Separation anxiety in dogs often a symptom of Fido’s underlying frustrations

LINCOLN, England — The dog lovers of the world have long preached of the complexity of pups, but now we all have scientific evidence to back up that claim as well. While dogs can appear one dimensional at first consideration, our faithful companions feel sad, happy, angry, and anxious just like the rest of us. That’s especially true when we leave the house for the day.

One of the most common forms of canine jitters is separation anxiety. Anyone who grew up with a dog knows what it can be like to leave a dog alone for a few hours. When separated from their loved ones, dogs tend to become terribly anxious, and often end up acting out by barking for hours on end. Some even take out their frustrations by destroying household items and relieving themselves indoors.

Typically, this behavior in dogs is viewed simplistically and characterized by the blanket term “separation anxiety.” Now, new research performed at Lincoln University finds that anxious behavior in dogs shouldn’t be simply defined, but looked at as a symptom of underlying frustrations. Identifying and understanding those root causes is going to be the best way to put canine companions at ease.

Today, most treatments for separation anxiety among dogs focuses on helping the pup get over the “pain of separation.” However, according to these findings, the pain of separation may not be what needs fixing at all. Basically, just like us humans, our dogs are complicated and a one-size-fits-all approach to canine anxiety isn’t going to work most of the time.

In all, the study’s authors have agreed upon four common reasons for anxious behavior in dogs when left alone; a desire to avoid something in the house, a desire to go outside, reactions to noises or events, and boredom. Yup, even dogs get bored.

Over 2,700 dogs were analyzed for this study, encompassing over 100 breeds.

“Until now, there has been a tendency to think of this as a single condition, i.e. ‘My dog has got separation anxiety’ and then to focus on the dependence on the owner and how to make them more independent. However, this new work indicates that having separation anxiety is more like saying ‘My dog’s got an upset tummy’ which could have many causes and take many forms, and so both assessment and treatment need to be much more focused,” comments Daniel Mills, Professor of Veterinary Behavioral Medicine in the School of Life Sciences at the University of Lincoln, in a release.

“If your dog makes themselves ill by chewing something it shouldn’t, you would need to treat it very differently to if it has picked up an infection. One problem might need surgery and the other antibiotics,” he adds. “Labelling the problem of the dog who is being destructive, urinating or defecating indoors or vocalizing when left alone as separation anxiety is not very helpful. It is the start of the diagnostic process, not the end. Our new research suggests that frustration in its various forms is very much at the heart of the problem and we need to understand this variety if we hope to offer better treatments for dogs.”

A dog’s emotional state plays a big role in all of this. While an owner leaving may trigger a dog to act out, it’s underlying factors like the dog’s temperament, relationship with his or her caregiver, and external frustrations that fuel the problem behavior.

The study is published in Frontiers in Veterinary Science.

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