Why Do Rescue Dogs Have Separation Anxiety?

The fact that rescue dogs have separation anxiety is a known fact among shelter workers. Separation anxiety ranks high as a reason for relinquishment. Many dog owners adopt a dog from a shelter and come to notice the signs of separation anxiety, but do not know how to deal with them. This may lead to the dog being surrendered again. Knowing how to deal with this issue is important and often warrants professional help.

Do rescue dogs have separation anxiety because they were surrendered due to their separation anxiety in the first place or did they develop it as a result of being surrendered? This is sort of a chicken-and-egg question and it may be difficult sometimes to differentiate the two. 

If your rescue dog is showing signs of separation anxiety, it's important to tackle the issue correctly. Using the wrong strategies may only makes matters worse. Never punish a dog with separation anxiety: this will only exacerbate things. 

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<em>Separation anxiety is the second most common reason dogs are surrendered</em>

A Dog Surrendered for Separation Anxiety

Separation anxiety is a psychological disorder affecting dogs. Dogs develop a dysfunctional attachment to a particular person and develop anxiety attacks when separated from such person and left alone. 

A variation of separation anxiety is isolation distress which causes dogs to be terrified about being left alone away from any human. In isolation distress though affected dogs are comfortable as long as they are left in company of any human being. 

Regardless, separation anxiety remains a behavior problem that can be difficult for dog owners to face. When left alone, affected dogs tend to bark, whine, and howl which can be unnerving for many neighbors. 

On top of this, affected dogs may get so distressed that they may drool, urinate and defecate in the home and may even engage in destructive behaviors, typically under the form of chewing and digging through their enclosures or at windows and doors. 

Each year, countless dogs with separation anxiety are surrendered to shelters because dogs owners don't have the time, funds, patience or resources to help these dogs. When these dogs are surrendered, it's like passing a hot potato from hand to hand because new dog owners ultimately face the same problems. 

Overcoming separation anxiety is tough. And the worst thing is that surrendering a dog with separation anxiety only makes the problem worse. Surrendering a dog with separation anxiety and not disclosing it to the shelter may lead to the new owners surrendering the dog once again which may potentially lead to immediate euthanization in a high kill-shelter. 

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Being surrendered is a very anxiety-provoking situation for dogs

Onset of Separation Anxiety in Newly Rescued Dogs 

Being surrendered to a shelter can be a very traumatic experience for dogs. Their daily routines are gone, they no longer have a person they can depend on and this makes them feel very anxious and insecure. 

After being shifted around from place to place, surrendered dogs often feel quite confused and frustrated. Once placed in a new home setting, they may therefore become clingy and excessively attached. 

"The resulting destructive behavior is how they cope. What else can they do? They can’t call a friend or go out to have a drink," points our veterinarian and pet behaviorist Dr. Rhea Dodd in an article for Denver Post. 

Anything that can disrupt a dog's life can trigger the onset of separation anxiety, but being abandoned, surrendered to a shelter and being re-homed to a new family along with all the associated changes in schedules, is a known main culprit for the development of separation anxiety in dogs. 

There can of course be several other possible culprits. Other known culprits for the onset of separation anxiety in dogs include the death of a family member or enduring a traumatic event (such as witnessing a tornado or a robbery) . Old age and the onset of pain can sometimes also trigger separation anxiety. 

Interestingly, it has been found that there seems to be a connection between thunderstorm/noise phobias and separation anxiety. The co-existence of these issues in several dogs seem to suggest a comorbidity (simultaneous presence of two conditions).

In the majority of cases, a culprit can be found although there are cases where no distinct underlying cause can be found. There is a possibility that in some dogs suffering from separation anxiety there may be a genetic predisposition, although there is no hard data to suggest this.

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Several behavior issues may mimic separation anxiety

Differentials for Separation Anxiety in Dogs 

What may seem like separation anxiety, may not always be separation anxiety. There are several differential diagnosis (conditions that share similar signs) to rule out .

For example, dogs who are eliminating in the home when left alone, may be simply dogs who have never been truly housetrained or perhaps have medical conditions that might lead to soiling in the home when left alone for several hours. 

Dogs who chew items when left alone may be simply dogs who are bored and understimulated. These dogs may have learned to chew out of the owner's presence if doing so in front of the owner has led to them being reprimanded in the past. 

Some dogs, more than separation anxiety suffer from confinement distress, and tend to chew and scratch when confined in a crate or kennel. These dogs may have never been acclimated to being enclosed and may develop anxiety upon being confined in a small areas.

Due to the possibility of several differentials and the importance of the correct implementation of behavior modification, it's a good idea to consult with a dog behavior professional for help on the issue. 

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Chew toys and interactive, food-dispensing toys can help keep the mind occupied.

How to Help a Newly Adopted Dog With Separation Anxiety

There are several things dog owners can do should their rescued, shelter dog show signs of separation anxiety. Here are a few tips:

  • Record your dog's behavior when left alone. This can help you catch a glimpse as to what may be really going on. Setting up a video camera to capture the behavior of a dog for the initial 30 minutes to an hour upon being left alone can turn insightful.
  • Have a veterinarian or reputable behavior professional (Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist, veterinary behaviorist, dog trainer specializing in separation anxiety) look  at the video and provide guidance. 
  • Familiarize yourself with the process of counterconditioning and desensitization. These two methods are commonly used to help dogs cope with separation anxiety and absences.
  • Make sure your dog is under threshold. In other words, do your best to avoid exposing him to situations that cause the onset of the full intensity of separation anxiety. 
  • Consider keeping your dog in daycare or hiring a pet sitter if your dog gets distressed upon being left alone and does well in company of other people.
  • Practice exercises where your dog gets to stay at a distance away from you while you are home, with you being out of sight for very brief periods. The use of a baby gate or training your dog to "stay" is helpful. 
  • Avoid making your departures and arrivals emotional. The goal is to create the minimal contrast between when you are home versus gone. Just keep your arrivals/departures low key,  simply say “goodbye” and “hello" in a casual tone. 
  • Make great things happen contingent upon your departure. Your leaving time should come to represent release of some special long lasting treat that your dog looks forward to.
  • Use calming aids to help your dog. DAP diffusers and collars, calming music and calming supplements may help. Some severe cases may require medications from your veterinarian. 
  • Be patient. Behavior modification for separation anxiety takes time. You will likely need several days/weeks off work to implement gradual changes or helpers who can watch your dog when you are away.
  • And of course, hire a professional to help you out for support and guidance. Find one well-versed in treating separation anxiety cases. Malena DeMartini-Price offers now a special course for dog trainers to become certified in treating Separation Anxiety. 

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