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Tennyson wrote that it is better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all. Try explaining that to a dog with separation anxiety that is toughing it out alone following the departure of its beloved owners. About 4 percent of the 54 million dogs in the United States suffer from the wretched condition known as separation anxiety. In this condition, dogs become so closely bonded to their owners that they virtually have to be pried off them, and parting is not, as the saying goes, such sweet sorrow, but more of a living hell. Affected dogs are often gentle, doting, and sweet-natured, but the anxiety-related havoc they wreak in the owners' absence is sometimes misconstrued by the owners as being malicious, vindictive, or retributive. Some owners even spank their dogs on their return to punish them for their bad behavior, but this is both inappropriate and ineffective. Punishment never works if delivered more than a few seconds after an event; rather, it simply serves to confuse the already distraught and bewildered dog. Owners may swear that the dog knows what it has done because it "looks guilty," but the "guilt" is simply anticipation of punishment that the dog has learned to associate with the simultaneous presence of damaged property, the owner, and itself.
What would cause a dog to be this way? Is separation anxiety innate or acquired? Opinions vary, but the evidence overwhelmingly suggests that the dog suffering from separation anxiety is a product of its environment and is the canine equivalent of a dysfunctional person. These dogs appear to lack self-esteem and live vicariously through their owners, whom they adore and on whom they are totallydependent.
There is a famous story of a faithful English gun dog that was inadvertently locked in the parlor during its owners' prolonged absence. The dog did not eat any of the plentiful food surrounding it and died of starvation, obedient to the end. Although this is an inspiring, though pathetic, story of seeming altruism, and although one hates to speak ill of the dead, another explanation is equally moving but less magnanimous. It involves separation anxiety, a cardinal feature of which is anorexia--apparently to the bitter end. Many dogs with separation anxiety will not eat until their owners have returned; then, following a classically exuberant greeting ritual, they finally launch themselves at the still-full food bowl.
If this terrible anxiety and anorexia is environmentally induced, what factors determine it? Well, the jury is still out on that question, but it seems that psychological trauma in early puppyhood is largely to blame. Dogs with separation anxiety frequently have a history of being acquired from a pet store, from a pound, or from a person who didn't have a lot of time to spend with the dog. Although these dogs have not necessarily been beaten, they have been mistreated through isolation and neglect, and may have been separated from their mothers and litter mates too early. Freud would probably have had a lot to say about this condition!
If you were to construct a scenario guaranteed to foster the development of separation anxiety, it would involve the impersonal rearing of batches of dogs in an environment where social contacts are scarce and close bonding with humans is virtually impossible. Many of the puppy mills of the Midwest provide examples of such environments. In such breeding farms, puppies are often separated from their mothers at the tender age of four or five weeks and are transported many miles to their final destination, the pet stores, where they are handled extensively, but only by an assortment of complete strangers. Pet-store dogs are usually sold when they are between three and five months of age, after they have spent months in isolation during a critical period of their social development. The product? Little Orphan Annie in a dog suit...an accident looking for a place to happen. If the new owners are kindly people, the dog will cling to them much the same as the proverbial drowning man will clutch at a straw, and, if permitted, a symbiotic bond will develop as post hoc evidence of an earlier abusive situation. I used to think that dogs with separation anxiety were always acquired at three or four months of age or later, but recently I have come across a few that were obtained much earlier, at eight or ten weeks. In all of these latter cases, the dogs had been weaned extremely early, which indicates that the trauma of early weaning alone can be enough to lay the groundwork for separation anxiety, at least in some cases.
