Is separation anxiety always the reason?

by Sodhi N Science Writer, AVA
31 Jul 2017

Picture this: you’re getting ready for work, to leave for the day. Your dog is staring at you miserably – he knows you’re leaving and he’s not happy. You know he barks and digs when you’re gone. Poor little guy – this is clearly a case of separation anxiety. Or is it? Behaviourist Trepheena Hunter urged vets and owners to question this at the recent AVA Annual Conference.

Certain dog behaviours performed in the absence of owners can be attributed to a number of other factors besides separation anxiety. Most simply, it could be a sheer coincidence; something else happens when you leave that your dog finds distressing, triggering an anxiety response. Another reason could be what Dr. Hunter jokingly refers to as “opportunistic enjoyment”, where the dog indulges in behaviours it is not normally allowed to when its owners are home. The dog may actually be enjoying itself!

So a dog needs to be properly diagnosed before you can call any adverse behaviour ‘separation anxiety’. Instead, Hunter refers to these as ‘home alone behaviours’, which include barking, destruction, digging, whining and escaping from the home.

But before delving into a diagnosis, we need to ask what’s normal behaviour and what’s not. Normal behaviours include play, predatory, urine marking and territorial behaviour. Urine marking in itself could be the result of incomplete toilet training or a lack of access to places to pee.

Abnormal behaviours include separation anxiety, noise phobia, fear aggression, global fear, generalised anxiety and cognitive dysfunction.

She pointed out that the dog’s environment is often different when owners are around (dogs are often inside) compared with when they’re not around (dogs go outside) and this could also contribute to the dog’s behaviour.

Dogs may also be suffering from an underlying medical condition that may cause them to become anxious and display abnormal behaviours; for example, incontinence, dermatological disease, seizure disorders and thyroid disorders.

Dr. Hunter also highlighted the importance of asking questions, as many behaviours are very objective – a dog perceived as destructive by its owners may, in fact, be displaying normal play behaviour.

It’s important to see what the dog is like when you’re not home – video footage is crucial in helping to get to the bottom of any behavioural problems that manifest in the absence of owners.

All in all, an interesting and eye-opening talk.

This article appeared in the August 2017 issue of the Australian Veterinary Journal

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