Home alone: canine-related separation disorders - Veterinary Practice
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Home alone: canine-related separation disorders

Carolyn Menteith discusses the help and support needed when dogs have separation issues for which there is no quick fix or easy answer and which qualified behaviourists do not always understand.

WITH an estimated 1.9 million dogs in the UK being left alone on a regular basis for more than five hours (according to the 2013 PDSA Paws Survey), it is hardly surprising that one of the fastest growing groups of behaviour problems are the ones that are often the hardest to cure: separation-related disorders (SRD).

While certain dog training and behaviour issues can be dealt with during routine veterinary appointments, this is not true of separation issues. There is no quick fix or easy answer, and even qualified behaviourists do not always understand these problems.

To successfully manage these cases there is usually a huge amount of support that clients need which may be difficult for practices to provide. It can also be hard to support clients when success may be in very small steps (for some cases, improvement can be measured in seconds that a dog copes better, rather than hours or minutes).

The reason these cases are so hard to manage is that in a true separation anxiety, the dog has no strategies for coping with being “home alone” and every time the resultant panic is felt, the behaviour is strengthened, as the separation becomes increasingly distressing. Untreated SRDs do not get better as the dog doesn’t “just get used to it” – and indeed they will get worse.

As such, while working with these cases, the dog must never be left alone until he is taught how to cope with short periods alone, and truly believes that owner absences are “safe”. For many owners, this is an impossibility or something they are not prepared to put the work into doing, wanting instead some kind of quick fix, and so treatment is bound to fail.

Thankfully, a lot of the problems that are presented as being “separation anxiety” are not – and practices can be managing these in-house. It should be remembered that some clinical signs of SRD can be seen with other problems, so first an accurate diagnosis is needed. The practice can then manage the cases considered to be non-SRD cases.

Making this distinction can make a significant difference to the owners and dogs involved, often without the need for a lengthy behaviour programme.

Vocalisation by the dog while left, destruction of home, loss of toilet training, and overly enthusiastic owner greetings can all be signs of SRDs. They can also be seen as a result of lack of exercise, being left alone too long, and boredom.

As such, if owners are going to have to leave their dog for long periods, they need to ensure they are adequately exercised first, have appropriate and safe toys to chew and either have a dog walker or possibly day care.

Keeping an eye on the behaviour

As a diagnostic tool, owners should be encouraged to use a webcam to see what the dog is actually doing when left home alone.

While barking and chewing can just be random and opportunistic, a webcam will show if there is evidence of panic, restless behaviour, absence-induced anorexia, destruction, self-mutilation, etc., that would indicate an SRD which is going to need professional behavioural help.

Prevention, however, is something that all professionals should be taking far more seriously, as while they are difficult – and thanks to owner non-compliance, sometimes impossible to cure – SRDs are very easily prevented.

Prevention of SRDs should be mentioned at the first puppy check-ups – usually the first contact with a practice. If people ask for advice on choosing a dog, SRD should be considered as some breeds and types are more prone to these disorders.

Companion breeds that have been selected to form strong owner bonds, many working or pastoral breeds that work closely with their handlers and often rescue dogs especially of these types can be particularly prone to SRD.

Prospective owners who work full-time with no one at home should be strongly discouraged from getting a puppy (and arguably any dog at all) unless they are prepared to spend money on dog walkers or day care, but sadly professionals are rarely consulted at this point.

Prospective owners should be encouraged to get their dog from a breeder who follows some kind of socialisation and habituation plan (such as the Kennel Club and Dogs Trust’s Puppy Plan). The breeder should also include short periods of positive separation and understand the importance of introducing limited isolation during the pre-hazard avoidance period.

Once in the new home, while the owners are going to want to ensure the puppy bonds closely to them and are delighted their new puppy wants to follow them around, they need to be educated on the importance of not allowing the puppy to have constant access and physical contact with them.

Crates and gates

Use of crates or baby gates in a positive way (i.e. for short periods while the puppy is eating or playing or sleeping) to prevent shadowing can be suggested so the puppy learns a degree of self-reliance at a time when he is developing his behavioural competencies.

They should also habituate the puppy to short periods of controllable absence, long before they have to leave them for real.

Separation-related disorders are a disaster. A disaster for the dog that suffers panic and stress, for owners who are often faced with expensive bills as a result of destruction, injury or for treatment and for neighbours who often then complain to the council – and the resultant fines are scary and lead owners to use quick x methods that may mask signs but increase stress.

These disasters are, in most cases, simply a result of ignorant management. Resources are needed within a practice to ensure people understand how to prevent behaviour problems such as SRDs rather than have to deal with the distressing and expensive fallout.

References and further reading

  • McConnell, P. (2010) I’ll Be Home Soon. DeMartini-Price, M. (2014) Treating Separation Anxiety in Dogs. The Puppy Plan (2013) The Kennel Club, Dogs Trust and Menteith Panksepp, J. (2004) Affective Neuroscience: The Foundations of Human and Animal Emotions.
  • CevaAnimalHealth,manufacturer of the veterinary behaviour product Adaptil, has launched a series of YouTube films presented by Carolyn Menteith covering common behaviour problems in dogs. They include films offering advice on “toilet training your puppy” and “separation anxiety in dogs”. To view the films, visit https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QBmr0NbP498 and https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2r53U5vzVOM.

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