Back to School… but does your dog know that?
Well, summer’s over, and in households across Scotland, the children are going back to school (or college, or, a little later, university). However, while their parents may breathe a sigh of relief, how do our pets feel about this? It’s not unknown for cats to develop strange stress-related behaviours at this time of year (any change in “their” household can be stressful for a cat), but for dogs it’s often a lot worse. In fact, this is the time of year when we tend to see an increase in the number of dogs being presented with signs of Separation Anxiety. In this blog, we’re going to explore this condition, and look at how you can help manage it.
What is separation anxiety?
Sometimes referred to as “Separation Related Behaviours”, Separation Anxiety is essentially a state of severe distress caused by the dog being left alone and – crucially – not being able to cope with it. While most dogs are a little bit unhappy if left alone, and are happy to see you when you get home, for the dog with SA, they seem to think that they have been abandoned forever – even if you’re out for only a very few minutes. It is a source of distress to the dog, but also to the owner as dogs often manifest destructive behaviours in an attempt either to escape or to comfort themselves when left alone.
What causes it?
Fundamentally, dogs are a social species – they never evolved to live alone. However, most dogs can and do learn how to cope when left alone for a short while. The problem is those dogs who do not, for whatever reason. In most cases, this has to do with the way they are treated in the first few weeks after leaving their littermates as a puppy. If they go suddenly from living with their siblings and mother, to being left completely alone for hours on end, they not unreasonably develop a fear of being alone, that easily becomes exaggerated into SA.
Another possible cause is if a dog really is abandoned. Rehomed dogs in this situation are reported to have a higher risk of SA, which really isn’t surprising – after being abandoned once, they desperately don’t want it to happen again!
Of course, dogs can develop SA at any time in life – but in most cases, it’s because of an underlying anxiety at being left alone that suddenly flares up. A typical cause would be suddenly being left alone for longer than usual… like after the children are all back at school!
What are the signs?
Most dogs with SA show severe distress, with barking, howling, urination and defecation in the house. They may also attempt escape, and can injure themselves trying to jump from high windows or through plate glass. Alternatively, they may take a more destructive route, either as displacement activity, or to try and comfort themselves by surrounding themselves with their owners scent.
One common sign is that the dog is ecstatically pleased to see you however long you’ve been away. A “normal” dog will be more and more excited to greet you the longer you’ve been gone (and if left alone in a room for 30 seconds probably just pricks an ear when you walk back in). The dog with SA will be equally excited whether you’ve been to the bathroom for a minute or been out of town for a week.
How can it be managed?
While milder cases can be managed alone, many cases of SA require professional assistance. We would usually advise consulting at least with one of our vets, and in worse cases with a professional canine behaviourist who has expertise in clinical cases.
In general, the management involves desensitisation – getting the dog used to being left alone for gradually increasing lengths of time – and/or counterconditioning – giving the dog something nice to do when they’re left alone. However, these techniques work best under professional guidance!
The one thing you mustn’t do is punish the dog – they are genuinely afraid you’re going to leave them, so adding any more stress will just make things worse.
Is there any medication that can be used?
Yes, in the most severe cases there are medications that can help the dog relax enough for behavioural techniques to work. Our vets can prescribe these if necessary.
How can it be prevented in the first place?
Start when you first get your new puppy! Don’t leave them alone much to begin with, but gradually increase the amount of time they’re left alone (perhaps with a nice treat or a chew to keep them busy) so they get used to the idea. There’s a really good article about preventing it from the Dogs Trust here.