My dog is anxious. Does he suffer from "separation anxiety"?

Separation anxiety is one of the most common behavior problems reported by dog owners. Dogs experiencing this problem show distress, verging on panic, at being separated from individuals they are attached to, usually family members and other pets. The distress can be expressed by barking and howling, attempts to escape, destructive behaviour, house soiling, or signs of fear such as pacing, rapid breathing, whining, or drooling.

Many dogs have been diagnosed and treated for separation anxiety when in reality all they suffer from is bad manners. 

Genuine separation anxiety occurs in dogs that often show distress verging on PANIC before - or just after - the owner leaves the house. The most important signs of anxiety usually occur within half an hour of the owner's departure. These signs include:

  • Aggression when the owner leaves - growling or nipping at ankles.
  • Vocalisation: barking, whining, howling.
  • Destructive behaviour - chewing, digging, and tearing up furniture.
  • Self-mutilation - excessive licking, hyperactivity, constant pacing.
  • Urination or defection in the house.
  • Diarrhoea, vomiting or constipation.
  • Escaping.

The severity of these behaviours, which and how many of them occur, varies widely among individuals and breeds.

Some people advocate trying to suppress undesirable behaviours caused by separation anxiety, especially excessive barking, via punishment and negative reinforcement methods. Quick fix techniques can actually increase anxiety, as they do not go to the underlying cause of the emotional problem. Side effects of punishment are that the relationship between the owner and their dog suffers and usually other problems soon surface.

For a behavioural trainer familiar with separation anxiety, it is relatively clear in these cases what is going on and how best to change the behaviours. If the owner is willing to devote time and work with their pet, the chances for a successful resolution are good. Leadership and rank reduction programmes, positive reinforcement for good behaviour, desensitisation and counter-conditioning are so effective that the problem is usually solvable without turning, as a last resort, to drugs.

Each dog is unique and these issues are discussed appropriately at a first assessment in-home assessment. If the problem is complex and beyond our level of expertise, and might require medication, then we will refer to a veterinary behaviourist - a vet who has gained additional qualifications and specialises in animal behaviour.

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