Five essential steps necessary to stop separation anxiety in animals

By Sally J Foote 
DVM, CABC-IAABC, LSHC-S
Separation anxiety can be one of the most frustrating behavior problems of dogs.  The problem may begin gradually, starting with a little pacing or whining when you leave then escalating to digging at the door or breaking out of crates.  As a veterinarian with behavior expertise, I am often called in to consult when the dog has injured themselves with broken teeth or damaged the home.  Sadly, veterinarians are not informed of the building troubles at home until there is a big problem.  The structure of the typical veterinary exam does not provide the time to discuss separation anxiety. A typical consult for separation anxiety will take 1-2 hours, far longer than the usual 30 minute veterinary appointment.  When there is property destruction  or injury, medication is needed to calm the body and the brain and facilitate learning.  A non veterinary behaviorist can work out the behavior plan, but you must work with your veterinarian as well for the medication or supplements that are so important for successful treatment.

Importance of the five steps 
Over my 35 years in practice,  I found that there were five essential steps to treat  separation anxiety.  Missing these five steps often resulted in suppressing anxiety rather than addressing all the aspects of building an independent dog.  Relapse often results,  frustrating the owner and often resulting in shelter surrender.   Separation anxiety is the leading behavior problem of rescue dogs.

The Five Steps: 
* Video record your dog as you prepare to leave the home, set your dog up in confinement, and return.   It may not be separation anxiety!  A study at North Carolina State University College of Veterinary Medicine had approximately 50% of the dogs presented for separation anxiety not qualify for a study because the video showed the dogs were anxious about a noise, or bored.

* Identify the triggers to anxiety.  Once you have made the list of triggers,  determine what triggers can be eliminated.  Can you change into your uniform at work rather than wear it as you leave? All the other triggers must be desensitized and counter conditioned individually pairing food with the trigger.

*  Schedule an appointment with your veterinarian and bring your list of triggers, and level of anxiety your pet shows to these triggers.  Your veterinarian will want to examine your pet to be certain there are not any medical conditions such as hypothyroidism, Cognitive  Dysfunction Syndrome or Organic disease . The medication, supplement or diet will be determined based on the signs of anxiety, severity and health status of your dog.

* Build independence daily.  This is achieved by playing the “Find your Food” game using the  dog’s meal as the rewards.  To do this, you will take the dry dog food, and toss it on the floor in the confinement area.  As your dog finds and eats the food you walk away.  When you return you continue to toss the food on the floor for your dog to stay engaged with searching.  This teaches your dog to ignore you and associate fun with all the cues you are leaving.  Watch this video to see how to build independence https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qT38xNubMz8&width=400&height=225

* Keep your dog mentally and physically active.  Walk your dog a minimum of one minute per pound of body weight a day divided.  Change the route for morning and evening.  Use food puzzles for meals – and switch those food puzzles up!

Use these five steps to help your dog learn to be calm as you leave them home alone.  If you are having troubles, please email me for information about a behavior consultation.  I provide video chat consultation to any client, and work with your veterinarian for the medication, supplement and diet plan specific for your pet to learn to be calm in your home.

If you want to learn more, take my Separation Anxiety – help your dog now! course.  This webinar recording gives you an in depth understanding of how to apply the five steps to create the plan for your dog in your home.

*  Better bond – Better behavior Sally J Foote DVM

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