Separation Anxiety
by Lynda Adame

(Originally printed in Celebrating Greyhounds Magazine)

One of the most common complaints heard from the owners of companion dogs is that their dogs engage in disruptive behavior when left alone1. This disruptive behavior, commonly referred to as separation anxiety, is actually a distress response to separation from the person or companions to whom the dog is attached. Ex-racing greyhounds that are placed in homes as lone dogs often exhibit separation anxiety. This can be explained by understanding their unique past and realizing that they have never been alone, or out of the company of other greyhounds before. Combine this with the fact that they may have never been inside a real home, with humans that actually want to love and pet them, and you have a dog that could become anxious when left alone.

Separation anxiety behaviors are exhibited by male and female dogs with equal frequency and are not breed or age related (except at the time of weaning). One of the key differentiating features between other behavioral disorders and separation anxiety is that the dog engages in separation responses within a short time after being left alone - often within minutes. These behaviors typically peak within 5-30 minutes of being left, and then gradually decline. The disruptive behaviors associated with separation anxiety are commonly broken down into the following categories: Elimination behaviors; Destructive behaviors; and Excessive vocalization1. One of the most important things an owner can do is to realize and accept that the dog is not being disruptive on purpose. Dogs don't understand complicated human emotions like spite or revenge, they are simply responding to the stress they are feeling by acting out behaviorally and physiologically. There is a fascinating sequence of events that take place inside a dog in response to stress. The sequence starts with the dog interpreting the situation as "stressful" in the cerebral cortex and then passing this information down to the limbic system via nerve impulses. The limbic system, the part of the brain where emotional responses are made, creates a physical display to suit the emotional response as well as physiological changes in the body. These physical adjustments: rapid bounding heart rate, prolonged rapid panting, eye pupils large and dilated, extensive drooling and salivation, adrenaline release to increase blood pressure, and loose fluid bowel motion, occur automatically, with no conscious effort on the part of the greyhound2. Since the dog is not doing this on purpose, punishing is not the key.  Punishment used incorrectly can result in negative side effects that actually magnify separation anxiety. For example, a dog will not associate punishment with separation anxiety if it is punished at the spot of misbehavior after the owner returns; instead, the dog might learn to anticipate punishment when the owner returns and exhibit fearful submissive behavior which the owner interprets as guilt.

The goal is to gradually acclimate the dog to being alone. Initially you should set-up many short separations from the dog that last less time than it takes the dog to demonstrate the anxiety response. For some dogs, this period (initially) may only be one or two seconds long, and you might only go to another room in the house. As you have successes, gradually increase the duration of the separation periods. Present the dog with a safety cue when leaving. This cue should be a consistent statement ("Be Good I'll Be Right Back") or action (leaving a TV or radio on). Leave the dog with something to occupy it like the Buster Cube or a hollowed out bone stuffed with peanut butter or a jerky strip. The Buster Cube is a toy that holds 1 1/4 cups of dog kibble inside its compartments, and releases small amounts of the kibble as the dog works the cube and rolls it a certain way. Studies have demonstrated that dogs respond better to departures when the lengths are varied (e.g., 1, 2, 1 ,3 ,2, 4, 1, 4)3. A dog that can tolerate being alone for an hour can usually tolerate being alone for an entire day.

Confining a dog with separation anxiety may work, but the experts feel that the confinement of a crate can add to the panic and stress of the dog. Crates are not recommended in the treatment of separation anxiety, but confining the dog to your bedroom with a babygate can provide a soothing secure environment for the dog.

Drug therapy is the new frontier in treating separation anxiety. PLEASE be extremely careful when using any anti anxiety medication on a greyhound (or any sighthound) because of their unique liver metabolism. Dr. Harry Newman, a sighthound experienced Veterinarian who works with adoption groups in the Buffalo, New York area provided this information: "In greyhounds as in other dogs, I strongly urge owners to try behavior modification techniques and only resort to anti-anxiety medication as a last resort. I recommend running a complete blood panel prior to starting these drugs and a repeat panel 1-2 weeks after starting them. I closely monitor liver enzymes as well as all the other organ functions. Some of the current drugs used are Prozac, Amytriptylline, Buspirone, and Inderal. This type of therapy is new and there is not much data out on reactions observed in greyhounds." Regardless of the drug or the dose regimen used, owners should be warned of the range of side effects, and it must be stressed that these drugs should be used temporarily3. The subject of separation anxiety comes up frequently on the Greyhound-l E-mail list and seems to afflict lone dogs. There is one cure to separation anxiety that has worked near miracles for the owners on that list, and that is the addition of a second dog into the household, preferably another Greyhound.

  1. University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine (Jan 1985)
  2. From Care of the Racing Greyhound
  3. Separation Anxiety in Dogs, Pilot Mt. Animal Hospital, Lynn McElroy D.V.M., July 1989