by Margaret R. Pender, owner, DogGone Right! Inc.
Is it Separation Anxiety or Isolation Distress?
Separation anxiety “is a serious emotional problem where the dog becomes panicked when his owner leaves. Dogs with full-blown Separation Anxiety act as though they are in terror about your departure, and about being alone in the house while you’re gone.” — Patricia McConnell, Ph.D., I’ll Be Home Soon
“Isolation distress means the dog doesn’t want to be left alone – any ol’ human will do for company, and sometimes even another dog will fill the bill.” — Pat Miller, Whole Dog Journal, July 2008
We are not entirely sure what causes SA or how it develops, but here is a list of possible contributing factors:
- The dog’s personality – there may be a genetic predisposition to SA or ID
- Re-homing, such as a dog who has had to be re-homed multiple times or even just once or a puppy who has just left the warmth of his littermates
- A dog who has never been left alone
- A dog who has been through a traumatic separation through the death of a family member (human or animal)
- The dog or a family member has an extended hospital stay, separating the dog from their family
- A dog who has experienced some sort of trauma while alone (an attempted or successful burglary or a fire, tornado, or severe storm)
- Noise phobia
- Old age
- The arrival of a new family member (human or animal)
- Leaving the litter at too young of an age
- The family moving to a new home or downsizing from a house to a condo/apartment
Just because your dog has an accident in the house while you are out does not necessarily mean your dog has SA. It could be a housetraining issue. Your dog barking when someone (such as the mail carrier) comes to the door also does not indicate your dog has SA. And if your dog chews a pillow when you are gone, it may not be SA. More than likely she was bored or under-exercised.
On the other hand, if you arrive home and your front door has been shredded, the couch has been eaten, your dog is panting, salivating, or hiding behind the couch, or there are piles of excrement and puddles of urine throughout the house, you should consider calling in a professional dog trainer/behaviour counselor to provide you with an accurate diagnosis.
Diagnosis is commonly done by getting a complete and thorough history on the dog’s behaviour, training, medical issues (if any), and what the daily routine in the household is like. Many times videotaping or using Skype during your absence will help with the diagnosis and assist with the treatment plan.
Separation anxiety and isolation distress are some of the most debilitating conditions to deal with for both your dog and YOU! The good news is there are treatment options for these conditions, and in most cases these are very successful. The bad news is that it takes time – sometimes months. With my own dog Angel it took almost a year, but we survived and with patience and consistency you can too.
For mild cases of SA you can often help to manage your dog’s stress levels by doing the following:
- Exercise your dog before you leave.
- Take your dog for a long walk or throw the ball in the backyard for 20–30 minutes before departure.
- Give your dog 15–20 minutes of “calm down” time after exercising before leaving.
- Make your arrivals and departures low key; don’t’ be dramatic.
- Give your dog a sustained-release food toy (e.g. a Kong stuffed with a mixture of Cheese Whiz or peanut butter and kibble, a Buster Cube with kibble in it, a Goodie Ship with gooey food in it, etc.).
- Never scold your dog for having an accident or raiding the garbage.
- Teach your dog what is acceptable to be chewed on (deer antlers, marrow bones, yak chews etc.).
- Teach your dog to be comfortable in a crate or kennel.
For moderate to severe cases of SA/ID you may have to consider the use of medications while working with a professional who understands and is thoroughly versed in desensitization, counter-conditioning, and the science behind them.
While developing a treatment plan for the moderate to severe SA/ID dog, there are a few “golden rules” I like to follow, in addition to the points raised earlier:
- Your dog should NEVER be left alone if you are doing a desensitization and/or counter-conditioning program with a trainer.
- Take your dog to work.
- Send your dog to daycare.
- Have a pet sitter come in when you are away from home (most dogs suffering from ID are fine as long as someone is with them.
- Make sure your dog is left somewhere she feels comfortable. Many SA/ID dogs also suffer from crate phobia, so crating them can make things much worse.
- Leave a radio or television on as background noise for you dog (I prefer the TV so my dog hears the sound of voices).
- Videotape your dog while you are gone to help understand his triggers.
In all cases of SA/ID encourage your dog to spend time alone when you are home. Get some dog puzzle toys or a nice juicy, meaty bone for him to gnaw on in his den while you are in the kitchen making dinner. If your dog is suffering from a severe case of SA/ID please consult a professional to help you.
Here are some wonderful additional resources:
- I’ll Be Home Soon: How to Prevent and Treat Separation Anxiety by Patricia McConnell, Ph.D.
- Don’t Leave Me: Step-by-Step Help for Your Dog’s Separation Anxiety by Nicole Wilde
- Treating Separation Anxiety in Dogs by Malena DeMartini-Price