Solving separation anxiety

June 19th, 2014
Waiting dog - Bigstock

Separation anxiety in dogs has become a huge problem in today’s busy society. Michele Tydd finds out what the signs are and how you can stop this behaviour in its tracks.

Dog whisperer Sandra Mullaly says she keeps a fading picture of her Old English sheepdog, Shandon, as a poignant reminder of how easy it is to kill a dog with misguided kindness. She lavished attention on Shandon, giving him a dream home for a rescue dog — or so she thought. “I was recently divorced and upset with life in general and he was my company, all fluffy and cute, and I gave him the complete run of the house,” recalls Mullaly. But within a few months the pair was inseparable — but not in the good way.

Shandon suffered acute separation anxiety, but back then, 23 years ago, it was more commonly regarded as simply fretting over the absence of a beloved owner. “It got to the stage I couldn’t go for coffee with girlfriends without getting a sitter because Shandon would spin out and destroy the place and my personal possessions,” she says. If she had to dash down to the shops she would have to take Shandon with her but after a while even that became impossible. “One day when I was in a shop buying milk he got so distressed he tore out the lining of my van door and ate some of the seat upholstery trying to get to me,” says Mullaly.

It ended tragically when Shandon’s condition took a turn for the worse when Mallaly, a former police officer, started her training at the NSW Police Academy in Goulburn, where she had to undergo 13 weeks of intensive training away from home, returning only at weekends. Mullaly was worried about how her two young kids would cope in her mother’s care but it was Shandon who didn’t cope, refusing to eat and drink. “When I returned home that first weekend I burst into tears when I saw Shandon. I was so overcome by guilt for causing him such distress,” recalls Mullaly.

“I desperately tried to make him realise I loved him with lots of hugs, cuddles and assurances I would return but he was inconsolable every time I left,” she says. After the fourth week he had lost an enormous amount of weight and could barely walk and had to be put down. Mullaly says it was a painful decision but the only other option was to give up her job and let her kids starve. In 2002, Mullaly left the force and moved into the security industry where she secured a plumb job training dogs to sniff out the constantly changing array of chemicals used in explosives.

Five years later she quit that job to study dog behaviour. The technique she pursued focused on thinking like a dog by reading their body language and then responding to the dog through your own body language. Her work entails rehabilitation programs to turn around a range of behavioural problems including separation anxiety. “I can recognise that one in a flash,” Mullaly says with a knowing grain. Looking back, Mullaly says Shandon showed all the classic signs of separation anxiety but her response to him and two successive dogs only exacerbated the problem.

“I can see now that my personal dogs at home, compared to the dogs I trained at work, were out of control because I imposed no boundaries, thinking that giving them endless unearned privileges equated to love,” says Mullaly. “After Shandon, I had an Alaskan Malamute, who used to do a forward roll and land on her back when visitors arrived blocking their entry. I used to tell them they had to pay the toll and scratch her stomach before they could step inside, allowing her way too much control.”

Mullaly says under pack animal law what she was really doing was promoting her dogs to head of the pack and burdening them with leadership beyond their capabilities. “Foolishly, I thought Shandon couldn’t bear to be without me because I was such a fabulous owner but what he was going on was something completely different,” says Mullaly. “When he destroyed my belongings he wasn’t punishing me for leaving him alone, he was just spinning out with anxiety attacks worrying about where I was, as you would do for a child. The incident in the van, for example, would have been like a mother trapped in a car watching her toddler playing in the traffic — she would do anything to get out of that van to save the child, and I was that child.”

However, there are several schools of thought among vets on separation anxiety and a range of treatments from aromatherapy to medication. Victorian vet Dr Lewis Kirkham, the author of Tell Your Dog You’re Pregnant, believes separation anxiety has nothing to do with indulged pets. “It’s not certain specifically what causes a dog to have separation anxiety,” he says. “There is some thought that there may be an inherited element to the anxiety. Studies have shown that any dog from any type of home or family environment can develop separation anxiety.

“We also know that dogs often develop separation anxiety in association with a sudden change in the house or environment such as a house move, a new baby in the house or even a recent holiday at kennels.” He said vets were becoming better at both recognising the signs of separation anxiety and treating the disorder. Dr Kirkham says there is no quick fix and his preferred method of treatment is teaching the dog to be more independent and feeling comfortable away from the owner at certain times. “If the disorder is severe I will also use anxiety-lowering medications and pheromones to assist the dog to cope with these periods of separation.”

Common signs of separation anxiety

While the owner is absent:

  • Defecating inside the house
  • Paw licking
  • Destruction of objects (often those with owner’s scent)
  • Howling
  • Barking
  • Whining
  • Scratching at the door

When the owner is home:

  • Shadowing the owner in the home
  • Not letting him or her out of sight

Top tips to maintain a well-adjusted, independent dog

1. Don’t make a fuss when leaving

Keep departures low key and non-eventful. Be aloof and confident — remember stress creates stress.

2. Don’t make a fuss when you return — whether it is an hour, a day or week

Try to maintain a calm attitude and appear nonchalant. Leaders have the right to come and go as they want. Dogs in the wild don’t have separation anxiety. They simply await the arrival of the higher ranking dogs with anticipation and happiness. Be that leader.

3. Give your dog food-related toys and puzzles to do while you are out

Rotate them so there are different activities on different days. Make sure your dog is HUNGRY! Hunting and working for food is normal dog behaviour.

4. Keep the patting to a minimum in normal daily interaction

Use patting as a reward for desirable behaviour.

5. A soothing voice to us can sound like a whining, whimpering sound to a dog

We often stress them out by trying to soothe.

6. Don’t be angry with your dog’s destructive behaviour — it is not them punishing us, it is a reaction to stress

It’s like a person having an anxiety attack and doing something irrational. You can’t reason with someone, or a dog, which is mentally not functioning properly. Dogs don’t have the mental capacity to scheme about how to punish us for our undesirable behaviour.

7. Try to alter your patterns prior to departure — same clothes, perfume, shoes? Mix things up a bit.

De-sensitise your dog by doing the things you do prior to leaving — but don’t leave! For example, pick up your car keys and move around the house and then put them down again

8. Create a “safe zone” for the dog — a crate, small area in a room, a pen where she can retreat to.

Confinement is helpful to minimise damage, allow the dog to settle in her “den” and wait for her family to return.

9. Don’t get another dog to solve the problem — the problem is generally that you are missing, not lack of company

You may end up with twice the problem. Dogs often fair better with another but bear in mind they must actually like each other and want to be together and their issues with your absence must be resolved first.

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