When I left my dog Harper with a pet sitter recently while I was at a conference, I didn’t have too many concerns. Harper is a cavalier King Charles spaniel, a breed that’s known for being friendly and outgoing. A cavalier’s motto is usually “Love the one you’re with.”
But when I called later in the day to find out how things were going, I received the surprising and unwelcome news that Harper was barking nonstop when she was left alone. She was fine if the pet sitter was there, but even pet sitters have to leave the house sometimes, and Harper was not pleased about being crated in her absence.
Dogs who break housetraining, chew destructively – especially at doors and windows – or bark or howl in distress when left alone aren’t necessarily being bad, according to the upcoming book “From Fearful to Fear Free” (scheduled for publication in April 2018). They may be suffering from separation anxiety.
“Besides being noisy or destructive, dogs with separation anxiety may drool excessively, pace, lick themselves incessantly, or refuse to eat or drink,” write co-authors Dr. Marty Becker, Dr. Lisa Radosta, Dr. Wailani Sung and Mikkel Becker.
I never thought of Harper as having separation anxiety, but then I remembered last year’s visit to my parents’ house. I left for a few hours to go visit a friend, thinking Harper would be fine since she was familiar with the house and my family. When I returned, it was to a report that Harper had started barking as soon as I left, had diarrhea and then parked herself on the stairs to stare at the front door.
My dogs learn from an early age how to be comfortable when left alone. We start by leaving them crated for short periods, gradually increasing the amount of time we’re gone. They always get a treat when we leave so that our departure is a positive experience, and returns are low-key to encourage the dog to remain calm.
Although she still looks and acts like a puppy, Harper’s 10th birthday was last month. Was her change in behavior due to advancing age, I wondered? Veterinary behaviorist Dr. Sung says that’s not necessarily the cause, noting that only a small percentage of the cases of separation anxiety she sees involve older animals. But separation anxiety can occur at any age and may be related to changes in the dog’s life.
“When the family or owner schedule gets disrupted, the animals have more difficulty adjusting, and sometimes they become gradually distressed over time,” she said in an email interview.
Harper has had a stressful year, no doubt about it. She made several flights (in the cabin), including overseas trips, underwent open-heart surgery and the ensuing recovery period, and experienced a change in our household when our 17-year-old dog Gemma died in September. Any one of those, let alone all of them, could have been enough to make her anxious in new situations.
For pets with mild cases of separation anxiety, Dr. Sung has some advice.
“Maintain the same schedule and routine,” she says. “Provide both physical and mental exercise through walks and food-dispensing puzzle toys.”
The times that Harper has expressed signs of separation anxiety are when she has been left at places other than her regular pet sitter and without the support of one of our other dogs. Her signs aren’t serious enough to require medication, especially since it’s unlikely that she’ll experience these particular situations again, but it can help dogs with more severe cases be able to relax enough so that behavior modification under the guidance of an experienced trainer or a veterinary behaviorist can have an effect.
Pet Connection is produced by a team of pet-care experts headed by veterinarian Dr. Marty Becker and journalist Kim Campbell Thornton, affiliated with Vetstreet.com.