Treating Separation Distress

Article by Dr Robert Holmes

When talking separation distress, different circumstances call for different treatments; what is applicable and acceptable for one household, may not be suitable for others. The type and intensity of the separation distress, available space, household routine and the carer’s attitude are all factors that affect the decision on how to treat the problem.

Although separation distress doesn’t have a single explanation, we do have some solutions. Unfortunately, there is no single cure-all.

The over-arching principle to treatment is to stop repeating the circumstances, and to do it now! ‘Maybe’, ‘possibly later’, and ‘we’ll see how it goes’ are not acceptable. You are not going to solve the problem in the long term if your dog keeps experiencing bouts of distress. Such severe emotional experiences will only maintain the problem. It is like driving in sand. If you get stuck, keeping your foot on the accelerator just spins the wheels and causes your vehicle to sink deeper. And it’s the same with this problem. The more it happens, the worse it becomes. Thus, you need to immediately find some way of preventing a recurrence, even if it is highly inconvenient and only acceptable in the short term. Sometimes, in extenuating circumstances, you may need to resort to short-term heavy-hitting medication to give yourself breathing space while the long-term treatment kicks in.

The most powerful solution to separation distress is human company. By definition, of course, the problem occurs when the carer is absent. Carers often think their dog misses them exclusively. It’s a pity to dispel, disprove and destroy this warm and fuzzy belief, but in reality, most dogs are tarts. As long as someone, anyone, is around they are much more content.

Dogs often escape backyards only to settle in the backyard of someone who is home. The chance to ‘chat’ across the front fence with passers-by may be all that is required to reduce separation distress. Usually, though, we need to call on neighbours, family, friends, doggy day carers or vet practices to take the dog in while we are absent. Some lucky carers own or work in dog-friendly businesses. Lying under the desk or wandering about lightening the contents of lunch boxes is good steady employment for any dog.

Common sense says that a lonely dog just needs canine company. Alas, this received wisdom is rarely borne out in reality. Getting a second dog is a good idea, but don’t expect it to solve the problem. The exceptions seem to be rare.

If you can’t arrange human company, the next method is to provide an environment in which the dog can relax when nobody is home. For many dogs this is achieved by having access to inside the house. It was this surprising observation that led me to start thinking about the pervasive attitude that dogs should be kept outside. My arguments against this mind-set were published in the article Backyard Blues in Issue 5 of Adore Animals magazine. I realise, however, that allowing dogs inside may be unacceptable due to cleanliness concerns, damage or house soiling. All I can say to this is that it’s been a simple and successful solution for the numerous households who have been prepared to try it.

Another revelation to solving separation distress is the power of the bed – settle down there in the back row! Given access to the whole house when nobody is home, most dogs will choose to lie on their primary carer’s bed. This has been the key to solving quite a few cases where restricted access hasn’t worked.

Dogs often choose to lie on their carer’s car seat, armchair or clothing. The dirty linen basket sometimes gets raided and the carer returns to find highly focused destruction of socks, jocks or other intimate apparel. Clearly, smell can be the next best thing to the person. In an enclosed air space, such as a bedroom, a bit of scientific ‘aromatherapy’ like a Dog Appeasing Pheromone diffuser, has also proved successful.

Although it is extremely rare, we occasionally strike lucky and come across a ‘relaxation signal’. This is an object – such as a shopping bag – that the dog has learnt to associate with the owner returning after only a short absence. It is strange but true that by using the relaxation signal before prolonged absences, such as carrying the shopping bag when you leave, has had long-term success. The dog stays fooled, presumably because they are left in a relaxed state and remain that way.

When none of the aforementioned techniques are possible or have been successful, you need to think seriously about medication. A registered veterinary practitioner can prescribe drugs that can reduce the separation distress for periods of human absence. The type of medication used depends upon whether or not there is any history of aggression by the dog, as some drugs have made dogs more aggressive. It’s a good idea to test the medication and its dosage under controlled conditions before it is needed. At the first indication of distress, you need to be able to immediately return to comfort the dog.

There are other medications, such as antidepressants, that can also be used with the intention of helping the dog learn to cope with separation or noise phobia, which is a feature of some cases. This group of medications needs to be given daily for at least a couple of months.

In the long term, you would ideally train the dog to learn to cope. Logically, desensitisation to the departure routine could be done. In practice, however, it is inordinately difficult to achieve. It requires a huge amount of time, great patience, a high degree of precision and the persistence of the swell in the Great Southern Ocean.

Theoretically, increasing the independence of the highly attached dog should help. However, increasing independence has also proved to be a disappointment. Maybe it is because we really don’t understand the mechanism of attachment by dogs to people, and maybe the problem is not caused by over-attachment anyway.

What I do know is that many carers like the attachment and won’t do a ‘tough love’ program. This type of relationship is so important to some carers that they are reluctant to change it. Every carer needs to come to terms with what they are prepared to do to reduce the suffering.

A useful method of assessing separation distress is to record as much of the behaviour as practical when nobody is home. Leaving behind the dog’s normal daily food, packed into a hollow rubber cone as a sticky mixture, will later show whether the dog is relaxed enough to eat. This is part of the environmental enrichment package that keeps dogs busy and relaxes them.

The most informative and cost-effective method of assessment is to record the sounds made by your dog, either with an audio recorder or video camera. This will provide objective evidence about the dog’s activities when nobody is home. This could be a reassuring or a devastating revelation. Either way, it will provide the necessary information so you can be realistic about what is going on. And that has to be helpful to all parties.

Dr Robert Holmes is a leading animal behaviourist with unique insight into the psychology of animals. A gentleman and a scholar, he can be found at

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