Back when I was in vet school I lived in a little rental near the beach with my husband (then boyfriend – that sounds so weird now!) and my gorgeous Border Collie, Anika. We called our home the slanty shanty because it was pretty old and the ground had obviously moved a bit over time.
The result was almost dangerously sloping floors and windows that wouldn’t open. The three of us loved it there though, and Ani absolutely lived for her morning and afternoon runs along the beach. She was three years old at the time, and regularly dealt with the many annoyances of being owned by a veterinary student.
Don’t have a cone of shame? No worries, a goon box* will sort that out!
Unfortunately life as a vet student isn’t just a bit of study here and there punctuated by booze cruises and barn dances; it’s actually pretty bloody grueling to be honest. Every day we would file in at 9 am for four hours of being talked at that we were somehow expected to absorb and retain, followed by some lunch then three hours of practical work.
Every. single. weekday.
Not to mention rotations through areas like emergency and equine doing overnight shifts. And I spent my weekends working as a vet nurse in a clinic near my parents’ place. Don’t get me wrong, it was awesome. But also very time consuming.
* for non-Aussies, here’s what I’m talking about
And I’m not lion, there were some definite perks!
So my darling Anika tolerated these absences beautifully for a while, then one day I came home and she was gone.
I totally lost my mind. She had a collar and a microchip, but visions of the worst flashed through my mind as I searched for her. I was literally looking along the edges of the neighbouring streets for a crumpled black and white bundle (it makes my stomach churn now just thinking about it!)
I called up the local vet clinic and breathlessly asked if anyone had brought in a black and white Border Collie with a red collar, and to my relief, the receptionist said yes! I rushed down to get her, shaking with adrenaline. Can’t even remember if I put my seat belt on or how I even got there, but I was seriously in panic mode.
I rushed in and stammered something about a lost dog and the girl behind the counter nonchalantly wandered out the back to get Ani.
It wasn’t her.
It wasn’t even a Border Collie.
So I’m normally very very polite (maybe too polite to the point that people can walk all over me) but I immediately blurted out “That’s NOT my dog! That’s NOT even a Border Collie!” She just shrugged, “it’s black and white with a red collar though.” Aaaaargh!
I’m totally freaking out right now!
I drove home with tears streaming down my face, and who should I see sitting on the front door step? There she was, covered in sand from a self-guided adventure down on the beach, waiting for my return. I didn’t know whether to hug her or strangle her. I thought ‘you bitch, you’ve just been having a lovely little outing.’ But then I noticed she was panting heavily, trembling, and VERY excited to see me drive in.
The house next door had some renovations going on, and there were builders using nail guns and other noisy tools, so I think something really frightened her. She had dug a hole under the side gate and run for it. And that was the beginning of our experience with separation anxiety and my special interest in behavioural medicine.
This is how she looked. Except less happy. But just as sandy and wet
I filled the hole under the gate and put a couple of bricks down, congratulating myself on being clever enough to fortify it so well. Anika laughed in the face of my flimsy barricade, and was waiting for me out the front again a few days later. At the time I had no idea what I was dealing with, even though in retrospect it’s so damn obvious.
I started to receive complaints from one of my neighbours that she had begun barking during the day while I was at uni. Things progressively got worse and she started scratching frantically at the back door if she was outside while we were home. On one occasion while I was at uni she scratched at the side gate so desperately she broke several nails and left smears of blood where she had been trying to escape.
This broke my heart.
At the time I didn’t know how to manage her separation anxiety, and knowing what I know now I certainly could have done better. After around 6 months of working on environmental enrichment, behaviour modification, and medication with a drug called clomipramine, I had my happy girl back. It wasn’t easy – behavioural issues rarely are – but we got there.
She’s now a happy, healthy, 12 year old. We still have problems with anxiety associated with thunderstorms and fireworks, but she has been drug-free and separation-anxiety free for the last 9 years.
Based on my own experience with Anika and subsequent years as a veterinarian, here are my pointers on what is helpful and what is unhelpful for managing a dog with separation anxiety.
First Of All, Is It Separation Anxiety?
Obviously it’s important to know what you’re dealing with. Your vet can help you here, and please be aware that the advice I give here is general and does not necessarily apply to every dog.
