As part of my Diploma In Canine Behaviour course, I was asked to provide a suggested complementary therapy plus behaviour modification for a theoretical case of separation anxiety.
I received some fantastic feedback on this particular assignment, and so thought I would share it on my blog!
Disclaimer: Every specific behaviour case should be treated entirely separately. Though symptoms for many dogs may appear the same, the root cause can often be very different. Although these suggestions may be helpful to you if your dog is suffering with a similar issue, professional advice should always be sought before trying to combat a behaviour issue as complex as separation anxiety.
Q. You are asked to work theoretically with Rufus, a Parsons Jack Russell Terrier with a severe anxiety issue that resulted from the experience of being tied to a tree and abandoned. This manifests as Separation Anxiety and obsessive behaviour.
When left alone, Rufus howls for prolonged periods, he is destructive, he soils close to the exit door, and he obsessively chews his toenails. When his carer comes home, Rufus greets her ecstatically by bouncing up and down. Otherwise, in company he is happy and well behaved.
Which type of complementary therapy do you think would be most suitable for this dog? Why would you choose this therapy? What behaviour modification would you suggest for this dog?
A: Since we know Rufus was abandoned, it is clear from the behaviours he is exhibiting that his experience has emotionally scarred him and he is in fear of the same abandonment occurring again. We see this from many of the behaviours mentioned.
In a normal situation it would obviously be important to fully assess these behaviours before offering a plan on how to manage Rufus’ behaviour. We would need to ensure that Rufus is definitely suffering from Separation Anxiety and not anything else, such as boredom, frustration or fear of something else happening whilst the owner is out (e.g. a dog walking by at a particular time of day, the postman arriving etc). It would also be wise to have Rufus checked over by a vet to rule out any medical concerns before working on the behaviour.
However, in this instance we will work on the assumption that we have already assessed the situation and have concluded that Rufus is suffering from Separation Anxiety and obsessive behaviour. We know that Rufus is well-behaved in the company of his owner and therefore not destructive in general.
By obsessively chewing his toenails and self-harming, Rufus is subconsciously managing his stress levels. We know that chewing releases endorphins in dogs and helps to relax them and so in his highly stressed state, Rufus has realised that chewing his toenails helps somewhat to calm him down.
If Rufus is clawing at the exit door, ripping up the carpet in this area or chewing the skirting boards, he is likely trying to reach his owner on the other side. If he is destroying other parts of the home, he is, like with his toenails, trying to comfort himself by chewing and destruction. Dogs can chew items which hold the scent of the owner and surround themselves with the debris in order to help them feel more secure in their absence.
Rufus’ indoor soiling is a clear indication that when his owner leaves, he become highly stressed and fearful (likely the fear of being abandoned). When in an extremely anxious or fearful state, a dog can often lose control of their bowel movements and begin to eliminate in the home. It’s safe to say this is what is happening here.
In order to help Rufus and his owner, I would suggest a combination of Bach Flower remedies and a behaviour management plan.
Bach Flower remedies in general can alleviate separation anxiety and in combination with behavior management, can help to return a dog’s emotions back to a healthy balance. In turn, the symptoms that come with separation anxiety, such as chewing, inappropriate elimination, destruction, barking/whining and excessive grooming/self harming will hopefully be reduced.
Since Rufus has clear separation issues as a result of his past experience of abandonment, and arguably could have developed an unhealthy attachment to his new owner as a result.
In this case, it would be ideal to try using Chicory to help restore a more healthy emotional attachment to his owner and reduce the over-dependence. As a result of feeling less dependent on his owner, Rufus may not reach such a high state of anxiety in the owners absence. Chicory combines well with Heather, and can also help to reduce noisy, attention seeking behaviours such as the barking and howling seen in Rufus.
Bach Flower remedy, Mimulus, can also be used to help reduce anxiety in situations where a dog feels insecure when left alone as a result of an earlier frightening experience. This suits Rufus’ situation perfectly and would definitely be worth a try.
Cherry Plum is a great remedy to help Rufus with his loss of bodily control and also his loss of emotional control, indicated by his need to destroy things in the home when left alone. White Chestnut is also good for these destructive behaviours as well as calming internal anxieties that lead to self-harming, in Rufus’ case, this manifests as him obsessively chewing his nails.
Star of Bethlehem would also be a good choice initially as Rufus is clearly in an extremely stressed state when his owner initially leaves. This is clear from his loss of bodily control.
There are now also ready-mixed Bach remedies which include a combination of suitable flowers in order to help soothe and calm the dog.
