Curse of the working class: Canine separation anxiety (Proceedings) - Veterinary Healthcare


Curse of the working class: Canine separation anxiety (Proceedings)


The owners should move the mat around to different areas of the house and even outside when they want to work with the dog there. When the dog is on the mat for a longer period of time, they should give the dog a treat, preferably long lasting.

Initiate a departure program - The owners should next go outside for periods so short that the anxiety is not evoked. When the dog starts to become more comfortable it can be left for gradually longer periods of time. A food reward is again introduced upon departures. Progress on departures will be slow at first, increasing by only very gradual steps: 1,2,1,2,3,2,1,4,2,5--minutes. Later the steps will be much greater after the dog can be left alone for 30 minutes (e.g., 30,45,15,60,45,30,60,75-minutes). On their days off work owners should continue the departure program.

Downplay departures - The owners should downplay their departures. Actually ignore the dog completely for 15 minutes before they leave and after they return home.

Medication - An anti-anxiety drug such as fluoxetine or clomipramine may be useful to facilitate desensitization, but does not by itself solve the problem.

Fears of Loud Noises (Thunderstorms, Fireworks, and Gunshots)

Although most dogs are habituated to the stimuli of loud noises during development, if such habituation does not occur, pronounced fears may be seen. Fears may also be acquired through an adverse experience.

Typical History

It is important to establish the specific stimulus that evokes the fear. Fear responses are often enhanced because owners try to comfort the dog and give it extra attention at the time of fear. If the fear is acquired, it may be impossible to determine what, in particular, caused the reaction if the fear is acquired. Just one experience with a strong stimulus may induce a fear reaction (e.g., being caught outside in a very bad thunderstorm).


The main diagnostic challenge is to determine the specific stimulus that evokes the fear reaction.

Treatment Guidelines

Avoid fear-evoking situations - Attempt to avoid evoking full-blown fear reactions while therapy is continuing. This may be difficult. If the stimuli involved are seasonal (firecrackers, thunderstorms), desensitize during the off season and use a short-acting anti-anxiety drug (e.g. diazepam) when the aversive stimuli cannot be avoided.

Stop all comforting of the fear - Owners should act indifferent when a dog exhibits fear, to inadvertently avoid reinforcing the behavior.

Desensitization - Determine the starting point of the desensitization gradient. Desensitization takes place while gradually increasing the intensity of the fear-inducing stimulus over many sessions. For fear of thunderstorms or gunshots, methods of varying the stimulus intensity include use of thunderstorm recordings, and multiple nested boxes for gunshot or firecracker phobias. Test the training stimulus at full strength to be certain it does evoke the fear. Schedule daily training and conduct training sessions at the same time each day (before feeding). The time of day should be varied after initial desensitization.

Countercondition a positive emotional reaction - Give food treats and/or affection when a mild form of the fear stimulus is presented, and the dog shows desirable behavior.

Medication - On some occasions, an anti-anxiety drug such as fluoxetine or clomipramine, may be helpful to facilitate desensitization.

Example of thunderstorm anxiety

Play a recording at a volume below fear threshold for 10-15 minute sessions while the dog is sitting. Give food treats periodically during the recording, especially after a thunder clap. Alternatively, start a recording and give food treats at a loud sound; turn off and repeat. Hold multiple daily sessions, and more frequently on weekends. Periodically increase volume slightly. Later in the training, by stages, add a darkened room, a strobe light, and spray water on the windows. After desensitization is complete, occasionally expose dog to artificial storms to maintain desensitization. During the therapeutic program avoid actual exposure to thunderstorms or give anti-anxiety drugs to block the anxiety reaction.


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