Pet Columns, Office of Public Engagement, College of Veterinary Medicine at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

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Please Mom (or Dad), Don't Go!

Pet Column for the week of April 7, 2008

Office of Public Engagement
2001 S. Lincoln Ave.
Urbana, Illinois 61802
Phone: 217/333-2907
Ashley Mitek
Information Specialist

That's what dogs with separation anxiety are saying when they notice their owners grabbing car keys and heading for the door after giving them a kiss good bye (and maybe a lipstick imprint on their forehead). This behavior disorder, which is often confused with other behavior problems linked with too little exercise or under socialization, is one of the biggest problems behaviorists see today.

Linda Case is an adjunct assistant professor who teaches companion animal behavior and training at the University of Illinois College of Veterinary Medicine in Urbana, Ill. She also owns Autumn Gold Dog Training Center, in Mahomet, Ill., and has authored several books including one coming out this summer entitled "Dogs and Cats: Understanding and Training Our Two Best Friends." She says, "the most obvious feature of separation anxiety is that stress-related behaviors are shown only when the caretaker is not present."

Dogs with separation anxiety are very attached to their owners, and upon their departure become extremely stressed. They may begin to bark, pace, vomit, or salivate excessively. Michael, the owner of Freya, a one-year-old Malamute cross with mild separation anxiety, recounts another sign of separation anxiety: destructive chewing. "It wasn't that great to come home to a couch that had been ripped to shreds, but I guess that's why cushions have two sides," he says.

Case explains that dogs with separation anxiety notice our "pre-departure cues," such as grabbing a purse or putting on shoes. At this point, the animal becomes anxious and upset.

It is important not to confuse the disorder with similar behavior signs. Young puppies notoriously chew on items when left alone, just as teenagers stereotypically get into trouble on Friday nights. These behaviors are a rite of passage and with proper training are generally outgrown. The key to diagnosing separation anxiety is noticing that when the owner leaves, the anxiety-related behavior ensues immediately upon isolation.

The goal of treating separation anxiety is to, "reduce the level of anxiety and improve the dog's level of security and confidence when isolated," says Case. It is important to remember that separation anxiety is not just an inconvenience for an owner (having to flip the couch cushion over to the unchewed side), but it is a welfare issue for the animal.

Case recommends desensitizing your dog to departure, which means not habitually performing the same activities before leaving. The other more important and timely task is to teach the animal to sit-stay and then leave it alone for a few minutes and reinforce calm behavior. Once the dog can sit contently for a few minutes, increase the time it is left alone while you are out of view until a reward is given. Any type of punishment only increases anxiety levels and makes the problem worse.

"Dogs that experience a regular and consistent level of exercise, training, and attention tend to have lower anxiety levels," notes Case. This should come as no surprise. We humans need a certain level of exercise, socialization, and food to be healthy, and so do our pets.

For more detailed help on diagnosing and treating separation anxiety contact your local veterinarian.