Curing canine separation anxiety: Curse of the working class (Proceedings)


Curing canine separation anxiety: Curse of the working class (Proceedings)

Apr 01, 2009

As applied to animals, the terms anxieties, fears and phobias refer to a continuum. Anxieties are vague general reactions of uncertainty, fears are reactions to specific objects or stimuli, and phobias are extreme or irrational fears out of proportion to the real threat of the stimulus. Some authorities would reserve the concept of phobias for humans as a pathological syndrome, with a verbal component that cannot be applied to animals.

Probably most fear- or anxiety-related reactions of animals stem from normal reactions to stimuli or situations which, in a natural wild environment, would be adaptive. This is true of fear reactions to loud auditory stimuli and to strangers, as well as separation anxiety and submissive urination. Through habituation, and possibly maturation, these emotional reactions diminish. Adverse experiences with specific stimuli, such as with abuse by a person or persons may result in fear reactions or enhancement of normal fears.

The therapeutic goal is to desensitize the emotional reactions through habituation or extinction of acquired fears using structured training sessions and remove any reward the animal may get from displaying the emotional reaction.

These topics are discussed extensively in Hart, Hart and Bain, Canine and Feline Behavior Therapy , 2nd edition, 2006, Blackwell Press.

Separation Anxiety

This is a common problem in families where both adults work. It is the first problem behavior for which a psychotropic drug was approved in the U.S.

Typical History

There usually is an occurrence of several types of misbehavior, including chewing woodwork and furniture, excessive vocalization, inappropriate urination and defecation, indicating that the dog is emotionally upset when left alone by the owners. These signs occur also as manifestations of other problems. The main diagnostic feature is that these signs occur only when the owner is gone. Usually these signs occur within the first few minutes of the owner's departure. Sometimes owners give excessive attention to the dog prior to departures and upon returning, which may enhance the contrast between the owner being at home and away. Most signs of separation distress occur within 30 minutes of separation.


The primary diagnostic challenge is to confirm that the problem behaviors occur when the dog is left alone. Differentiate separation anxiety from other types of anxiety (noise phobia), boredom, inappropriate elimination, urine marking, and cognitive dysfunction. An easy way to do this is videotape the animal when the owner is gone.

Treatment Guidelines

  • Counsel the owners - The dog is not doing these behaviors "out of spite" or because "he's mad that we left him." This is an anxiety and the animal is in distress.
  • Eliminate anxiety - During the treatment program it is important to eliminate the anxiety that the dog feels when it is left alone. Except during planned departures have one of the owners take him to work with them, find a doggy day care in your area or board the dog at your clinic. The reasoning behind this is so the dog does not continue to panic when at home, continually relearning these reactions and behaviors there.
  • Initiate a distancing program - Choose a place, such as a special mat, which will be used for this part of the program. Put the dog on the mat and have him stay. Start out with a short period of time. This could be as short as 2-3 seconds if necessary. Then release him/her. Gradually increase the length of time the dog stays on the mat, up until about 15 minutes or so. Then the owners should start to increase the distance they move from their dog during the stay.
  • Eventually the owners will be able to move into another room while the dog is staying on the mat. Start with just a second or two, then increase the time away, and gradually the owners should close the door behind them. Once that is accomplished, they can work toward stepping out of the house while the dog stays. They should start getting closer to the door, touching the door, jingling the handle, opening the door, etc., etc.
  • The owners should move the mat around to different areas of the house and even outside when they want to work with the dog there. When the dog is on the mat for a longer period of time, they should give the dog a treat, preferably long lasting.
  • Initiate a departure program - The owners should next go outside for periods so short that the anxiety is not evoked. When the dog starts to become more comfortable it can be left for gradually longer periods of time. A food reward is again introduced upon departures. Progress on departures will be slow at first, increasing by only very gradual steps: 1,2,1,2,3,2,1,4,2,5—minutes. Later the steps will be much greater after the dog can be left alone for 30 minutes (e.g., 30,45,15,60,45,30,60,75-minutes). On their days off work owners should continue the departure program.
  • Downplay departures - The owners should downplay their departures. Actually ignore the dog completely for 15 minutes before they leave and after they return home.
  • Medication - An anti-anxiety drug such as fluoxetine or clomipramine may be useful to facilitate desensitization, but does not by itself solve the problem.