Separation anxiety study: Pick up the keys and pet your dog

Coming home at the end of a rough day to be greeted joyously at the door by your dog is one of life’s great joys. And the more he jumps for joy at the sight of you, the better it feels.

But it might not feel so good to him.

The happier your dog is to see you after you’ve been away for a while, the more likely it is that he may suffer from some degree of separation anxiety.

Separation anxiety is a serious problem in dogs, and its effects go beyond barking, soiling the floors, or chewing on things: Separation anxiety is one of the main reasons owners get frustrated with their dogs and give them up for rehoming.

Worse, research suggests that giving them up can exacerbate the problem if the anxiety isn’t treated; rehomed dogs who were relinquished because of untreated separation anxiety are more likely to be relinquished again.

The conventional wisdom is to desensitize anxious dogs to signs of imminent departure, but that can get complicated: If he gets nervous when he sees signs you’re about to leave, like putting on your shoes or picking up your keys, suggestions include doing both those things, but then don’t leave. Instead, put on your shoes and sit down at the table. Pick up your keys and watch TV. Do this over and over many times a day.

Wait, don’t leave yet. We’re not done desensitizing.

When your dog starts to feel less anxious about those signs, you can slowly start to disappear. Slowly. First, just move to the other side of the door. Ask your dog to stay, then close an inside door between you. Reappear after a few seconds. Slowly increase the amount of time you’re gone. Ask your dog to stay while you go into another room.

But there are problems with this advice: This approach hasn’t actually been clinically tested, and it runs the very real risk of sensitizing the dog to these new cues. Not to mention that by the time you actually leave, say, for work, it would be time to come home.

So, what are your dog-owning clients to do (especially when they’re running late)? According to a new pilot study published in the Journal of Veterinary Behavior, they should pet their dogs.

It could be as simple as that.

The study looked at the effects of gentle petting on dogs’ response to separation. Being a pilot study, only 10 dogs were enrolled. The two-part study took place in a field—a neutral location.

In part one, owners spent one minute gently petting their dogs before going away and leaving them with a researcher. In part two, owners ignored their dogs for one minute before going away and leaving them with a researcher.

In both cases, the owners’ absences lasted for three minutes, during which they left and stood behind a shed, where their dogs couldn’t see or smell them. Meanwhile, the researchers stood still, holding the dogs by the leash until it was time to call the owners back.

The researchers noted the dogs’ behavior, heartrate, and salivary cortisol levels before and after their owners’ absence.

Low cortisol levels and general behavior indicated that the dogs weren’t highly stressed by the separation in either part of the study. But when owners petted the dogs before leaving, the dogs’ behavior was calmer during the absence, and their heartrates were lower afterward.

The researchers concluded that the pilot study “suggests that petting a dog before a brief separation from the owner may have a positive effect, making the dog calmer during the separation itself.”

So if you have to leave, pick up those keys and get to petting.

Photo credit: © iStock/Petar Mulaj

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