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Understanding Separation Anxiety In Dogs: Part 1
This is the first in a two part series dealing with the subject of Separation Anxiety in dogs. As there is a lot to discuss, I thought it best for this part to cover the basics such as; What is Separation Anxiety (SA)? What are the different types of SA? And what are some of the characteristic behaviors to look for?
In Part 2 of this series, we will look closely at some of the more typical causes of Separation Anxiety (and bust some ‘Myths’ along the way). And finally, we will look at what can be done to treat the condition. As always, these articles are intended to raise awareness in owners so that if they suspect their dog has a problem they can confidently seek professional help.
Separation Anxiety is an alarmingly common disease in dogs. Furthermore, it can be devastating and debilitating to the lives of these suffering animals and their family members. A more appropriate term for this condition would probably be ‘separation distress’ or ‘separation panic’. Sadly, separation anxiety is also a huge contributing factor to the surrender of dogs in our society.
WHAT IS SEPARATION ANXIETY?
Firstly, and importantly it is not a normal condition. It is evident when there are consistent signs of distress (behavioral and physiological), exhibited by the animal in the absence of access to social company or companionship.
Consider this fact. Humans have domesticated dogs for thousands of years. And in that evolutionary process we have selected / preferred animals who are highly social and highly dependent on us. So, it has become normal for them to enjoy our company and social interaction. However, it is not normal for them to experience anxiety and panic when left alone.
Anxiety is the experience of fear and distress in the absence of any genuine threat to safety. Unfortunately, dogs with SA are not able to recognize they are safe, and they panic despite there being no threat to them in their environment.
THE TWO PRINCIPAL TYPES OF SEPARATION ANXIETY
There are two main types of separation anxiety typically diagnosed in dogs. It is also very important to recognize which of these two is more prevalent as it ultimately influence our understanding of the dog’s problem and how we treat it.
1. Attachment-based Anxiety
This is where the dog’s problem is founded in hyper-attachment to a person or even to another animal. In this case the animal is reassured and calmed by the presence of their companion, and does not feel safe when this ‘companion’ is not present. When left without this particular figure they feel fearful and begin to panic.
Dogs with this condition are considered to have generalized anxiety and may be poorly adjusted socially. They need to get cues about what’s happening and what to do only from their ‘attachment’ figure in their environment.
They may also often exhibit excessively “clingy” behavior. Animals suffering from this form of anxiety will usually follow their attachment figures everywhere. They will appear to be hyper-vigilant in their monitoring of their attachment figures.
These dogs are not at ease even in the presence of other family members if their attachment figure is not there too. Even having a companion dog will not help in this situation.
2. A Phobia of Being Alone
The dog has a general fear or phobia of being left alone. In these situations the problem is not based in any underlying hyper-attachment; but rather the dog has been conditioned to fear being left alone specifically. Usually this condition occurs because they may have experienced a traumatic event in the past when they have been alone. The dog then develops a form of post-traumatic stress disorder where they generalize and associate the fear and panic experienced with being left alone.
In all other respects they may be socially well-adjusted and independent but their separation anxiety can destabilize them emotionally and generate more generalized anxiety over time. These dogs may also have an underlying noise sensitivity or noise phobia which led to their being so traumatized by a noisy event when alone. Triggers may include; thunderstorms, fireworks or even sirens.
In summary, these dogs are not overly affected by the presence or absence of a certain person. They are just fearful of being left completely alone. In these cases having a pet sitter or companion dog may actually help.
CHARACTERISTIC BEHAVIORS TO LOOK FOR WITH SA
All dogs with some form of SA disorder will react somewhat differently to being left alone or without access to their attachment figures. This may manifest in any or several of the following signs;
Two of the most common characteristics are 1. Withdrawal. This is where some dogs will literally stand and stare at the door (through which their owner left) for hours, unable to move. Or 2. Vocalization. Where distress is through whimpering, whining, barking or howling. Again, this can go on for hours.
- Other characteristics include;
- Excessive urination and/or defecation
- Vomiting or Diarrhea
- Excessive Salivation
- Inability to relax – Pacing or Trembling
- Refusal to eat.
- Destruction – scratching at doors or windows; chewing on items and digging are all forms of outlet for internal distress.
Sometimes these signs are so obvious that owners know that there is a problem that needs attention. Unfortunately, separation anxiety is often an under diagnosed condition and many dogs never receive the help they need.
In Part 2 of Understanding Separation Anxiety we will examine some of the typical causes of separation anxiety and look at a few practical steps that owners can take to help relieve the condition in their pets.
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