop in a dog that never showed signs after a stay in a kennel or after some significant break in household routine such as a divorce or the death of a family member.

Why take it out on the rug?
So the dog misses you. That's to be expected. You two have a great thing going. But why does he think he can show how much he loves and misses and needs you by eating a hole in your best rug? Does he know it is your best rug? Does the pet remember the words of the old song "You always hurt the one you love"? Why be so spiteful?

Behaviourists disdain all such anthropocentric thinking. And when most owners calm down they too remember that dogs don't think or behave the way they do and, anyway, their particular dogs are too young to remember the song. What is clear is that destructiveness is one of the few options open to an anxious dog (you have already cleaned up the other two and will probably receive any number of telephone calls about the barking before the night is out). The dog won't denounce you in a letter to the local newspaper, nor will she or he call up the local humane society. Instead, the frustration and fear will be exhibited in one of the few ways that are open to canine nature.

The definitive answer to destructive behavior has not been found, says Dr. Houpt. Moreover, the inadequacies of knowledge about its causes are reflected in the frequent lack of success in treatment. Among the reasons proposed: Boredom (or, less anthropomorphically, a lack of environmental stimulation), barrier frustration, and possibly breed predisposition.

No doubt dogs need environmental stimulation, and this may be especially true for young dogs or dogs of working breeds. But the question of how much stimulation a dog actually needs is still unsettled. Dr. Houpt and associates Sue Utter Honig, MS, and llana R. Reisner, DVM, PhD, at Cornell note that as carnivores, dogs are only sporadically active. Even sled dogs spend as much as 80 percent of a 24 hour period just resting, and dogs who are watched closely in a laboratory setting spend about 75 percent of the time resting.

Certainly dogs differ in activity levels and even in the need to be stimulated by new experiences. And young dogs may need more stimulation than their elders. Most owners report that their dogs do spend most of the observed time resting, interrupted by bouts of activity.

A clue as to whether the dog is searching for environmental stimulation (trying to relieve boredom) might lie in the kind of destructiveness the owner finds. The Cornell experts say that if the destruction involves chewable and easily moved objects such as pillows or paper, the dog may be showing exploratory behavior; that is, looking to find something novel. The owner's leaving has aroused the dog and now it is free to explore (de, find and chew) objects, a behavior that would be prohibited in the owner's presence.

Although not all behaviorists agree, there is some evidence that destructiveness is in some degree related to breed. Dr. Houpt's experience is that Beagles, German Shepherds, and Malamutes seem predisposed to destructiveness, but there has not been a rigorous study of the relationship. From Dr. Houpt's work, it also appears that Terriers, German Shepherd Dogs, Irish Setters, and Siberian Huskies are not prone to destructiveness. But Terriers are known to engage in excess paw licking and chewing, with the resulting risk of skin disease. Perhaps dogs that chew on themselves, Dr. Houpt suggests, do not chew on objects in the home, no doubt somewhat of a mixed blessing for the dog owner.

Barrier frustration

Destructiveness during the owner's absence can often be seen at doors (chewed up frames) and windows (torn curtains, broken screens), indicating that the dog is exhibiting what is termed barrier frustration. The dog's basic problem is that it cannot tolerate being enclosed, especially when the owner is no longer present to inhibit the behavior or distract the dog with other stimulation. The exact relationship between barrier frustration and separation anxiety is not always clear, for the frustration may be evident any time the dog is enclosed, regardless of the owner's whereabouts.

Oddly enough, some dogs that cannot accept enclosure are content to sit quietly in the owner's car. Dr. Houpt suggests that the car may represent a den to the dog, one carrying not only its reassuring scent but also the scent of the owner. Furthermore, as Dr. Voith and Dr. Borchelt note, the time the dog is usually alone in a car is short by comparison with the time that he or she is left alone at home. A good clue to conditioning the dog to living alone at home can be found here and will be considered later under the discussion of the graduated departure method of dealing with separation anxiety.

When separation anxiety gets messy

Owners are baffled and just as often enraged when a perfectly housetrained dog urinates and defecates, at times literally all over the place, when left alone. All veterinarians conclude that a medical reason for such breaks in established routine should be investigated and ruled out before any behavioral cause is probed. But Dr. Voith and Dr. Borchelt offer one tip—medical problems seldom result in the dog's urinating and defecating. If the two are done together, the cause is likely to be behavioral.

Poor or incomplete housetraining may also produce the inevitable, but in this case the dog will probably break the rules even in the owner's presence and not wait until departure. It has been shown that dogs with separation anxiety usually urinate or defecate within minutes of the departure of the owner— regardless of whether or not the pet has eliminated just before the separation. In the dog's defense, it should be said that most dogs must have the opportunity to relieve themselves several times a day. Otherwise, a dog that is confined for hours a day on end may not have the ability to inhibit himself or herself until the owner returns.

As many dog trainers advise, keeping the tried and true newspaper training area available for the pet when long absences are unavoidable can save much trouble to all parties. The experts also point out that a dog who has no choice but to eliminate in inappropriate places and at inappropriate times may lose all inhibition about relieving her or himself in the home. In this sense, housetraining is a continuing and ongoing process.

Reassuring an anxious dog

The general theory behind defusing the separation anxiety situation has been summed up in various ways. Dr. Bonnie Beaver of Texas A&M University says that because separation anxiety results from the dog being overly dependent on the owner, treatment is aimed at minimizing the difference between the owner being home and not being at home. Put another way, the goal of treatment can be said to be to get the dog gradually used to being alone, starting with many short separations and building to longer and longer periods that can be tolerated without any display of unacceptable behavior. Veterinary -behaviorists call this a routine of "graduated departures," a term in common usage in the behaviorist community.

