What do I do if I think my dog has separation problems?

by Rachel Casey

What do I do if I think my dog has separation problems?

The first thing to do is to find out for sure what your dog does when left alone. You can do this by setting up a video camera pointing towards where you think the dog is likely to spend time while you are out. For example if you normally come home and your dog is in his bed, then try setting up the camera pointing at the dog bed. Some dogs with SRB spend a lot of time at or near the door that you leave through, so you could also try setting up a camera pointing towards the door. Set the camera to record before you start preparing to go out, so this doesn’t influence your normal leaving routine. You may need to try and few times before you find the best place to record what your dog gets up to.

Check your video for signs of anxiety. These may be obvious behaviours, such as barking, howling, or running from room to room, but are often also much more subtle, such as sighing, whining, trembling or drooling.

If you identify signs that your dog may be worried, talk to your vet about referral to a behaviourist. It is important to contact your vet first so that he or she can check that there are no medical problems, and help you find a qualified behaviourist. Because separation problems can develop for different reasons, treatment programmes need to be tailored to individual dogs. Programmes usually include a number of different elements, which might include the following aspects:

  1. Encouraging your dog to not be too reliant on your attention when you are at home, so that he or she can cope better when you are not there
  2. Gradually teaching your dog that it is actually OK to be alone in the house through a process called ‘desensitisation and counter-conditioning’.
  3. Changing any associations the dog may have made about the events leading up to their owner leaving the house.
  4.  In some cases, making sure that the dog has sufficient exercise and mental stimulation when owners are in will help it to settle down when left.

Once a dog has an established SRB, it is unlikely to improve through minor changes such as leaving on the radio or TV. Leaving treats or puzzle feeders are also unlikely to be successful in established cases: often these will be left by the dog until their owner returns.

Make sure you don’t tell your dog off

Because most dogs show separation problems because they are worried, it is counter-productive to tell off or be angry with your dog when you get home. Dogs which scratch holes in the skirting board when their owners are out do not know that these behaviours are ‘wrong’. Dogs do not associate being told off when you come back through the door with going to the toilet several hours earlier. Instead, they will usually become worried about your unexpected anger on coming home, as well as being anxious about being left.

Will my dog need medication if anxious when left?

In most cases of separation anxiety, behaviour modification programmes alone are sufficient to resolve the problem. However in some cases drug therapy can be useful in addition to behaviour therapy. The decision whether to include drug therapy in a treatment programme will be made by your vet, often in discussion with a behaviourist or veterinary specialist. The aim of drug therapy is to help an owner achieve the programme of behaviour therapy. The factors involved in this decision might include the severity of the behaviour, other things in the environment which impact on the dog, aspects of the situation which might make following behaviour modification programmes challenging, and considerations about the welfare of the dog. Medications used are prescription only, and therefore only available from your vet. If a drug is recommended for a particular case, your vet will explain how to give them, what to look out for, and how long medications have to take effect. If your dog is prescribed medication it is important that it is not stopped suddenly without checking with your vet first.

There is no scientific evidence that any over-the-counter or non-prescription products are valuable in the treatment of SRB in dogs.