Understanding Separation Anxiety In Dogs: Part 2
In this second part of the series, we will look closely at some of the more typical causes of Separation Anxiety. And finally, we will look at what steps can be taken 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.
WHAT ARE THE UNDERLYING CAUSES OF SEPARATION ANXIETY?
As explained in Part 1 of this article, there are two different kinds of separation anxiety with two different underlying pathologies present. One is caused by an Attachment-based Anxiety which leaves the dog stressed when separated from a companion. The other Anxiety is caused by an acute phobia of being left alone which is likely to be the result of some past traumatic event that occurred when alone.
As with human behavioral disorders the causes can be a contribution from genetics, experience and environment. One, two or all three factors could be in play. Many animal behaviorists believe that Separation Anxiety should be considered a genetic disease which is subsequently contributed to by experience and the environment they grow up in.
Here are just some of the factors that may contribute to development of Separation Anxiety;
- Abandonment, or having spent time in a shelter
- Being abused, punished or roughly treated
- Persistent neglect
- Having experienced some form of trauma when alone
- An impoverished puppyhood Eg: Complete lack of socialization and emotional stimulation.
Unfortunately, such dogs will often not have normal cognitive or emotional development, and will also lack the behavioral flexibility to adapt to being alone. There has been some form of ‘loss’ in their lives. It could be the loss of a human family member or other destabilizing event where their ‘normal’ routine was permanently disrupted.
SO WHAT CAN BE DONE ABOUT SEPARATION ANXIETY?
Separation anxiety is a behavioral pathology. If you suspect that your dog may have a behavioral disorder, then they should be thoroughly examined and screened by a qualified veterinary behaviorist to ensure the most appropriate treatment is applied for the best outcome.
Firstly, many owner make the mistake of misdiagnosing the symptoms of separation anxiety as a ‘training’ issue alone when what is really needed is medical intervention. Dogs should never be referred to trainers for behavior that is secondary to a mental illness. Behavior Modification Training does not address the underlying cause. It may also cause further harm by delaying appropriate treatment.
Veterinary behaviorists will typically apply a two-pronged approach to the disease. There will be a ‘medication’ element combined with applying behavior modification training techniques.
How to Manage the Situation
While medical treatment is ongoing, the owner should be controlling the dog’s environment (physical and social environment) to achieve a positive outcome. This helps to:
- to prevent a worsening of the disease
- avoid further suffering, distress or panic attacks
- keep other animals, family members and property safe
- try to ensure there is always someone home with your dog. Understandably, this will not help dogs with hyper-attachment to specific individuals.
What is Behavior Modification Training?
This will involve teaching your dog to be able to cope with being alone. The training focuses on altering the emotions your pet experiences to modify the undesirable behaviors. This is mainly achieved via:
- relaxation training (See article titled: Mindfulness and Dogs – Training your Dog to be Calm)
- some conditioning based training (eg. Go to crate or mat training)
- for any modification training to succeed, your dog must be in a state of calm and not in a state of panic or distress.
This is why veterinary behaviorists choose to combine medical intervention with behavioral techniques. To ensure both the brain and body of the animal is amenable to modification. As a final note, we should also not underestimate the power of music in relieving stress in pets as it does in humans. Having soothing and calming music playing for your pet when you can not be at home can help to calm them and boost their overall sense of well-being.
SO CAN SEPARATION ANXIETY BE CURED?
The short answer is No. Separation Anxiety cannot be completely cured because we cannot reverse the genetic component underpinning it. The predisposition for SA will always remain. However, by taking corrective action a great deal of success can be achieved in modifying it to the extent where it is well controlled and no longer affects the quality of life for all concerned.
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