As anyone might expect, anything with "graduated" in its title is going to take time, and the graduated departures approach does just that. Some of the failures encountered in changing separation-anxiety related behaviors might be attributable not to the drug but, instead, to the owner's failure of persistence. Begin at the obvious source of the problem, these experts advise. That means getting the dog used to the door through which the owner will vanish and also to all the actions and objects that are usually encountered as preparation for departure. The dog should be taught to associate preparation with the valued reward for sitting calmly and observing these things. How evolved a scenario the owner develops may depend on how anxious the dog has become in the past. Some dogs will sit calmly and endure the owner's gradual preparation, then brief disappearance, sudden return, new absence, all without any display of anxiety.

It may be necessary to perform this routine several times a day, however, to accomplish the goal of reducing the dog's anxiety response. As the doctors say, if the pet is less anxious before the owner departs, he or she is more likely to tolerate the actual absence. But the absences must be short at first as the dog is being conditioned to accept absence in itself.

It may seem tedious to owners, and it probably is, but the absences at first may have to be only seconds in duration, gradually building. (It is recommended that these dogs be ignored and not spoken to 10 to 15 minutes prior to the owner's departure and also return.) Leaving a chewable toy with the dog may help prevent destructive behavior, but the experts caution that the toy should be used only in the graduated departure context and should not be available at other times. Dr. Beaver also recommends restricting the toys to increase their value to the dog and the time the toy will occupy the pet's attention. She even suggests filling a hollow rubber toy with peanut butter, cream cheese, or other valued food treat. If the toy is given before departure, it may divert the dog during the critical five- to 30 minute period when most separation-anxiety-related problems occur. Because departures (and arrivals) are emotionally charged moments for the dog, all experts advise that these be kept as low-keyed as possible.

Summing up the graduated departures approach, the emphasis must be on patience and not on pushing the dog too far too quickly. Drs. Voith and Borchelt have found that many owners space the departures too closely together for any dog to tolerate them. Departures performed too closely can, in fact, increase rather than diminish anxiety. When is it appropriate to increase the time of separation?

The experts offer two guidelines: increase when the dog shows no predeparture anxiety—that is, does not respond to any of the acts or objects associated with an imminent departure, and when the dog does not show any prolonged or exaggerated greeting behavior when the owner returns.

Does all of the above mean that the routine has to go on until the dog can quietly tolerate a typical daylong period of separation? Not at all, say the doctors, because once the dog can tolerate 30 minutes of separation, the problem is usually under control. Progress in the dog's ability to tolerate absence is usually slow at first, but then increases rapidly. If a dog can tolerate separation for an hour and a half, it will probably be good for a day, although it may be safer to give the dog at most three hours of separation before risking the entire day.

Punishment, major and minor

Punishment is probably the most commonly applied method owners use to "treat" the signs of separation anxiety. Alas, punishment merely serves to increase anxiety and in any case comes too far after the event to make any impression on the dog or any change in the behavior. As has been said repeatedly, punishment must come within seconds of the undesirable behavior to have any corrective value. Most of the behaviors the owner wants to punish the dog for were done within five to 30 minutes of departure, now hours in the past.

What about the forms of minor punishment such as booby-trapped objects, bitter-tasting applicants, and so forth? The experts believe such things work only on teething and related types of chewing and have no impact at all on the dog who chews out of anxiety. The smart but anxious dog will learn to avoid the trap or the taste and finds other ways to relieve the anxiety.

Dr. Voith and Dr. Borchelt also question the usefulness of a long-standing technique for controlling anxiety-related barking. In their proposed method the owner leaves, waits until the vocalization begins, then rushes back to scold the dog or to startle it with a loud noise or other similar techniques. The punishment is timely enough, but it has the serious drawback of associating the punishment with the owner, which might lead to the dog fearing the owner rather than learning a new behavior. Furthermore and more important, the method does not address the root cause of the inappropriate behavior—the dog's inability to tolerate separation. in short, such punishment does not teach the dog that separation is something it can learn to live with.

Putting a dog in a crate during separation may have more disadvantages than benefits. Certainly doing so will minimize damage to the house, but the other manifestations of anxiety, such as vocalization and inappropriate elimination, often occur. In addition, many dogs destroy the crates and injure themselves. Although behaviorists do recommend crates for certain purposes, such as housetraining, none of them suggest that a crate should be used for long term confinement, unless the dog has been taught to accept the crate as its den and can derive a sense of security from occupying it. A dog must be introduced to its use gradually. Failure of its use occurs when owners buy a crate to confine a dog and fail to acclimate the animal to it.

Is it possible to prevent separation anxiety?
The question is by no means easy to answer, but one thing seems clear—obedience training appears to have no effect on the animal's behavior, nor does it prevent the development of the problem. Training may be of benefit for the owners, however. Drs. Voith and Borchelt conclude their study with the suggestion that owners begin early in their relationship with the dog to get it used to being alone. Owners should not permit the dog to accompany them at all times.

Even though dogs, especially young ones, seem to want constant attention, studies have shown that "attention" does not mean constant petting, touching, coddling, and the like. In fact, it is now certain that the best reward a dog can get is for him or her to simply stand in close proximity to a person, not necessarily touching at all. That may not sound very sentimental or caring, but it does offer a clue to the best method of managing the severe problems of separation anxiety—avoiding the dependence that sets the behavior off in the first place.