Separation anxiety is the presence of destructive behavior, inappropriate urination and/or defecation, excessive drooling, or vocalization by affected dogs when separated from their owners. These problems can also be due to other issues such as incomplete potty-training, a lack of access to appropriate areas for elimination, other fears (such as a fear of thunderstorms), excitement, submissive urination, incontinence, marking behaviors, and normal amounts of puppy destruction.
Once other causes have been ruled out, and separation anxiety has been diagnosed, a reason for such behaviors is often sought, especially when an adult dog that previously displayed no such behaviors starts to act in this way. Recent schedule changes, going back to work after being a stay-at-home employee or parent, or other changes within a household might be the cause. Sometimes there is no specific cause determined. Dogs that are rescued from a shelter have a higher chance of displaying separation anxiety, but any dog can be affected, regardless of breed or age.
Severe cases of separation anxiety may require anti-anxiety medications ALONG with behavioral therapy. These medications may take several weeks to be effective. A full physical exam and preliminary blood work are important to rule out medical reasons for these problems and to ensure that the patient is in good health before being put on long term anti-anxiety medications.
This involves giving the patient regular scheduled and earned attention, and not rewarding the constant anxious seeking of attention from the owner that many dogs with separation anxiety display. The idea behind this plan is to teach the dog to be calm by only rewarding calm behavior. Working with the dog daily using such commands as “sit,” “down,” and “stay” reinforces training and provides a setting that allows you to reward him or her for being happy and relaxed. Using treats and attention and extending the periods of time for the stay away from the owner can be used to train the dog to be relaxed when the owner departs.
Desensitization to Departure Cues
First, determine which owner actions cause anxiety to the dog, by recognizing signs of stress (panting, whining, trembling, pacing, dilated pupils, and inappropriate seeking of attention). Once the offensive actions are determined, the desensitization process involves repeating these same actions (such as dressing for work, picking up keys or purse, drinking coffee while standing instead of sitting, etc) when the owner does not leave the house. Therefore, the dog will start to not associate these actions with the anxiety of being left alone. The opposite can also be true. The owner can do actions (read the paper, dress in yoga non-work pants) that are usually done on days spent at home, and then leave instead for the office.
Do Not Reward Anxious Behavior
Do not attempt to soothe your dog when you leave. Do not make a big deal of either leaving or coming home. When you come home, don’t engage your pet in excited, inapprorpriate behavior. Instead, just quietly take him or her outside to potty. Once your pet calms down, then they can get attention, verbal praise, and food treats.
Do Not Punish
The destruction done to a home by an anxious dog is very distressing, but punishment should never be administered to the dog as it only worsens anxiety.
Daily exercise releases relaxing hormones and can also be beneficial therapy in the treatment of separation anxiety. If possible, exercising your dog before you leave the house is best, to both calm and tire them out.
Using a crate may be useful in protecting both your house and your the dog from destructive behaviors (eating flooring material, for example). However, a dog suffering from separation anxiety may need to be eased into the use of a crate by feeding only in the crate or “kenneling up” for treats, with slowly increasing amounts of time, all the while trying to avoid getting the pet anxious while being put into the crate.
For more helpful info on separation anxiety, please check out the ASPCA.