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Freaks Out Your Dog, How to Ease the Distress

Analysis by Dr. Karen Shaw Becker

dog separation anxiety

Story at-a-glance -

  • Recent research out of Italy suggests petting a dog before leaving has a calming effect
  • The dogs in the study didn’t suffer separation anxiety; however, the results might indicate that advising owners to ignore these dogs as they prepare to leave is misguided
  • Because dogs with separation anxiety have no control over the genuine panic they feel, it stands to reason that gentle petting before departure has no power to reinforce behavior the dog isn’t choosing in the first place
  • Behavior modification, instituted as early as possible, is very important for dogs with separation anxiety
  • It’s also important to offer natural calming remedies to dogs living with the stress of separation anxiety

Many owners with dogs who suffer from separation anxiety have been told by veterinarians, trainers and other knowledgeable people to ignore their pet for a short period before they leave the house, and also when they return. This approach is intended to make comings and goings a nonevent by ignoring the anxiety rather than potentially reinforcing it by giving the dog attention. However, a new study conducted by veterinary researchers in Italy seems to question this bit of conventional wisdom.

Pilot Study Looks at the Effect on Dogs of Gentle Petting Before Separation

The study involved a small group of 10 dogs without separation anxiety-related issues, and the goal was to determine whether gentle petting before the owner leaves for a brief period affects their dog’s behavior and physiology. The study was conducted at a neutral location for the dogs (a field). In the first experiment, the owners spent one minute petting the dogs before leaving them with a researcher. In the second experiment, the owners ignored their dogs for one minute before leaving.

In both experiments, the owners were absent for three minutes as they stood behind a shed where the dogs couldn’t see them. The researchers assumed the dogs also couldn’t pick up their owner’s scent behind the shed. The researcher left with the dogs simply stood in the field holding the leash until the owners returned after three minutes.

Results Show Petted Dogs Were Calmer and Less Stressed During Their Owner’s Absence

The dogs’ behavior, heart rate and salivary cortisol were measured both before and after their owner’s absence. The researchers observed that based on their behavior and low cortisol levels, the dogs weren’t highly stressed by the separation. However, in both experiments they spent about half the time (≈ 90 seconds) during the separation looking around for their owners.

In the first experiment in which the dogs were petted before their owners left, they spent more time showing calm behaviors during the separation, including lying down, sniffing the ground for three seconds or longer (versus sniffing for under three seconds, which can be a sign of stress). In addition, the dogs’ heart rates were lower after the first test than the second test in which they were ignored before the separation. The researchers concluded:

“This pilot study suggests that petting a dog before a brief separation from the owner may have a positive effect, making the dog calmer during the separation itself. Further studies are needed to analyze more in depth its effectiveness, especially in dogs affected by separation anxiety.”1

Very Important: Dogs With Separation Anxiety Aren’t ‘Acting Out’

It looks like we’ll have to wait awhile longer for additional research on how these study results apply to dogs with separation anxiety. Once dogs develop anxiety, this interaction may exacerbate their stress; we don’t know. My educated guess is that it depends on the dog.

A soothing touch before leaving isn’t harmful in all cases, and might be beneficial to temporarily calm mildly stressed animals. As I noted earlier, this approach is contrary to conventional wisdom on the subject, but it may turn out to be a case of “now that we know better, we can do better.”

Dogs with separation anxiety, most of whom grow anxious when they know their human is preparing to leave the house, are distressed and uncomfortable. They don’t choose to feel that way, so it doesn’t make sense to me that gently petting them before leaving would encourage them to choose to feel miserable the next time around. Said another way, I’m quite sure dogs have the capacity to pretend to be anxious and upset when they’re not.

I think it’s probably unwise (and unkind) to view genuine anxiety and distress in dogs as a behavior they choose to perform — especially since we know canine separation anxiety is similar to panic attacks in humans, and is a condition over which they have no control. Common behaviors in a dog with separation anxiety include:

  • A need to be in the same room you're in, within a few feet of you
  • Frenzied greetings, whether you've been out of his sight five minutes or five hours
  • A noticeable mood change when he senses you're preparing to leave the house
  • Doing things while you're gone he doesn't do in your presence

When left at home alone, a dog with separation anxiety will often engage in at least one and often several of the following behaviors:

  • Vocalizing — This is typically barking, whining or howling that starts before you leave or soon after, and continues for most of the time you are away. Chances are your neighbors already have or will soon let you know there's a problem.
  • Drooling — Excessive salivation is considered by experts to be a red flag for separation anxiety when the excess drool only occurs when a dog is alone or believes she's alone.
  • Accidents in the house — Your dog has pee and/or poop accidents in random locations around your house rather than in one consistent spot, and this only happens when he's alone or believes he's alone.
  • Destructive behavior — Dogs with separation anxiety typically cause damage to doors or windows (exit points), or personal items such as clothing, pillows or the TV remote control. Confining these dogs to a kennel or carrier often causes an escalation of the behavior and can result in self-injury.