Since Bach Flower remedies are natural, complementary therapies, there is also no need to worry about the dog overdosing and the therapies can be used in the dogs water, food, or even in Rufus’ case, it may be good to consider putting them on his paws as this will help to calm him when he chews his nails (though we would hope this behaviour would stop in time after careful management). These therapies will also only take effect where there is an emotional imbalance, therefore other animals in the home will remain unaffected if sharing water.
In combination with the complementary therapies, it’s important to also include behaviour modifications to work alongside them.
Where possible the owner should return to basics when leaving Rufus. If the owner works full-time, it would be beneficial to call on additional help during training so Rufus doesn’t have a set back too early, e.g. by using a dog sitter, family member, taking Rufus to work etc.
Creating independence in the home and eradicating the ‘shadow dog’
By using stair gates in the home, Rufus can be left in specific areas when the owner is still around. This way, some distance is created between Rufus and the owner, but he still knows the owner is present. This helps create a more healthy attachment and avoid a ‘shadow dog’ that follows his owner everywhere. Rufus should learn that he can relax on his own in a separate room and that his owner will always return at some point, desensitising him to being left alone when his owner leaves the house and creating a happier, more independent dog.
It is important to do this carefully and slowly, not rushing Rufus. Starting by giving him a tasty treat, such as a filled Kong, and firstly sitting in the room quietly without interacting, before slowly moving further and further away after a number of sessions, until the owner can be out of sight completely without reaction from Rufus.
It may also be beneficial to teach Rufus a ‘go to your bed’ cue and reward any settling behaviour, so that he associates settling calmly with a rewarding, pleasant experience. Once he has mastered this in a calm environment, he will be more likely to settle when anxious.
Desensitising of departure cues & time alone
Dogs love to watch us and they quickly learn our routines.
Rufus will likely become tense and agitated before his owner has even left the house because he will know the routine she uses before leaving. By eliminating this initial stress, we can potentially avoid the highly stressed state that comes after the owner has left the house (similar to trigger stacking in reactive dogs).
In order to do this, the owner can simply change the associations Rufus has with specific actions. For example, picking up the keys and walking them to another part of the house before putting them down and carrying on as normal, or putting on her shoes and sitting in the house with them on for a while, before taking them off and carrying on as normal, going to the door and touching the handle before walking away etc. By switching up these actions, Rufus will stop associating them with being left alone and therefore should not reach such a high state of stress when his owner leaves.
Once they have passed this step, the owner can move on to leaving the house for several minutes before returning, turning the car on etc and slowly increasing the time he is left, as long as he is comfortable and not regressing.
It’s important that during all of this training, the owner remains as calm as possible. If the owner is anxious about leaving Rufus, he will arguably feed off this anxiety and build on his own. If he does regress at any point, it’s important to go back to the previous step and start again.
The owner must buy-in to the training
One of the most important factors on dealing with Separation Anxiety in dogs, or any behavioural issue, is that the owners fully buy-in to the training. Working on Separation Anxiety will take time and patience, and will not be successful if it is rushed.
If Rufus’ owner tries to push him too quickly tries to skip important steps when he is doing well, it will likely undo all the hard work and take longer to rehabilitate him. It’s important to remember that during this time, Rufus is still stressed and anxious, and our main goal is to eradicate these fears and uncover a calmer, happier dog.
Avoid dramatic greetings and farewells
Again, a tense owner who is worried about leaving their dog will often give them excess attention, and say things like , “I won’t be long” or “don’t worry, you’ll be fine”. This kind of farewell will become an association and can trigger future anxiety. Avoiding dramatic greetings also avoids unnecessary stimulation in Rufus and should keep his level of anxiety lower.
When Rufus jumps up excitedly when the owner returns, it’s important to avoid excess praise and attention. Even if he has been good and not soiled or been destructive in her absence, the owner must greet him calmly and only offer praise when he is calm, with all paws on the floor.
If the jumping up does not improve with this approach, asking him to “sit” before rewarding will help to calm Rufus and he will begin to associate the calm behaviour with praise.
If Rufus is simply too excited to respond to either approach and continues to jump up, his owner could try staying in the car for a few minutes after returning home. This will give Rufus time to calm down before the owner enters the house and the jumping up will be easier to manage with the steps mentioned above.
All of the above should be combined with regular physical and mental exercise.
If the combination of complementary therapies and behaviour modification do not help with Rufus and there is clear evidence that the owner is trying all the training suggested, it would then be beneficial to revisit the vet and discuss more traditional medications to help ease the behaviour whilst working on the behaviour modification.