The main thing to differentiate separation anxiety from is boredom. Behaviours that can occur with both include barking or other sorts of vocalising, and destruction.
- A bored dog is likely to chew up or destroy things any old time, whereas a dog that does it due to separation anxiety usually does it only when you’re not there.
- A bored dog may chew up his bed, some furniture, whatever takes his fancy, whereas an anxious dog is very likely to cause damage to doors or barriers.
- Separation-related behaviour usually occurs within 30 minutes or so of your departure.
There are also indicators when you are home. These poor doggies are often hyperattached, liking to stay close to their owners and following them from room to room.
Oh thank God, I thought you were gone forever…
How To Make Things Better
I’m not gonna lie, having a dog with separation anxiety can be horrible. It can be stressful and soul destroying, and an uphill battle to manage. If you have a dog experiencing this, give yourself a pat on the back just for coming this far.
Be kind to yourself, cos it’s not easy. Unfortunately there really is no quick fix, and it’s much more about training (the dog and the humans in the family) than about medication.
- Encourage some independence and reward calm behaviour. If you see your dog lying happily in her bed away from you, that is the time to offer a little reward. A reward is something the dog likes. It might be a food treat, or it might be a special toy or some cuddle time. Totally depends on the individual. If you catch a nice calm behaviour you like and reward it a few times, you can start adding a cue so that your dog can actually do it on command.
- IGNORE ATTENTION-SEEKING BEHAVIOUR. This is tough, but remember it doesn’t limit the amount of love or affection your fur-kid receives in any way. It just has to be on your terms. Even just making eye contact is giving your dog attention. It’s really important not to reward attention-seeking.
- Downplay departures and arrivals. I can’t emphasize this one enough, and it’s where a lot of people (including myself and Anika back in the day) go wrong. When you leave, make sure it’s no big deal, and when you get home the best thing you can do is totally, completely ignore your pooch for 10 or 15 minutes, then approach them calmly.
- Provide things to do while you’re out. This is also known as ‘environmental enrichment,’ and may include food-dispensing toys or hiding things for them to find while you’re not there. You could provide a special toy that they only get when you’re out, and you take away when you get home. The one Anika has loved the most is the Home Alone toy by Aussie Dog.
- Consider leaving the tv or radio on.
- Provide plenty of physical and mental stimulation when you are home with them.
- If you can get home in the middle of the day, organise a dog walker, or use a bit of doggy day care, these things will all decrease your dog’s alone time and help make them happier.
- A pheromone known as dog appeasing pheromone (DAP) is quite helpful in reducing anxiety for some dogs. It is a synthetic version of the pheromone secreted by mothers for their babies when they’re suckling, and is quite calming. Its odour is not detectable by humans. DAP is available as a diffuser you plug into the wall or as a collar. You can find more information about DAP here.
- Sometimes it helps to desensitize them to you leaving by decoupling departure cues from departure. Does your dog prick his ears up when you put on your shoes? Does he start to look anxious when you reach for the keys? There is a bit of work involved (basically going through the pre-leave rituals again and again without actually leaving), but it can help a lot to slowly teach them that these things don’t necessarily mean being left alone.
- For dogs with moderate to severe anxiety problems, medications are often required. This is arranged in consultation with your veterinarian, and generally after your dog has been examined and had blood testing done to rule out any contributing medical conditions. The drug clomipramine, (which is the one I used with Anika), has been shown to help dogs receiving behaviour modification improve four times faster than those receiving behaviour modification alone.
How To Make Things Worse
Just quickly, there are a few things that are likely to make a dog with separation anxiety a lot MORE anxious.
- Punishment. In any form. If you come home and shout at or hit your dog for something it did 3 hours ago a) the poor animal is never going to put two and two together b) Anxiety will increase, not decrease c) The behaviour you’re trying to manage will increase, not decrease, and d) You sir, are a douchebag.
- Big dramatic goodbyes or frantic OH MY GOD OH MY GOD I MISSED YOU SO MUCH returns only serve to make your absence more significant and scary.
Remember that as with anything behaviour-related, consistency is key. Everyone involved needs to be on board to make it work.
The day I graduated vet school Ani was right there beside me. And she still is.
Do you have a dog with separation anxiety? What has worked for you?