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About Eric Barchas, D.V.M.

Eric Barchas, DVM is a veterinarian who lives and works in the San Francisco Bay Area. His emphasis is on small animal medicine, emergency medicine, hospice and wellness. An avid traveler, he has studied lions in Botswana and salmon in southern Chile.

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Behavior Modification for Separation Anxiety in Dogs

Overview

Behavior modification, or training, is the most important element in the treatment of separation anxiety in dogs. Behavior modification should be implemented only after a professional diagnosis of separation anxiety has been confirmed by a veterinarian.

The key components of behavior modification for separation anxiety include ensuring adequate exercise and enrichment, employing tactics to make separation from the owner more pleasant for the dog, and reducing the excitement surrounding the owner's comings and goings.

The treatment of separation anxiety requires a great deal of patience. Many people find it useful to consult with a specialist in dog training or in veterinary behavior.

Owners of dogs who suffer from separation anxiety should be aware that no cure is available for the syndrome. And, no specific tactic employed to fight the syndrome is guaranteed to work. However, with patience and effort most cases of separation anxiety can be controlled.

For more information on the diagnosis of separation anxiety, and on other treatments (such as medications) for the syndrome, see the article entitled "Separation Anxiety in Dogs".

Methods of Behavior Modification (Training)

  • Ensure that your dog has plenty of exercise each day. Pent-up energy can promote anxiety and destructive behavior.
  • Take steps to make separation more pleasant for your dog. In addition to making safe toys available, consider feeding your dog as you are leaving the house.
  • In addition to feeding your dog while you are absent, consider changing the way in which you feed your dog. In the wild, dogs spend most of their waking hours foraging for food. However, many pet dogs consume each meal in less than one minute. This leaves them open to boredom.

The situation can be addressed by providing each meal inside a Kong® Toy, foraging ball or other similar, safe device. Providing food in this manner requires the dog to expend effort extricating its meal, and it increases the time spent consuming food each day. This may have a positive impact on separation anxiety.

  • Avoid dramatic greetings and farewell ceremonies with your dog. Although it is human nature to express affection during arrivals and departures, this habit can inadvertently trigger anxiety in dogs. Dogs that have been diagnosed with separation anxiety may improve if they are ignored for several minutes before the owner leaves the house, and again for several minutes after the owner returns home.
  • Separate the cues of your departures and arrivals from your actual comings and goings. For instance, many dogs will become anxious when they see their owner put on his coat and pick up his car keys. In this case, the owner could practice putting on his coat and picking up his car keys, and then sit quietly at home for 15 minutes before leaving without ceremony.

Similarly, many dogs become agitated when they hear the owner's car pull into the garage after a period of absence. In this situation, owners may consider remaining in their car for 15 minutes after they arrive home (with the engine off, of course). This gives the dog time to calm down. The owner can then enter the house without ceremony.

Tactics such as these can be inconvenient and time consuming. However, many people find that they are effective in reducing the symptoms of separation anxiety.

  • In cases where the dog is causing damage to the house in the owner's absence, property damage may be reduced through crate training. This involves placing the dog in a pen or airline crate during the owner's absence.

The crate must comfortable and safe, with adequate safe sources of enrichment (toys) available. Crate training works best if the dog is regularly placed in the crate while the owner is present, and if the dog is fed in the crate. Isolation in the crate should not be used as punishment.

Crate training has not achieved universal approval among dog trainers and specialists in veterinary behavior. However, many experts advocate its use in separation anxiety.

  • Some dogs can handle short periods of separation but become anxious after a longer period of time. In this case, experiment with gradually increasing periods of separation to habituate the dog to your absence.
  • Other dogs become immediately anxious upon the departure of their owner, but calm down over time. In this case, experiment with waiting outside of the house until immediately after the dog calms down, then entering without ceremony.
  • Finally, remember that the process of treating separation anxiety requires a great deal of patience. If you are having trouble controlling the syndrome in your dog, consider consulting a dog trainer or a specialist in veterinary behavior. As well, medications are available that may help in the treatment of separation anxiety.

Copyright © Eric Barchas, DVM All rights reserved.
The contents of this page are provided for general informational purposes only. Under no circumstances should this page be substituted for professional consultation with a veterinarian.