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Separation Anxiety Treatment (Part II)

By Christine D. Calder, DVM, DACVB | May 01, 2020

In the first part of this article series, we talked about what Separation Anxiety is and the risk factors associated with the disorder. This article will talk about treatment plans.

How is Separation Anxiety treated?

Dogs with separation anxiety often need a combination of medication and behavior modification to be successful. Because the dog’s stress level is high, during the initial treatment stages, it may be beneficial to take your dog to work, enroll in doggie daycare(if your dog is dog friendly), or employ a friend or relative to watch your dog when you must be away from the home.

It should be noted that crating, although considered an easy solution to reduce damage, may not be the best solution. Many dogs will still panic in the crate, leading to injury, and a heightened state of distress. An x-pen or “safe haven” room with a gate may be a better solution. Classical music, white noise machines, and pheromones have been shown to be beneficial when creating a relaxing environment for your pet. As always, make sure your dog has a nice soft bed in this safe haven for comfort.

It can be frustrating to come home to destruction and/or evidence of elimination from your dog. Punishment is not effective in these cases and should be avoided. Even a “no” or “what did you do” can increase distress. It is important to note that dogs are not destructive or eliminating out of “spite”, nor do they feel “guilty.” They are in true survival mode stimulating the brain to go into true “flight” or escape mode, something they cannot consciously control. Guilty looks are actually a form of classical conditioning that have occurred over time. In other words, your dog has learned to associate urine and/or feces and/or destruction with your presence and sometimes punishment, but not guilt. Lip licking, avoiding eye contact, blinking, head low, crouched body, tucked tail, roll over, and leg lift are all avoidance behaviors that a dog can use to communicate to us they are not a threat in response to our presence, tone of voice, and/or punishment predicted from us. If punishment is used at this point, the dog will only learn a lack of trust along with an association of pain, fear, and anxiety with your presence and not associate your displeasure with the evidence found in the house.

Medications

Medications are the mainstay of treatment, and often multiple medications are needed, at least initially. When first diagnosed, short-acting medications can be helpful to quickly lower anxiety if given 1-2 hours before departure; however to improve the overall welfare of your pet, often daily, long-term daily medication such as fluoxetine or clomipramine are necessary, in addition to these short term medications. Side effects of all medications are uncommon and often transient when dosed and administered appropriately.

Behavior modification

Initially, to reduce anxiety in your pet, low-key home arrivals and departures along with providing an “environment a plenty” is imperative. Using a variety of food dispensing and puzzle toys to feed your dog instead of a bowl can help to reduce overall anxiety and stress levels in your pet alone while encouraging your dog to problem solve as it eats alone. Feeding all meals out of these devices will help to make sure the dog does not become cued to your departure and make your dog more likely to eat when hungry. Novel scents, such as the wild animal variety used for hunting, on toys and objects hidden around the house for your dog to find throughout the day will enhance exploration, keep your dog’s interest, and reduce overall anxiety when left alone.

Because these dogs are so anxious when left alone, true behavior modification is often not started for at least 3-6 weeks after initiating treatment in order to give the prescribed medications time to reach therapeutic levels and maximum effectiveness. When treating separation anxiety, planned departures are no longer considered the standard treatment protocol as these often lead to an increase, rather than, decrease in overall anxiety. Because your dog often learns to associate other cues with your departure such as the alarm going off, the shower turning on, or the clothes you wear that day, anxiety for your dog often starts before you even walk out the door.

Independence exercises are the standard, long-term treatment protocol for these dogs. Encouraging your dog to be independent first while you are home often will transfer later to when you are away. Exercises to encourage independence involve teaching a dog to go to a mat, open crate, or other “safe haven” on cue first when you are in the room, transferring to you physically leaving the room. Always provide a special long-lasting treat such as a stuffed Kong and/or Snuffle Mat before you exit the room. Later, shaping actual relaxation (head down, on side, regular breathing) on a mat, bed, or in a crate will facilitate complete relaxation for your dog first, in your presence, transferring over time, to when your dog is separated from you.

Separation anxiety can be frustrating and, in some cases, difficult to manage; however, with the proper medications and behavior modification plan, successful treatment can be possible. As always, talk with your veterinarian or a veterinary behaviorist about the best treatment options for your pet.