Chateau Canine Learning: Separation Related Behavior (SRB)
No one knows your dog better than you. Chateau Canine’s philosophy is the more tools available in the toolbox the better the craftsperson. Our training programs are designed to give owners an understanding of as many of the tools available as possible, allowing them to make an informed choice regarding what they feel is the best way to shape their dog’s behavior.
SRB is a common condition experienced by owners who after initially adopting/buying a dog and spending a lot of time with it, cannot maintain that amount of time over the medium to long term. This is due to very normal reasons like “going back to work” or “going back to school”. In addition, rescue dogs with a relatively traumatic background who are adopted into a “happy household” can also experience similar issues as they now understand the “good life” and have a fear of losing it.
Reducing and / or removing SRB from the dog’s psyche is not an easy task, it requires time, patience and awareness from the owner. There are short term actions that can be taken to help the situation, but they do not fix the situation.
Few dogs suffering from SRB exhibit all of the signs listed below but most show more than one. Diagnosis of this behaviour problem is ONLY made by identifying a CLUSTER of signs that are exhibited ONLY when the dog believes it does not have access to its ‘significant other’. The dog may be attached to another dog within the household but is more likely to be over attached to human family member. General destruction around the house or chewing or crying does not fit the diagnosis for SRB.
Below is a list of common signs, seen in dogs with SRB;
- Vocalisation: barking, whining, howling
- Destructive behaviour: often directed at perceived barriers, such as the back door
- Destructive chewing: often directed at perceived barriers or items associated with the owner, such as pillows, shoes, clothing, bed.
- Self-injury / mutilation
- Inappropriate urination and / or defecation from a toilet trained dog
- Excessive greetings
- ‘Clingy’ behaviour
- Pre-departure restlessness
- Loss of appetite: may even include high value foods. Generally eaten when owner returns
- Trembling, panting, increased heart rate, salivation, diarrhoea
Detailed and precise history taking are essential tools in accurately diagnosing any problematic behaviour. Nanny cams and in-house security cameras are now commonplace and can be an excellent way to get a better handle on precisely the behavior which is occurring while you are not at home. Try not to guess, and we all know what they say about people who ASSUME…
Behaviour modification of dogs with SRB is a very lengthy and detailed process. It is important for owners to understand the commitment and potential time required, to undertake the treatment process.
When dealing with dogs with SRB, we have 5 main strategies that are commonly used. These are:
- Quick fixes (but don’t solve the inherent problem)
- Decrease anxiety
- Increase independence
- Decrease dependence
- Improve leadership
During the treatment process, it is critical for owners to be consistent and also mindful about inadvertently reinforcing inappropriate behavior. Owners must be made aware of the importance of praising correct responses and ignoring or punishing incorrect responses. In saying that however, it is not recommended to punish a dog for exhibiting SRB. In many cases, this only increases anxiety and makes the problem worse.
Apart from re-homing or euthanizing the dog, the only real options in this case are to:
- Leave the dog with a friend
- Leave the dog with a dog sitter
- Enrol the dog in ‘doggy day care’
- Take the dog with the owner
This is only a bandaid solution and will not actually help the dog to overcome the issue.
Some of the below may reduce anxiety, always consider the dog’s individual circumstances.
- Reduce over enthusiastic greeting behavior by ignoring the dog until it is calm. This is often difficult for owners and requires consistency and patience.
- Reduce the intensity of the owner – dog relationship by reducing the amount of patting / stroking / cuddling, etc. This can be easier said than done for owners that are co- dependent on their dogs.
- Relaxation exercises and cues
- Obedience training, to facilitate communication and enable owners to incorporate into behavior modification.
- Environmental enrichment.
- Get another dog.
- Give dog food, toy or bone on departure. Especially toys which involve chewing and physical interaction.
- Leave TV or radio on.
- Leave dog in an area that it considers safe and relaxing; some examples could include: crate, inside house, owners room, car (where suitable).
- Leave dog with an item that contains the owner’s scent.
- Anti-anxiety medication prescribed by a Vet. These drugs are reported to make behaviour modification occur 2 – 3 times faster
- Natural therapies such as; Homeopathy, Bach Flower Essences, etc.
