Curing canine separation anxiety: Curse of the working class (Proceedings)


As applied to animals, the terms anxieties, fears and phobias refer to a continuum.

As applied to animals, the terms anxieties, fears and phobias refer to a continuum. Anxieties are vague general reactions of uncertainty, fears are reactions to specific objects or stimuli, and phobias are extreme or irrational fears out of proportion to the real threat of the stimulus. Some authorities would reserve the concept of phobias for humans as a pathological syndrome, with a verbal component that cannot be applied to animals.

Probably most fear- or anxiety-related reactions of animals stem from normal reactions to stimuli or situations which, in a natural wild environment, would be adaptive. This is true of fear reactions to loud auditory stimuli and to strangers, as well as separation anxiety and submissive urination. Through habituation, and possibly maturation, these emotional reactions diminish. Adverse experiences with specific stimuli, such as with abuse by a person or persons may result in fear reactions or enhancement of normal fears.

The therapeutic goal is to desensitize the emotional reactions through habituation or extinction of acquired fears using structured training sessions and remove any reward the animal may get from displaying the emotional reaction.

These topics are discussed extensively in Hart, Hart and Bain, Canine and Feline Behavior Therapy, 2nd edition, 2006, Blackwell Press.

Separation Anxiety

This is a common problem in families where both adults work. It is the first problem behavior for which a psychotropic drug was approved in the U.S.

Typical History

There usually is an occurrence of several types of misbehavior, including chewing woodwork and furniture, excessive vocalization, inappropriate urination and defecation, indicating that the dog is emotionally upset when left alone by the owners. These signs occur also as manifestations of other problems. The main diagnostic feature is that these signs occur only when the owner is gone. Usually these signs occur within the first few minutes of the owner's departure. Sometimes owners give excessive attention to the dog prior to departures and upon returning, which may enhance the contrast between the owner being at home and away. Most signs of separation distress occur within 30 minutes of separation.


The primary diagnostic challenge is to confirm that the problem behaviors occur when the dog is left alone. Differentiate separation anxiety from other types of anxiety (noise phobia), boredom, inappropriate elimination, urine marking, and cognitive dysfunction. An easy way to do this is videotape the animal when the owner is gone.

Treatment Guidelines

  • Counsel the owners - The dog is not doing these behaviors "out of spite" or because "he's mad that we left him." This is an anxiety and the animal is in distress.

  • Eliminate anxiety - During the treatment program it is important to eliminate the anxiety that the dog feels when it is left alone. Except during planned departures have one of the owners take him to work with them, find a doggy day care in your area or board the dog at your clinic. The reasoning behind this is so the dog does not continue to panic when at home, continually relearning these reactions and behaviors there.

  • Initiate a distancing program - Choose a place, such as a special mat, which will be used for this part of the program. Put the dog on the mat and have him stay. Start out with a short period of time. This could be as short as 2-3 seconds if necessary. Then release him/her. Gradually increase the length of time the dog stays on the mat, up until about 15 minutes or so. Then the owners should start to increase the distance they move from their dog during the stay.

  • Eventually the owners will be able to move into another room while the dog is staying on the mat. Start with just a second or two, then increase the time away, and gradually the owners should close the door behind them. Once that is accomplished, they can work toward stepping out of the house while the dog stays. They should start getting closer to the door, touching the door, jingling the handle, opening the door, etc., etc.

  • The owners should move the mat around to different areas of the house and even outside when they want to work with the dog there. When the dog is on the mat for a longer period of time, they should give the dog a treat, preferably long lasting.

  • Initiate a departure program - The owners should next go outside for periods so short that the anxiety is not evoked. When the dog starts to become more comfortable it can be left for gradually longer periods of time. A food reward is again introduced upon departures. Progress on departures will be slow at first, increasing by only very gradual steps: 1,2,1,2,3,2,1,4,2,5—minutes. Later the steps will be much greater after the dog can be left alone for 30 minutes (e.g., 30,45,15,60,45,30,60,75-minutes). On their days off work owners should continue the departure program.

