It’s Monday morning. The weekend’s over, and all you have to look forward to is yet another week in the office. But before you begin to pity yourself, first spare a thought for your pooch – ‘abandoned’, in their eyes, for hours on end, with no guarantee you will ever return…
Estimates suggest some 10-15% of our canine companions suffer from separation anxiety. Signs include inappropriate elimination (weeing or pooing), vocalisation (barking, howling or whining), hypersalivation (drooling), destructiveness (chewing or digging), pacing, and even attempting to escape (sometimes causing damage to doors and windows in their efforts). Damage and destruction can be misinterpreted (by anthropomorphic owners) as ‘revenge’ or ‘spite’. Which thus prompts owners to punish their pooches, when in fact they are symptoms of acute distress.
Before diagnosing your canine charge with separation anxiety, a veterinary surgeon or behavioural expert will need to discount other behavioural issues (such as submissive urination, incomplete house training, urine marking, juvenile destruction or, more simply, boredom) as well as potential medical problems (including gastrointestinal or urinary disorders, or seizures). Separation anxiety typically manifests in younger dogs (those aged between nine months and two years), or in much older dogs, who may become increasingly dependent on their owners as their sensory perception (scent, sight and sound) begins to deteriorate. For numerous reasons, separation anxiety is more common in rescue dogs.
With patience, separation anxiety is manageable and behaviourists and vets may use a technique called counter conditioning. This effectively turns a bad experience that the dog fears, into something that is enjoyed. In milder cases, ‘counter-conditioning’ alone, a behavioural intervention, may prove effective. In more severe cases, administration of an anti-anxiety medication (typically, a tricyclic antidepressant, such as clomipramine) may aid in the process of counter-conditioning and desensitisation.
In mild instances, ‘counter-conditioning’ can reverse your dog’s expectations, teaching them to anticipate pleasant, rather than unpleasant, outcomes whenever you leave them on their own. For example, by providing hollow, rubber toys filled with special foods (try low-fat cream cheese or peanut butter) whenever you leave the house, you can teach your dog to associate your departure, not with anxiety or distress, but with delicious treats. Wherever possible, exercise your dog before you depart (at least 30 minutes of aerobic activity), as it may help him rest and relax while you are away.
In severe cases, more complex counter-conditioning must be undertaken, but only with guidance from your veterinary surgeon or behavioural expert. In these cases, counter-conditioning first accustoms your dog to ‘pre departure cues’ (for example, applying your makeup, putting on your shoes, picking up your car keys), before exposing them to ‘graduated departures’ (absences of increasing length). Though sometimes impractical, it is imperative your dog is never left alone for prolonged periods during desensitisation, as it may provoke relapse. If possible, take your dog to work with you, leave them in ‘doggy day-care’, or employ a dog-sitter.
Whether it is mild or severe, separation anxiety requires from pet ‘parents’, not punishment for perceived misbehaviour, but patience and understanding. So here’s to a happier Monday, not just for you, but also for your best friend – home alone, but not home a-lonely!