Separation anxiety is rarely solved using only one modality of treatment, whether you use drugs, alternative therapies or behavioral modification. For the best results, you’ll need to “tailor make” a mix of therapies. Below are some to consider:
1. Avoid negative reinforcement
Treating separation anxiety involves never punishing the dog for feces or urine messes or destruction! Also, don’t do anything to encourage the anxiety. That sounds simple and straightforward, but it can be difficult when you want to reassure a visibly upset animal that everything is okay, by petting or speaking soothingly to him. This actually only validates the improper behavior! Think about it: you’re trying to comfort the dog, but what you’re really doing is saying, “Good dog for being upset. Here, let me pet you.”
2. Behavioral modification
Train your dog to relax by rewarding him with praise and treats when he assumes relaxing postures such as sitting or calmly lying down. Practice commands such as sit, stay and down. Don’t force your dog into a confining space if it is too stressful. Downplay the event of being left alone. Ignore your dog when you first arrive home and he’s dancing and jumping at your feet. Wait for your pet to calm down and obey a sit command, then greet him. This praises the dog for sitting, not for jumping all over you!
3. Body language
Vary your departure signals by picking up your keys and coat at different times, even if you are not leaving the house. Exit different doors. Your dog is tuned into your body language so try to change your routine so his hysteria doesn’t escalate every time the front door closes. Vary the time your dog is left alone. Sometimes, medications are needed to help your dog relax – Clomicalm is the most common.
I use alternative therapies instead of drugs in my practice. Many herbs are anxiolytic (anti-anxiety), tranquilizing and/or sedating. Valerian and skullcap are two of the most commonly used. Herbal relaxing combinations also work well with some pets. Among the ones I use are Animals’ Apawthecary’s “Tranquility Blend” or Azmira’s “Herbal Calm.” Remember, though: just because “it’s an herb” does not mean you can’t overdose or have problems, so please see your veterinarian for proper prescribing.
5. Flower essences for anxiety
These work well with some animals. Aspen is a great remedy for dogs that hate loud noises such as firecrackers or thunder. Other good ones include elm or heather. It’s important to remember that the remedy must fit the animal and the behavior – no one remedy works for all. Follow the directions indicated by the manufacturer, whether it’s Bach or another company. Dosing frequently is more effective than dosing in quantity – a few drops every few minutes is much more helpful than giving a half a bottle at once. Again, find a professional who can help you.
Nambudripad Allergy Elimination Therapy (NAET) blends the principles of muscle response testing and acupressure. You may be familiar with this therapy since it treats physical allergies (see Animal Wellness, Volume 3, Issue 2). By expanding our definition of allergy to include emotions, we can often get to the root of the anxiety. For example, when some people get upset they break out in hives or have a stomach “attack.” This is an emotional “allergy” to the cause of the upset, which in turn causes physical symptoms, or behavioral problems.
Separation anxiety also has emotional causes, and the dog manifests an “allergy” to being left behind. Unlike drugs, which alter the brain chemistry, NAET treats the actual emotion or “reason” behind the anxiety. With behavioral training (in both dogs and humans!), the patient can sometimes come off medication after a period of time, but some need to stay on it indefinitely. NAET, meanwhile, has the potential to “cure” the problem. Again, you need the guidance of a knowledgeable vet to go through the intricacies of this therapy. I have been using it for four years in my practice, and have found it works well in many cases.