Separation Anxiety: The Great Imitator, Part 2

By Meredith Stepita, DVM, DACVB

One of the first natural remedies most people try when their dog is destructive to the house is confining the dog to a crate. Unfortunately, most of my patients with separation anxiety DO NOT improve when placed in a crate. Their anxiety is actually worse as they often have concurrent confinement anxiety. Claustrophobics can relate to this. The dog pants, salivates, whines, howls, barks, urinates, defecates, and/or is destructive when confined. The dog may even sometimes even hurt himself, breaking teeth and cutting his skin and mouth trying to escape. What constitutes confinement? That depends on each individual dog. Some dogs may be anxious in a room while others only become anxious when confined to a small crate.

Confinement anxiety

The first step in differentiating confinement anxiety from separation anxiety is to videotape your dog home alone OUTSIDE of the crate, loose or confined to part of the house. Often confinement anxiety alone is an easy fix since the dog is calm when left outside of the crate.

Source: Stepita

If the dog must be crated (e.g., at a dog show) the crate should slowly be re-introduced using a desensitization and counter-conditioning protocol prescribed by your veterinarian. This is the primary technique we use to change your pets’ emotional response to triggers for fear. Desensitization is exposing your dog to his trigger for fear (e.g., being in the crate) at so low of an intensity that he is calm and relaxed, and slowly increasing the gradient of the trigger (e.g., increasing the amount of time in the crate), staying below the threshold where your dogs starts displaying fearful behavior. For example, start the exercise with your dog near the crate and gradually work up to having him inside the crate, first for a few seconds and then longer amounts of time. Counter-conditioning is the process of changing his emotional response to the fear-eliciting trigger, usually using a high value food reward.

Barrier frustration

Barrier frustration can look very similar to anxiety (barking, whining, howling, and/or destruction) although the dog is not actually anxious. This occurs when the dog is separated from a person by a barrier (ie door, window) and calm when the owner is out of sight and hearing range. Barrier frustration can usually be managed by changing the circumstances, but if needed desensitization and rewarding the dog for calm, relaxed behavior can be implemented.

Stay tuned to as we continue to explore causes of behaviors that may imitate separation anxiety.

***This article was written by Meredith Stepita, DVM DACVB and originally posted June 12, 2015 on Psychology Today’s Blog – Decoding your Pet. 

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