- Dog Appeasing Pheromone (Adaptil). This is a plug-in diffuser that mimics the pheromones a dam gives out, shortly after whelping
Desensitization to pre-departure cues. Dogs who suffer from SRB may begin exhibiting problematic behavior, even before their owners have actually departed. By observing daily routines and rituals, they learn that specific cues may ‘predict’ a subsequent separation. These cues may include picking up keys / brief case / wallet, putting on work shoes, drawing curtains, turning off lights, packing bag, etc. The dog begins to experience anxiety and restlessness; pacing and ‘clingy’ behavior are commonly seen at this stage.
We begin the process of reducing reactivity to these cues by:
- Putting the dog outside (or in the area where dog is to remain) 30 minutes before departure, to prevent them from observing routines / cues and becoming anxious. It is suggested that the owner does not interact with dog after this time. The issue with this technique is that there is generally still some observable ritual that the owner undertakes. Remember that dogs look for patterns!
- Desensitize the dog to pre-departure cues that are relevant to the owner’s household and desensitize the dog to normal departure activities until the dog exhibits no response. This involves owners replicating the daily routines they perform before going to school, work, etc.
- The key in the early stages of training, is that the owner does not actually leave. This is done once the dog exhibits no reaction to the stimuli. This is a slow and gradual process, where appropriate behavior is reinforced, and inappropriate behavior is generally ignored. Due to the fact that there is an attention seeking and highly emotional element to SRB, reaction to problematic behavior can inadvertently reinforce the problem.
Graduated Departure Techniques. These techniques should be continued at each step until the dog exhibits no response to the stimuli. Here, our aim is to teach the dog that the owner will always come back and they can cope on their own. As with all behavior modification using desensitization, the process is very slow and requires patience and owner dedication.
Once again, we begin by not actually leaving the dog alone. This only occurs once the dog is responding well to the initial stages of training.
A critical point at this stage is to NEVER return to the dog, if it is exhibiting SRB. This only sends the message that the dog will get what it wants, if it behaves badly. We need for the dog to understand that it only gets what it wants, when it is calm and non-reactive.
Below are the steps we would use in this process:
- Go to the door, open it and sit down
- Step outside the door, leave it open, then return
- Step outside the door, close the door and then return
- Repeat the above steps until the dog shows no signs of distress
- Begin short duration absences, slowly and methodically extending over time. Praise appropriate behavior and ignore poor behavior. Remember to never return, if the dog is not quiet and / or is reactive.
While we do not want to do anything that could be ‘bond diminishing’, we do want to eliminate unhealthy dependence. The primary focus in this area is to create balanced relationships, where the dog does not see any one person as the ‘center of its universe’.
A key strategy for achieving this is for all members of the family to share the care of the dog. A single individual should not be the sole carer, in a multi-person household. Tasks such as feeding, grooming and walking, should be shared and randomly assigned. It is also valuable if owners alternate the responsibilities, so that there is no possibility for new over-dependence to form.
In order to further reduce the dog’s dependence, it is beneficial to teach the dog that it cannot have constant access to its owner. We all encourage people to spend quality time with their dogs and make them a healthy member of their family, however many owners fall into the routine of having their dog with them at all times, once they have arrived home.
While this situation is suitable for the average dog, it is detrimental to dogs with SRB. Dogs must learn that it is okay for them to be alone or away from their owner and even if the dog is in the same room, they should not be allowed to have uninterrupted contact. Methods to assist us in this area include:
- Ensuring that the dog spends periods of time without access to the owner, even though they are home. As with graduated departure techniques, we would start off with very short periods of time and increase accordingly. Once again, never letting the dog back inside, if it is reactive
- To teach the dog to remain on bed / mat / crate. This prevents the dog from following owners around the house and establishes firm ground rules
Dogs suffering from SRB commonly exhibit attention seeking behaviors. They can be very ‘clingy’ and attempt to control their owners by demanding to be noticed. In some cases, dogs develop dependency issues because the owner is also reliant on the dog. This can make behavior modification difficult, as owners see treatment strategies as unfair or compromising to their relationship with their dog.
Confident leadership and assertive handling help to greatly improve SRB and give control back to the owner. They also assist in reducing the anxiety of the dog by keeping a calm and relaxed environment, where the alpha dog assumes control.
In regard to treating SRB, the most common strategies in regard to establishing leadership are as follows;
- Obedience training
- Owner to initiate all contact
- Assertive handling
- Ignore all attempts at attention seeking