Separation anxiety can be predicted with 100 percent accuracy in pound dogs, based on the reason the dog was brought to the pound, the pound attendant's impressions, and a simple test involving leaving the dog alone in the car for a few minutes and observing whether it barks or not. Significant findings in these areas indicate that a dog is likely to be prone to separation anxiety. However, the new owners are not exonerated from blame just because the dog is prone to the condition. Extremely empathetic owners seem to be much more likely to foster this problem in their dog. Susceptible dogs absorb all the attention and affection they are given and return it manyfold. They make wonderful pets, particularly for the emotionally needy person. In effect, the dog and owner become codependents and are virtually inseparable. But then there's the downside: these dogs simply can't cope on their own. It's as if every time the owner leaves, the dog thinks they've gone forever and starts to panic.
The diagnosis of separation anxiety is usually fairly straightforward. Owners call and report that their dog is destroying property in their home, but only in their absence. Doorways and windows--portals of exit and entry--are frequently targeted for destruction. It may be that the back of the door is scratched or that the molding around the door has been chewed; alternatively, window sills or blinds may come in for attack. This is due to what is called barrier frustration. Other factors contributing to the diagnosis include the classical history of a deprived puppyhood and extremely close attachment to the owner. Affected dogs follow their owners around the house so as not to let them out of their sight. They also sleep on or near their owners at night and will curl up next to them on the couch or drape themselves across their owner's feet when he or she is watching TV. Signs of distress, such as sad looks, cringing, or hiding, are usually obvious before the owner leaves, and whimpering or barking right after the owner has left is a hallmark of the condition. This vocalization usually occurs within ten to thirty minutes of the owner's departure. Owners are not always aware of this and may only find out about the ruckus from a neighbor. If they wait outside the door and listen, the dog may be on the inside listening to them! Sometimes it's necessary to make a tape recording to verify that whimpering and barking occur. As mentioned, affected dogs usually do not eat during their owner's absence. This is another cardinal sign of separation anxiety. Anxiety-related inappropriate elimination of urine and/or feces may occur during the owner's absence in extreme cases but is less common. The whole syndrome is topped off by exuberant greeting rituals that often continue for several minutes after the owner's arrival. Owners often interpret this behavior as a great compliment (which I suppose it is).
Elsa, a five-year-old neutered female Labrador Retriever mix, appeared to have a classical case of separation anxiety. Elsa's owners, Carl and Susan Blake, were the doting owners of this beautiful, sleek black creature. Elsa stayed very close to the Blakes as we entered the consulting room and took our seats. She was clearly stressed by the new environment and showed signs of anxiety, manifested as an inability to settle down and constant panting. She occasionally glanced sideways at her owners but showed absolutely no interest in me at all. I tried to coax her to me, but had no success. She preferred to remain close to Carl and Susan--safe and within petting distance. New things and new people were of no interest to Elsa, and I figured she would be a lot happier at home in her favorite chair, perhaps curled across Carl's lap. Salient features of Elsa's condition were destructive behavior in Carl and Susan's absence, trailing Carl or Susan around the house, anorexia when left alone, and elaborate greetings on her owners' return. The damage she inflicted on the home was pretty much confined to the areas around doors and windows. She had chewed the molding around the door, scratched up the rug, and destroyed one or two window blinds in her frenetic attempts to escape. The Blakes were beside themselves. How could such a wonderful, loving, otherwise well-balanced pet have such a distressing problem?
"Where did you get Elsa?" I asked Carl.
"We got her from a pound when she was a year old. She was cowering in a corner of her kennel. We felt so sorry for her...and we just couldn't resist those sad eyes."
I glanced at Elsa again. Sure enough, it would have been hard to resist that face, but their compassion had unwittingly contributed directly to the problem.
Carl went on, "We need to know up front--is this condition treatable?"
"Absolutely," I replied. "The odds are quite good that we can make a major improvement in Elsa's behavior, so that she is calm enough to tolerate your departures without showing these signs of anxiety. However, there are some things that I will have to ask you to do that I know you are going to find difficult."
Carl looked at me quizzically.
