Separation Distress Syndrome

Separation Distress Syndrome or SDS (Steven R. Lindsay 2005) is one of the most difficult behaviour problems to deal with in dogs because successful modification relies on owners being present at all times during what can be a long training process. Dogs and humans have a mutual need to form social attachments, and while dogs may suffer from a little separation distress at times, most learn to cope with an owner’s absence. However there are some dogs that become anxious when left alone and exhibit some or all of the classic signs of that anxiety, including excessive vocalization, pacing, whining, panting, inappropriate toileting and destructiveness. These dogs have an inability to settle and cope when left alone and this causes major concern for owners. SDS has many causes but it is believed that genetics and/or an early history of abandonment can contribute to what quickly becomes a deeply rooted problem that is highly resistant to change.

Dogs that suffer with SDS can display anything from minor to major destruction when left alone. This destruction is normally focused on points of entry such as doors and windows, or places and objects that are more intimately associated with an owner such as shoes, the bed or the sofa. Chewing releases pleasurable endorphins into the body, promoting a feeling of calm – just as some humans release tension by biting their nails. It is distressing for any owner to come back to a home that has been damaged by their dog, but punishment is ineffective and only serves to increase a dog’s anxiety. Anxious dogs can also demonstrate stress with intermittent or continual barking and in extreme cases may toilet in the house, foam at the mouth, vomit, eat through walls or jump through windows in an attempt to escape and re-establish contact with their owners.

Treatment for SDS depends on the severity of the disorder and must be tackled on many levels. First and foremost anxious dogs require appropriate exercise, a potent stress reliever, and an hour of exercise a day can help lessen a dog’s anxiety, being particularly effective if done just before an owner’s departure. Boredom and lack of exercise can contribute to SDS and a dog that has been physically exercised and mentally stimulated has an increased ability to cope while an owner is away. Daily exercise can be complimented with an obedience training program that allows a dog to learn new obedience commands centered on impulse control and problem solving. This helps to activate the learning part of a dog’s brain which in turn deactivates the emotional center of the brain responsible for the anxiety.

It is much easier for a dog to cope with an owner’s departure if the owner makes little fuss of the dog when leaving. The same is true when an owner returns. The less attention that is given to the dog during departures and returns, the less a dog’s anxiety will be reinforced. Dogs are also sensitive to changes in their environment and the transition from the energy when owners are present to silence in the home when they leave is profound. Leaving lights and a television or radio on during an owner’s absence will help make the transition easier.

Desensitization to departure triggers is important as dogs can become anxious as soon as they see their owners picking up keys and putting on coats. Masking these triggers by not putting on a coat, hiding the keys in a different place and using a different bag can help, but dogs quickly become wise and an owner’s departure energy is difficult to hide. Putting on a coat and exiting followed immediately by a return, allows a dog to see the trigger in a different light – the coat doesn’t always mean the owner is going to leave for a long period of time. Constant repetition over a number of days helps to desensitize the dog and departures no longer trigger a response. Time spent away is gradually increased until the dog is confident that the owner will always return.

Leaving a dog with appropriate activity toys to chew on is crucial. Some dogs are too anxious to eat or play with a toy when their owner is absent, so it is important to introduce the dog’s favourite toys and/or chews while the owner is present, building up a positive emotion around that particular toy. This toy is then given a few minutes before the owner departs, in the hope that the dog will be more focused on the toy than on the owner’s departure. Interactive toys such as stuffed Kongs and treat balls can also help re-focus the mind, causing the dog to release anxious energy on an appropriate item rather than the sofa.

SDS is one of the main reasons why dogs are relinquished to shelters every year. Before a treatment plan can be designed it is important to make sure that the dog is suffering from anxiety rather than just being a bored dog trying to entertain itself during an owner’s absence. Setting up a video camera and recording the dog’s actions while it is alone will give a more accurate picture as to the cause of the behaviour. Treatment for SDS can be highly effective if implemented diligently and a once destructive and anxious dog can become a much more relaxed and contented animal.

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