Your Dog is Not Spiteful: It’s Probably Separation Anxiety
Recognizing and helping your dog cope with the panic of being left alone.
At first blush the behavior looks vindictive. A four-year-old terrier/shih tzu mix named Tootsie is perfectly housetrained as long as her family is home. But she relieves herself all over the place when they’re not there, leading perhaps to the perfectly reasonable assumption that she is paying them back for leaving her. But wait. Tootsie’s stubborn-seeming behavior gets worse.
The family’s being “not there” also includes their going to sleep, so they put her in her crate at bedtime to keep her from messing the house in the wee hours, but she just keeps barking all night and bucks to the point of actually being able to move the crate along the floor. Thus, on top of running around the house with disinfectant all the time, the people in the household are losing lots of sleep. Their other pet is “a great dog” who “never messes.” Tootsie’s a bad dog, right?
Nope. Tootsie’s a panicked dog, says Stephanie Borns-Weil, DVM, who works out of the world-renowned Animal Behavior Clinic at Tufts. “A dog is not being spiteful or vindictive when eliminating in the house in her owner’s absence,” Dr. Borns-Weil says. “People think they can tell. They say it’s clear the dog feels guilty when they come home and see the mess. But what they’re seeing is not remorse but fear. The dog has learned to be anxious about the owner’s arrival because she knows the owner doesn’t like what has been left to be cleaned up.”
Of course, either way, a dog who eliminates in the house is hard to live with. “We have had her for almost two years,” Tootsie’s family head says, “and it is not getting any better. She is very hyper….We have not been able to retrain her….We want to keep her, but it is a burden.”
The good news here: a dog’s separation anxiety, once recognized for what it is and properly diagnosed after ruling out other causes of soiling the house, can be solved. It just takes some time, patience, and a leap of faith.
Severe Separation Anxiety Symptoms and Possible Medical Causes
While it does appear that Tootsie is suffering from separation anxiety (Tufts Animal Behavior Clinic Director Nicholas Dodman, BVMS, weighed in with the same thought as Dr. Borns-Weil), a medical rule-out is necessary. While it’s probably not simply a housetraining problem — if it were, Tootsie would likely be sneaking off into another room to do her business while her owners were around, and she also wouldn’t be able to properly relieve herself outside at those times that her owners were home — the family will want to make double sure that a physical condition isn’t the culprit here.
“The vet should do a physical exam and collect some basic data by analyzing the blood and urine through a CBC (complete blood count), chemistry profile, and a urinalysis,” Dr. Borns-Weil says. “And if the inappropriate elimination is in the form of defecation, she’ll want to perform a fecal exam, too.”
She does not expect that Tootsie will be diagnosed with a medical problem because she is fully housetrained when her human family is there. But better safe than sorry.
Different Treatments for Resolving Different Kinds of Separation Anxiety
The standard of care for separation anxiety has been an approach that involves what are called planned departures. It’s a form of desensitization. You leave the house for longer and longer periods of time to gradually desensitize your dog to your absence. It’s good in theory but doesn’t work in practice. That’s because in order for it to work, the dog must never be alone except during the training exercises. Think about it. Desensitization progresses in minutes — first leaving for one minute at a time, then two, and so on. How are you going to get to your office? To the grocery store? This is one behavioral issue for which real life will simply get in the way of effective desensitization.
Tufts’s new way of helping a dog deal with separation anxiety involves different solutions depending on the way in which the anxiety is expressed. There are essentially three patterns, and they are not mutually exclusive. Some dogs can have more than one, which you will see is the case with Tootsie.
For some dogs, separation anxiety goes from sub-clinical to an out-and-out panic attack because of being confined to a crate or behind a gate. “It makes being alone a whole lot worse for the pet,” Dr. Borns-Weil says. “A lot of rescue dogs [which Tootsie is] have very bad associations with being in a cage. They might have been confined to one in a noisy shelter or other unfamiliar environment,” and the confinement may have also meant a lack of attention.
Hyperattachment to Owner
“We see this with rescue dogs and particularly with dogs who have been in puppy mills, dogs who have undergone wholesale neglect,” Dr. Borns-Weil says. “If because of things that have happened to her in her early life she cannot form normal bonds or attachments to her owner, a dog can become hyper-attached. There was an insufficient opportunity for her to learn what normal bonding is at a time in her life” that the lesson would have stuck. “These are the Velcro dogs that animal behaviorists talk about,” the doctor adds. “Everywhere you go, you turn around, they’re there. You can’t even go to the bathroom alone. It’s like having a toddler.”
“These dogs are panicked about being left alone,” period, Dr. Borns-Weil says. “They’re okay as long as they’re with someone. It doesn’t have to be the owner. They tend to do well in a daycare setting if they like other dogs, or with a neighbor or a relative — anything, as long as they don’t have to be by themselves.”
With Tootsie, Dr. Borns-Weil comments, “I do suspect there’s an element of barrier frustration” based on the barking in the crate and her moving the crate around while she’s in it. She probably also has some degree of solo-phobia.
To be sure about what informs your dog’s separation anxiety, the best thing to do is get a nanny cam. “There are dozens of different kinds now,” Dr. Borns-Weil says. “I happen to like the Dropcam [see page 6 of last month’s issue of Your Dog], but there are many good ones to choose from in all price ranges.”
Even families like the one profiled here, who have some idea of what goes on in their absence, could learn a lot because things like inappropriate elimination and excess vocalization (and for some dogs with separation anxiety, destruction) are “just the tip of the iceberg,” Dr. Borns-Weil says. “In one study of separation anxiety, dogs were videotaped in their homes when the people left. They stared at the door miserably for long periods of time. They got depressed, or paced, panted, and salivated. Hyper-salivation indicates that the dog is having a sympathetic nervous system response to the panic.”