  • Downplay departures - The owners should downplay their departures. Actually ignore the dog completely for 15 minutes before they leave and after they return home.

  • Medication - An anti-anxiety drug such as fluoxetine or clomipramine may be useful to facilitate desensitization, but does not by itself solve the problem.

Fears of Loud Noises (Thunderstorms, Fireworks, and Gunshots)

Although most dogs are habituated to the stimuli of loud noises during development, if such habituation does not occur, pronounced fears may be seen. Fears may also be acquired through an adverse experience.

Typical History

It is important to establish the specific stimulus that evokes the fear. Fear responses are often enhanced because owners try to comfort the dog and give it extra attention at the time of fear. If the fear is acquired, it may be impossible to determine what, in particular, caused the reaction if the fear is acquired. Just one experience with a strong stimulus may induce a fear reaction (e.g., being caught outside in a very bad thunderstorm).


The main diagnostic challenge is to determine the specific stimulus that evokes the fear reaction.

Treatment Guidelines

  • Avoid fear-evoking situations - Attempt to avoid evoking full-blown fear reactions while therapy is continuing. This may be difficult. If the stimuli involved are seasonal (firecrackers, thunderstorms), desensitize during the off season and use a short-acting anti-anxiety drug (e.g. diazepam) when the aversive stimuli cannot be avoided.

  • Stop all comforting of the fear - Owners should act indifferent when a dog exhibits fear, to inadvertently avoid reinforcing the behavior.Desensitization - Determine the starting point of the desensitization gradient. Desensitization takes place while gradually increasing the intensity of the fear-inducing stimulus over many sessions. For fear of thunderstorms or gunshots, methods of varying the stimulus intensity include use of thunderstorm recordings, and multiple nested boxes for gunshot or firecracker phobias. Test the training stimulus at full strength to be certain it does evoke the fear. Schedule daily training and conduct training sessions at the same time each day (before feeding). The time of day should be varied after initial desensitization.

  • Countercondition a positive emotional reaction - Give food treats and/or affection when a mild form of the fear stimulus is presented, and the dog shows desirable behavior.

  • Medication - On some occasions, an anti-anxiety drug such as fluoxetine or clomipramine, may be helpful to facilitate desensitization.

Example of Thunderstorm Anxiety

Play a recording at a volume below fear threshold for 10-15 minute sessions while the dog is sitting. Give food treats periodically during the recording, especially after a thunder clap. Alternatively, start a recording and give food treats at a loud sound; turn off and repeat. Hold multiple daily sessions, and more frequently on weekends. Periodically increase volume slightly. Later in the training, by stages, add a darkened room, a strobe light, and spray water on the windows. After desensitization is complete, occasionally expose dog to artificial storms to maintain desensitization. During the therapeutic program avoid actual exposure to thunderstorms or give anti-anxiety drugs to block the anxiety reaction.

Fear of People

This problem may be manifested as fear with no aggressive tendencies or with fear-related aggression.

Typical History

Usually the fear is directed toward a class of people such as children (in dogs not raised around children or habituated to children) or a class of people, for example, men. The behavior is often intensified because a dog's aggressive behavior is rewarded when the people go away and the fear or anxiety is reduced. The fear may involve threats or snapping. This problem is often caused by inadequate socialization to people.


This issue here centers around when aggression is involved and one must distinguish between fear-related aggression and dominance-related aggression based on body posture and history.

Treatment Guidelines

  • Do not punish the dog - This will only increase its anxiety.

  • Desensitization – The indicated treatment is gradual desensitization using a gradient of distance to the fear-inducing people or similarity to the fear-inducing stimulus (e.g., progressing from teenagers to small children).

  • Countercondition – Get the dog to associate gradients of the fear-inducing stimulus with a favored food treat and affection (withhold affection prior to trials).

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