It’s very important to realize your dog's destructive, out-of-control behavior when he’s suffering a separation anxiety episode isn't intentional — it’s the result of the very real terror he's feeling.

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Helping a Dog With Separation Anxiety

The goal in treating your dog’s separation anxiety is to reduce her dependence on you so that she can feel safe when you’re temporarily away from home. Helping her feel more self-sufficient can be accomplished with a variety of behavior modification techniques and other strategies.

What you absolutely never want to do is yell at or use physical punishment with your dog if you arrive home to destruction or a mess on the floor. It’s very important to remember that these are not signs of misbehavior, but clinical anxiety, and your dog isn’t in control when she’s doing them. Punishing her, especially after the fact, will only increase her anxiety level.

When you’re at home and going about your day or evening, train your dog to assume a calm, relaxed demeanor during “separations” when you’re in one room and she’s in another. First, move a short distance from her (while you’re in the same room) and then return and reward her with a treat.

Repeat this step at the same distance until you’re sure she’s very relaxed, and then gradually increase the distance until you’re almost out of the room, making sure to give praise and treats when she stays relaxed and in place. Once you’ve increased the distance until you’re out of your dog’s sight, you can begin to gradually increase the time she’s in one room and you’re in another. If the minute you’re out of sight your dog comes running, she needs more time to work up to that level of separation.

This can be a weeks- or months-long process, but it’s often very effective. If you don't feel your dog is making good progress or you feel you need guidance, I recommend you talk with your veterinarian, a positive dog trainer or a specialist in canine behavior.

Additional Recommendations

I’m a big advocate of natural remedies to help minimize anxiety in dogs. Some suggestions:

Treat-release toys are a big hit with most dogs. There are chewing-type toys that can be filled with moist food. As he chews, the food is gradually released. You can even fill one up and put it in the freezer, which is especially useful for keeping a dog occupied for a longer period. There are also remote cameras and treat systems that let you talk to your pet while you’re at work or out of the house and dispense treats via an app.

Engage your dog in a rigorous exercise session daily. I can’t stress enough how beneficial intense exercise is for anxiety. Also consider enrolling in a nose work class, which is a great way to help your dog build confidence. Go for a round of heavy exercise (or ball playing) before you leave. A tired dog gets into less mischief when left alone.

Invest in a pheromone diffuser, such as the Adaptil diffuser for dogs. Species-specific pheromones are chemical substances that can positively affect an animal's emotional state and behavior.

Consult a holistic or integrative veterinarian about homeopathic, traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) and Bach Flower Remedies that could be helpful in alleviating your pet's anxiety. Products I’ve used, always in conjunction with behavior modification, include homeopathic aconitum or Hyland's Calms Forte, Bach Rescue Remedy, Solutions Separation Anxiety, Green Hope Farms Anxiety or other similar remedies depending on the animal.

Calming nutraceuticals and herbs that I've found most helpful include valerian and rhodiola, Again, you should consult your veterinarian about which option is right for your pet.

The essential oil of lavender has also been proven to reduce pets’ stress response. I recommend placing a few drops on your dog's collar or bedding before a stressor occurs, if possible, or diffuse the oil around your house for an overall calming effect.

If your dog's separation anxiety is severe enough that she’s very destructive when left alone or you're concerned she might hurt herself, you'll need to make other arrangements for her while you work to resolve her issues.

For example, consider taking her with you if possible. Alternatively, you can leave her with a caretaker — perhaps a friend who works from home or a retired neighbor or relative. Depending on your budget, you can also hire a dog sitter to stay in your home during your absence, or enroll her in doggy day care. With time, patience and persistence, most dogs with separation anxiety can be relieved of the worst of their troubling symptoms.