Separation Anxiety And Dogs
Nobody likes leaving their companion animals alone, and it’s often true that our companions don’t like it when we leave them either. Separation anxiety (SA) is one of the most common canine behavioural problems: SA accounts for 15% of behavioural cases seen by general veterinarians and between 20-40% of cases seen by behaviourists. It’s something that can cause chronic stress in dogs, and it can have a negative impact on the ever important human-animal bond. When it goes unaddressed (or is misunderstood), SA can also lead to humans relinquishing otherwise healthy dogs to shelters, exacerbating not only the SA problem in that individual dog, but shelter overpopulation in general.
Treating SA can include making changes to the dog’s environment, treatment with drugs, or behavioural therapy. Behavioural therapy is considered the most important piece of the puzzle and it generally has two objectives: “to habituate the dog to being alone and to reduce its dependence on the owner.” This brief research study looks at some of the common elements of behavioural therapy to address SA and that “may be in contradiction with our current understanding of the stress response.” Reviewing a range of literature, the authors here wanted to focus especially on “the ability of dogs with SA to predict the owner’s departure and on the role of contextual fear in the treatment of SA.”
Anticipation of departure is thought to contribute significantly to SA, based on the dog observing the actual departure of their humans, and the small cues that might precede it such as putting on a coat or picking up keys. While a common practice is to tell humans to give “false cues” that might prevent the dog from anticipating the “actual departure,” there’s not much clinical evidence that it works. In fact, it “may be in contradiction with our current understanding of the importance of predictability in the stress response.” In various studies of other species, researchers have found that predictability actually helps to reduce anxiety, especially anxiety that is “associated with highly aversive stimuli and this is likely to apply to dogs suffering separation anxiety, they perceive the owner’s absence as a highly aversive situation.”
To help address SA and related issues, the authors recommend ways to increase predictability, in addition to the more subtle cues:
We recommend increasing the predictability of the owner’s departure by maintaining the cues that signal it and moreover by adding a novel cue (for instance a piece of white cardboard) that is placed by the exit door just before departure. This cue should be removed when the owner returns. This signal should be different from the other ones used in the fake departures that are used to habituate the dog to being left alone. When the dog is able to be left alone for 60 minutes without showing signs of anxiety, the novel cue for departure used during the training sessions can be used to signal actual departures as well.
The authors stress that, when it comes to treating dogs with SA, the most important thing is that treatment is in alignment with specific goals. Addressing SA with treatments that do not match up with what we know from stress theory likely will not be able to address the underlying problems. For companion animal advocates, as well as anyone who lives with dogs, this type of analysis should help to guide us in helping our companions deal with issues like separation anxiety.