Effects of Separation Anxiety
We hear the term all the time, but what exactly is it? A new study, published in the journal Frontiers in Veterinary Science in January, suggests that separation anxiety is not so much a diagnosis as it is a syndrome that may have several underlying causes. The team, led by scientists from the University of Lincoln, UK, identified four main forms of distress for dogs when separated from their owners. These include a focus on getting away from something in the house, wanting to get to something outside, reacting to external noises or events, and a form of boredom. If not properly diagnosed and treated, separation anxiety can actually affect the health of your dog.
A comprehensive study by Nancy Dreschel of the Department of Dairy and Animal Science at Pennsylvania State University used a survey of 721 pet owners who had recently lost their dog. The study was comprehensive in it's detail with 99 questions asked. One of the questions was about how well behaved the dogs were during their lifetime. It has been reported in other research that the more anxious and fearful dogs are the more likely their owners are to describe the dogs as "not well-behaved", so a question like this will tend to reflect on the dog's general emotional state rather than its obedience. The co-relation between "well behaved" and longevity was significant and the author speculated "Well-behaved dogs may live longer because they may be under less stress, living in a more harmonious household."
Another part of the study centered on fear of strangers. Fear of strangers is considered to be a general indication of fear and anxiety and the co-relation to longevity was again significant. Incidentally this same study found that un-neutered dogs had a 2.3 year shorter lifespan than their neutered counterparts.
Dr. Dreschel summarizes her work by saying, "It was hypothesized that stress caused by living with anxiety or fearfulness has deleterious effects on health and lifespan in canines. The ﬁndings indicate that fear, speciﬁcally the fear of strangers, is related to shortened lifespan."
Now with everyone soon going back to work after the COVID19 lock down, out dogs may be wondering why they have suddenly been abandoned. The website petsecure.com suggests the following strategies to mitigate the anxiety of you again leaving them alone:
Create a safe haven space. Allow for quiet time apart during the day where you detach physically. You may crate your dog, use a mat across the room, or even sit on the opposite end of the couch.
Use your dog’s senses to promote relaxation and comfort. Set up a white noise machine or play classical, reggae, or soft rock music. Spritz her safe haven space with synthetic canine pheromones or pet-safe lavender essential oils. Offer special treats at times of the day when you would normally leave the house.
Desensitize your dog to typical departure cues at non-routine times of the day. Pick up your keys then go fold laundry. Put on your shoes and go to the bathroom. Leave through the front door and come right back through the back door. Over time, the cues become less predictable and less likely to trigger anxiety.
Incorporate independence-building games like hide and seek with favourite toys placed throughout the house. Try wrapping a toy stuffed with a favourite treat into an old towel; knot the towel loosely and see how long it takes your dog to unwrap his present. Use a snuffle mat to hide treats. Scatter a few loose treats in different rooms, so your dog has to work to sniff them out. Always monitor dogs who would rather eat toys than play with them.
Ask your dog to sit or lie down at her safe haven space. Make sure she watches you as you leave the room to set up the different toys and treats, then let her wait (as long as she can without punishing her!). Your goal is to build a little impatience here; she will WANT to leave you so that she can go and find her rewards.
In my own experience I have found that well trained obedience dogs are more confidant and well adjusted and therefore have fewer problems adjusting to new situations.
Dr. Colleen Fisher, HOW TO HELP YOUR PET AVOID SEPARATION ANXIETY AFTER COVID-19 Petsecure.com, April 2, 2020
Dreschel, N.A. The effects of fear and anxiety on health and lifespan in pet dogs. Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 125 (2010): 157-162.
Stanley Coren PhD., DSc, FRSC, Fear and Anxiety Affect the Health and Life Span of Dogs, Psychology Today, July 29, 2015