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For many pet owners, dealing with the harmful effects of their pets’ mild to severe separation anxiety is part of a daily uphill battle.  Even the shortest trip away sparks fear and anxiety in their pets, which can cause them to act out in aggressive or destructive ways.  Pet owners can find ways to take control of this behavior by recognizing the problem and actively participating in correcting the behavior.  The ASPCA offers helpful tips to counteract your pets’ irrational fears and anxieties due to separation.

Mild Separation Anxiety

The ASPCA recommends using “counterconditioning” as a way to minimize your pet’s anxiety.  Counterconditioning is defined as, “a treatment process that changes an animal’s fearful, anxious or aggressive reaction to a pleasant, relaxed one instead.  It’s done by associating the sight or presence of a feared or disliked person, animal, place, object or situation with something really good, something the dog loves,” Separation Anxiety, www.aspcabehavior.org.  For example, if your pet is displaying signs of anxiety while you are away, such as destroying property or barking uncontrollably, consider giving your dog a special treat or toy whenever you leave.  The ASPCA recommends a KONG toy filled with a tasty treat such as low fat cheese or peanut butter.  Toys like the KONG provide an immediate positive reinforcement of good behavior, while preoccupying your pet for a long time while you are away.  This solution works best only in cases of mild separation anxiety, as pets with moderate to severe anxiety may not care to eat or play with anything whenever their owners are not home.

Moderate to Severe Separation Anxiety

In cases of moderate to severe separation anxiety, a more methodical approach is needed. Begin with exposure to short terms of separation that do not produce anxiety and then increase them gradually over time.  It is important to note that when attempting to desensitize a pet to their irrational fear of being alone, they must not feel fear at any time during the process or the plan will backfire.  The first step would be to alleviate the pet’s anxiety associated with the sights and sounds of your departure such as: the sound of keys jingling, or the sight of you putting on your shoes.  The way to do so, would be to include these “cues” in your daily routine multiple times per day, without actually leaving.  Over time, the pet will disassociate those cues with your departure, and no longer experience anxiety from those pre-departure sights and sounds.  The next phase would be to gradually introduce your pet to very short absences.  Start by putting the pet in a room, working on commands such as “sit” and “stay”, then exiting the room and remaining on the other side of the door for a short period of time.  Before the pet displays any signs of anxiety, open the door.  Work on this several times per day and increase the lengths of absence.  Next, add the departure cues that may stimulate anxiety to the mix.  Once you see that your pet is no longer displaying signs of anxiety during this exercise, move on to a more challenging exercise of exiting out the back door several times and then finally out the front door.  Remember to make this exercise like a game for your pet to enjoy.  Make sure your pet is completely relaxed before a session and between each session. Practice this several times a day, and when your pet is ready, increase the absence time by 15 minute increments, building up to a goal of 45 minute increments after a few weeks of practice.  While treating your pet for separation anxiety through a methodical approach of desensitization, it is very important that your pet is not left alone to suffer from fears of separation and act on them.  This would be totally counterproductive to the process.  While training your pet to no longer fear separation, you must only expose them to separation in very small, incremental amounts during your desensitization sessions.  When you must leave the home, it is important to consider other alternatives to leaving your pet alone until they have completed their training.  Some alternatives to leaving a pet with severe separation anxiety at home alone would be: asking a friend, family member or pet sitter stay with the pet, or taking the pet to a doggy daycare.

Punishment for Anxious Behavior is Counterproductive

When your pet acts out in a disobedient or destructive way while you are out of the house, the common response may be to punish.  Just remember, that your pet is acting out based on severe distress and anxiety.  Punishing and scolding will not change their behavior.  In fact, it will most likely add to their fears and anxieties, which may make the problem worse.  Only through a calm and calculated approach of desensitization to your pet’s irrational fears, will you begin to see the desired results.


Information for this topic provided by ASPCA.For more information on this topic and many others, please visit www.aspcabehavior.org