PHUKET: In part one of our look at Canine Separation Anxiety we identified some of the many reasons and symptoms for its onset, so here in part two, we’ll look at various ways of treating it.
However, it’s important to note that you should always consult a canine behaviorist first so that problem behavior can be correctly identified prior to implementing a modification program. There’s no point trying to modify separation anxiety if that’s not really the issue.
Now separation anxiety, can be tricky and in truth, can be annoying. To add insult to injury, many owners want to yell at or punish their dog for the excessive vocalization, or other behavior associated with the anxiety, but this can make the problem worse by increasing the dog’s need for social contact developing what’s called Learned Helplessness.
Feeling nervous? Okay, here’s the science bit: The nervous system is responsible for behavior and is divided into two sections: the central nervous system (brain and spinal cord) and the peripheral nervous system (nerves and some sensory organs). The nervous system works closely with the endocrine system, which is responsible for chemical coordination in the body.
The nervous system conveys information from one place to another by neurons or nerve cells. Chemical secretions called neurotransmitters travel from one cell to another. They contain and convey information. Some of the more important neurotransmitters are dopamine, norepinephrine and serotonin. Got that?
Dopamine is involved in motor coordination and reaction time. A deficiency can cause inability to learn, irritability, anxiety and a decline in endorphins (a dog’s natural pain killer). Dopamine influences the brain’s pleasure center and a decline in this neurotransmitter can result in a diminished positive feeling.
Norepinephrine is related to adrenaline. It is responsible for your dog’s energy level. A depletion of this can cause your dog to shut down and display signs of lethargy and depression.
Serotonin regulates mood, pain and arousal levels. Low levels of serotonin can result in aggression, impaired learning, anxiety and obsessive behavior.
Now, when a dog becomes overstressed the nervous system releases norepinephrine and dopamine, which causes a suspension of the part of the brain responsible for learning and higher thought process, previous learning, impulse control and social inhibition. Previously learned coping mechanisms may become inaccessible which can provoke species-typical coping mechanisms (chewing, digging, urinating/defecating, vocalizing).
Addressing the problem
There are a number of ways to treat separation or isolation anxiety, and in many cases it’s largely a combination of a number of them – but remember, all dogs are different so consult a canine behaviorist first.
A major contribution to the treatment of separation anxiety is a drug called clomicalm, which helps by increasing the serotonin levels in the brain which in turn decreases the level of fear, stress and anxiety experienced by the dog. But lots of people aren’t keen on taking anti-depressants themselves, let alone giving it to their dogs.
Stress puts greater nutritional demands on your dog so if your dog is not currently eating a high quality dog food then you could consider a change. Lower quality dog foods frequently contain a large quantity of corn which is also thought to decrease the level of serotonin in the brain (although I’m not a nutritionist, so don’t quote me.)
Possibly the best way to help your dog, is to encourage active participation and focused enjoyment of something. You can increase mental stimulation in your dog by feeding part of his meal in a fun ball or hide portions of his meal around the house when you leave. One of the best ways to stimulate your dog mentally, is obedience training.
A tired dog is a well behaved dog. Exercise stimulates the production of serotonin and is a way for your dog to release all of his energy appropriately. When you start exercising your dog start out slow and increase the amount of time and the level of the exercise. You know your dog, so you’ll know what’s too much and what’s not enough, but it is a good idea to have your dog examined by a veterinarian first to make sure there are no issues that may have an impact on your exercise program such as obesity, arthritis, hip dysplasia, etc.
Second Dog Syndrome:
Dogs are social animals and are generally happiest when in the presence of other dogs. Many people believe that getting another dog will treat the current dog’s anxiety, but that often backfires and can actually increase the stress on your current dog. In many separation anxiety cases, the dog has developed a hyper-attachment to humans, so another dog makes no difference.
Providing your dog with a soft item that smells like the attachment object or person can sometimes help in minor cases. The best way to accomplish this is by wearing a t-shirt to bed and leaving it with your dog in the morning when you leave.
Here one minute, gone the next:
For the first 15-20 minutes after you arrive home or before you leave completely ignore your dog. This means no eye contact, no speaking, and no fast, noisy activity. The goal is to reduce the contrast between your presence and absence. If there is damage or mess in the house, ignore the dog and simply go about cleaning up. Do not punish your dog!
Remember, this is not your dog’s fault and he is not acting this way to get back at you for leaving him. Treatment for Separation or Isolation Anxiety takes time, patience and lots of work but you can make a difference.
— Russell D Russell