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Puppy Dog Eyes

By Samantha Boden
Posted On Sep 13, 2016
Puppy Dog Eyes

Is your dog really sad when you leave? A top pet behavioral scientist explains the bond between canines and humans. 

By Lisa Radosta, D.V.M., D.A.C.V.B.

My first appointment of the day is Simon, a cute-as-a-button Yorkie, brought to me due to the panic attacks he suffers when his owner departs. He’s full of energy and spunk, playing with toys and exploring the exam room while I talk to his owner, Joyce.

Simon has always followed Joyce around the house, but it has worsened with age. When she takes a shower, he’s there. When she walks outside, he’s at the window. If she stops short, he runs into her leg. When she leaves him alone, he cries, pants, runs frantically from door to window, and urinates on her family room rug. Joyce feels like a prisoner in her own home; only leaving when she has a dog sitter or when she can take Simon with her.

Joyce reports that she can’t even put on her shoes without sending Simon into a state. Simon has the ability to read his environment and associate events. He has paired cues that precede Joyce’s departure (putting on shoes, picking up keys) with her absence. Through classical conditioning (think Pavlov’s dog) the association is so strong that when Joyce grabs her keys, Simon has a full-blown panic attack.

While Simon’s behavior may appear to be an expression of love, he is in fact experiencing separation anxiety—a panic disorder that affects 20 percent of the dogs in the U.S. Dogs with this emotional disorder may be destructive; they could urinate, defecate, cry, bark, pant, and drool when they are left alone or can’t get to their owner. This generally gets progressively worse with age.

Any breed or age of dog can be affected. Some dogs, such as Simon, have a hereditary predisposition to this behavior. Others become affected after being adopted to a different owner or the passing of a family member. Still others will experience a traumatic incident such as a particularly bad thunderstorm while the owner is absent, causing separation anxiety to develop.

There are multiple, generally successful treatment options for separation anxiety. Because this is not a training problem, but instead a physiological reaction, obedience training is not a successful treatment. The treatment of separation anxiety includes teaching the dog to relax when you leave the house, pairing your departure and the cues that signal it with pleasurable experiences, adding structure to your interactions, eliminating punishment, and independence training. Often, anti-anxiety medications are prescribed to help avoid the panic attack as the owner works through the treatment plan. Medication may be temporary (four to six months) or long-term.

Because separation anxiety is a progressive disorder, if your dog is showing any signs of separation anxiety, contact your dog’s primary care veterinarian or a board certified veterinary behaviorist. And sooner than you thought possible, you’ll feel free in your home once more.