Fear, is a very rudimentary emotion, necessary for survival. However, prolonged fearful states can have negative effects for both humans and animals. The most prevalent types of anxiety in dogs, are general fearfulness, noise sensitivity, and separation anxiety. Here, we will discuss separation anxiety in detail.
anxiety example

What is separation anxiety?

Separation anxiety can be observed in approximately 20% of dogs. It is actually the physiological response of a dog, being separated from the “pack” or otherwise being unsure of when his basic needs will be attended to. Dogs experiencing anxiety, will present with many of the symptoms associated with anxiety in humans, including rapid heart beat, increased respiration, increased bowel and bladder activity, and sometimes compulsive behaviors meant for self comfort. Other symptoms are self-preservation behaviors, such as “calling for help” through vocalizations, and trying to physically chew or dig through barriers.

Is it spite?

On the left is a typical scenario of a dog suffering from separation anxiety.

Dogs can understand cause and effect between two situations, when the situations overlap or are separated by not much more then a second!

Humans are able to “reason” beyond this and understand that block 8 (punishment) is the result of what happened in blocks 5 and 6 (slipper chewing). Dogs are unable to make this connection unless it is bordering or within the same block. For instance, dogs will understand that block 8 (punishment) is associated with block 7 (owner coming home and NOTICING damage, not the ACT of damaging which is separated by a full event). We should not expect a dog to reason to the same degree as us.

This dog is likely to repeat the same chewing behavior when left alone the next day, since nothing was done to alleviate the actual anxiety. The dog will not know he is doing wrong while chewing and will only realize he is about to be punished when the owner returns home.  The dog will then associate this exact scenario, of the owner and presence of damage with punishment, and his body language will anticipate punishment.  The owner will perceive this as the dog  must “know what he did” and therefore must be “spiteful”.  But, this is not the case.  The dog is simply anticipating punishment, which he did not understand how to avoid, and is hence showing his submission.  New, unwanted behaviors, such as submissive urination, may arise on the owner’s return home.

The problem also can’t be fixed in block 5 or 6 by attempting to booby trap potential chew items or using bark collars for vocalizing. If anxious energy is blocked in one form it will appear in another (such as eliminating bowels or bladder).

The only way to prevent or improve separation anxiety is to break the cycle at where the anxiety begins (in block 1). “Dog starts feeling anxious” should be changed to something like “Dog doesn’t mind much”.

How do we do this?

First, we have to make sure, that we have everything required for our foundation in place:

  • If the dog is in good health and on a good diet, the dog will be more comfortable being alone in general and more likely to hold a healthy, smaller stool and normal bladder, not overly inflated by thirst.

  • If our attitude is good, we do not need to worry about the mistake of coming home and losing our temper on our dog, which will only cause more side effects and problems.

  • If we’ve studied some learning theory, we will already have a background in techniques, that can help change bad associations.

  • If our leadership exercises are in place, we’re already on track to making the dog feel that he is in a predicable world and that he will be provided for. Having your dog on a predicable and provided-for schedule, is a crucial step.

  • If we have been attending to our dog’s drive balance, he will be less likely to have any destructive behaviors, exasperated or related to the fact that he has pent up energy and a need for an outlet.

If these things are in place, we have addressed all the underlying variables, that will feed a separation anxiety problem. Moreover, we have also addressed common factors, which may result in similar behaviors, and which shouldn’t be mistaken for anxiety. These include, destruction caused by drive balance issues, and “accidents” caused by urine marking behaviors.

With the foundation set, we can further simplify the plan by addressing the point, where the anxiety starts, when the dog is left alone.  Here we pull from what we learned in “learning theory” to tackle this in up to four stages depending on the extent of the anxiety problem:

  1. Conditioning – This is primarily the technique, that is used to prevent an anxiety problem. We will be creating a good association with the action of the owner leaving the dog alone.

  2. Counter-Conditioning – This plan can be worked with a dog that is already showing signs of anxiety when left alone so we are changing the association to something good. It is basically the same plan as conditioning but we need to monitor to see if any progress.

  3. Desensitizing – We add desensitizing to the plan, when the dog is just too anxious to care about any treat or activity, we have been providing to counter-condition him, when we leave.

  4. Flooding – This is really a last resort, when desensitizing just isn’t a realistic option for the owner’s schedule and there seems to be no progress being made.

  5. Medication – In bad cases of separation anxiety, medication prescribed by a qualified veterinarian can help take the edge off enough to make progress, and then normally can be weaned off.  If you are having trouble getting over the hump with your dog and have all your foundation in place, this can be a reasonable part of a severe separation anxiety case that requires anything more than counter-conditioning.

Anxiety is below habitation on our chart because it is possible to have a dog that is not housebroken and anxiety free, but nearly impossible to housebreak a dog that is suffering from an anxiety problem. That is why these anxiety problems are always treated in a crate or other safe area to limit bad habits and damage while the owner is not present.

Now that we have learned about some approaches to dealing with anxiety, we can move on to Habitation