"Let's start with the easier stuff, such as changes in her management," I said. "First off, at least twenty or thirty minutes of aerobic exercise every day coupled with a low-protein diet will create a healthy balance between energy input and output. In addition, Elsa should be trained to obey one-word commands by working with her in five- or ten-minute training sessions twice daily. Your goal is to achieve a one hundred percent response, at least when there are no distractions around. Clear communication between you and her will help her know that you are in charge, and that will reduce her level of anxiety.
"Next, I'm afraid that you and Susan are both going to have to practice what I call independence training, which involves, for the short term at least, distancing yourself from Elsa to allow her to learn that she can survive without you. At present, she is so dependent on you that when you leave home, she panics, thinking that you have gone for good. Her negative early experiences have caused her to be this way, and it is important for you to teach her that she can, as it were, stand on her own four feet."
"How do we do that?" asked Susan.
"Okay," I said, "let's consider the nighttime aspects first. I see from the record that you are allowing Elsa to sleep on the bed with you at night, and although I have no objections to this for a normal, well-balanced dog, with Elsa, this is catering to her weakness. You should put a dog bed in the bedroom for her to sleep on. If she joins you in the night, take her gently by the collar or attach her lead, say 'Bed,' and lead her gently back to the dog bed. You must, of course, praise her the minute she is in the bed so that she knows that she has done the right thing. If this becomes too troublesome, try securing her lead to an immovable object, such as the leg of the dresser, so that she is physically prevented from reaching you. Some dogs get the message right away. Alternatively, a crate may be used to restrain her, but this must first be introduced to her during the day and in association with praise and treats. In this way, she will come to regard the crate as a haven and not a place of punishment. Some dogs will whine or carry on, at least for the first couple of nights. In such cases, it is most unwise to respond to her, which is essentially rewarding that behavior. Rather, it is best to direct her with a command. If worse comes to worst, you may have to try putting the crate outside the bedroom or downstairs. If she continues to bark, attend to her at progressively increasing intervals--first five minutes, then ten, fifteen, and up to twenty minutes. Give her firm directions such as 'Quiet' or 'Enough,' and praise her when she stops barking. It may take a night or two before she settles into the new routine.
"Also you have to teach her to be more independent during the day. Let's talk first about her continually following you around. She must be discouraged from doing this and should be taught to do something else instead, such as go to her bed and lie down. It's no good to tell her 'No' or say her name in an ominous tone and expect her to understand. This provides no direction for any dog, least of all one like Elsa, who is already confused and anxious. One trainer I know says that 'No' is used as a command so frequently that most dogs in this country think it is their first name. Also, if you keep using a dog's name as a command, eventually you won't even get its attention. It will assume you don't know what you want, so it will ignore you."
Carl, who was scribbling notes, looked up. I knew from his expression that the independence training was going to be difficult for him.
"Is there more?" he said a little anxiously.
"Yes, there is. You know how Elsa drapes herself across your feet or your lap when you watch television at night?"
"You mean that's not allowed either?" Carl asked.
"That's right," I replied, "at least not for the first three or four weeks. I would like you to tell her to go to her bed on the opposite side of the room or even in the kitchen. The point is that she should not be allowed to spend long hours in physical contact with you or Susan. She must learn to be independent--to stand up for herself. Call it confidence-building, if you will. It would also be helpful in training sessions to teach her to sit and stay while you move progressively farther away. You might eventually build up to being able to leave the room with her sitting in place. Then you can come back and praise her for obeying. These distancing techniques are all part of independence training and will help her to think for herself. You can even practice the sit-stay routine with her at the door, leaving for brief but progressively increasing periods of time."
"But every time I go toward the door she becomes extremely agitated. How can I prevent that?"
"You can desensitize her to what are known as pre-departure cues," I replied. "She picks up on your every movement prior to your leaving. For example, if you grab your car keys, or your coat and hat, and make your way to the door, she'll get anxious right away. You should make a list of the things you do before you leave the house, including walking toward the door and reaching for the door handle. Run through the various actions in the evening in breaks between TV programs, but without actually leaving. You might, for example, grab your car keys or your coat, shuffle aro