In other words, Dr. Borns-Weil says, “there’s possibly a lot that this poor little dog is suffering through in her cage that her human family doesn’t know about. It’s clear she’s really miserable with throwing her cage all over the place and barking,” but there may well be more. And seeing it will help the family realize that “this is not an incorrigible dog but a scared dog.”
Enriching Your Dog's Home Alone Environment
Based on the three categories of the expression of separation anxiety outlined above, in combination with a better understanding of just what a dog goes through in her family’s absence, a targeted, intentional plan of action can be put into place.
In Tootsie’s case, it seems pretty clear that she suffers from barrier frustration and solo-phobia. The family does not indicate that she follows them all over the place when they are home.
For the barrier frustration, it’s necessary to un-do the strategy they have been implementing and opt for a different solution. “They need to work toward getting the dog out of the cage,” Dr. Borns-Weil says, “because that’s not helping. It’s just keeping the pet miserable, enhancing the difference between being with the owner and not. I get that they want to sleep and don’t want to have their house soiled while they’re doing that. But it’s not going to happen by putting the dog three rooms away.
“In terms of treatment, I would ask why does she have to sleep in a kennel at all at night? If she’s not a biting or growling dog, maybe it would make her feel better if she could sleep in the owners’ bedroom. If they want to prevent her from wandering out of range to eliminate, they can set up an exercise pen in their room or even tether her with a long line. They may even find that they don’t need to restrict her at all. She may sleep better being near them and not feel the need to express anxiety because the separation won’t be going on.
“As far as when they go out during the daytime, what it’s important to do in cases of solo-phobia is begin to transform what it means to be alone.” Essentially, it means “moving all of the pleasant things a dog associates from those times she’s with her owner into times she spends without her family.” Consider that for dogs in general, “everything good happens when their people are home: companionship, exercise, play, good treatment. When her owners go out, all that nice stuff stops,” Dr. Borns-Weil observes. If she’s kenneled to boot, she’s being put in jail, essentially. “So she goes through a lack of stimulation along with the loneliness that builds in a social animal like a dog. It only further delineates the divide of when the owner is home and when he is not.
“But if we move all the good stuff into the home-alone category, she can better tolerate her time by herself. You want to super-enrich her environment when you’re not there.”
In terms of food, it means saving her meals until you go out. You can, for instance, stuff Kongs with all sorts of special, delicious foods and freeze them. That will make it take a while for her to extract her meals from them. Food puzzles work, too.
In addition, owners can hide treats around the kitchen or wherever the dog stays. Leave things out that the dog enjoys chewing, too, along with special toys. “Maybe scent the toys with a quail or squirrel scent to make them more interesting to your pet, Dr. Borns-Weil advises. “Dog TV or Animal Planet can be helpful as well. And you can put on some nice background music” so the dog doesn’t have to listen to the clock ticking all day.
Finally, if you can, “give the dog a view. If you have glass sliders or a couch the dog can climb up on to look out the window and put out a birdfeeder for her to see, it can work wonders. Birdfeeders can be especially interesting to terriers or terrier mixes like Tootsie,” Dr. Borns-Weil says.
“Don’t use the crate,” she re-emphasizes. “You can keep it there with the door open as a nice, comfy place to lie down if she chooses. But you can’t super-enrich a locked crate. It just isn’t big enough.
“When you come back home,” Dr. Borns-Weil says, “pick up all the special toys — the Kongs, the hidden treats, scented toys, uneaten food. That way, you’re neutralizing the territory. You’re telling the dog, ‘When I’m home, you don’t have all this special stuff. See how great it is to be on your own?’
“For some dogs,” she comments, “it’s enough to help them turn the corner. It may not happen on the first or second day, and you’re going to have to do brief departures at first to give your dog time to get used to the program.”
Anxiety Medication for Dogs
The strategy of making life grand when you’re not there should help to at least some degree. But if after some time it’s not enough, “this is where we jump in with some medication,” Dr. Borns-Weil says. “Sometimes we use what we call a background medication” to tamp down anxiety in general, particularly if the dog is endangering herself or being seriously destructive. One of those background drugs is fluoxetine (Prozac), which has actually been labeled for separation anxiety in dogs. There is also, as another example, Clomicalm. “These can lower background anxiety to the point that a nervous dog will be able to appreciate and participate in the environmental modifications an owner is setting up,” the doctor comments.
“But sometimes, either alternatively or together, we’ll use a short-acting medication for those dogs” who need something to calm their nerves right now. “You give it just before your departure,” Dr. Borns-Weil says, “and the dog will very quickly be able to relax and enjoy.” Two drug choices in this short-acting category are clonidine and alprazolam (Xanax). They take down the immediate panic for those dogs who need some extra help.
The treatment, drugs or not, is “going to be a four-month process,” Dr. Borns-Weil says. “While separation anxiety is not an intractable problem — you really can ease a dog out of it — it is a very tough one, and it does take time.”
As far as the family in this story, if they are (understandably) nervous about Tootsie soiling the house in their absence, they can start by keeping her confined to the kitchen, where most people have tile or linoleum rather than carpet or wood floors that stain more easily and are harder to clean. Once they see that their dog does better uncrated, they can enlarge her roaming space. “But as long as they keep crating the dog,” Dr. Borns-Weil says, “it’s going to get worse. It’s a vicious cycle people get into. The more the dog has a problem, the more her owners put her into a cage, and the more the dog comes to dread the cage, making everything worse.”
If a family trusts their love for a dog, on the other hand, they have the best chance of implementing ways to get her over the separation hump.