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Ask Dr. Michael Salkin Your Own Question
Dr. Michael Salkin
Dr. Michael Salkin, Veterinarian
Category: Dog
Satisfied Customers: 33265
Experience:  University of California at Davis graduate veterinarian with 45 years of experience.
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My 19 month old cocker spaniel Bella, has started scratching

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My 19 month old cocker spaniel Bella, has started scratching and banging on the kitchen door in the middle of the night sporadically for the past two weeks and for the past two nights has pooed on the kitchen floor! Those two nights are the nights we did not go down to her. She is otherwise fit and healthy and is well loved by both myself and my partner (we have had her since she was 8 weeks old). I am with her all day, every day and she gets plenty of exercise and play times. She gets a little bit anxious at times, especially if I have to leave her alone for a couple of hours to go shopping. The night time episodes are totally out of character. Any suggestions please. Thank you.
Aloha! You're speaking to Dr. Michael Salkin
I'm sorry that your question wasn't answered in a timely manner. There may be both a medical and behavior problem to consider. If the kitchen door leads to the outside, Bella may be experiencing an urgency to defecate and is asking to be let out. If the kitchen door leads to you, she may be experiencing an urgency to defecate and is attempting to reach you to be let out. In these cases, her evening meal or nighttime treats should be re-evaluated.

Because you've noticed that separation anxiety exists in Bella, we also have to consider that she's also exhibiting that anxiety when separated from you at night. Inappropriate eliminative behavior is common in association with this type of anxiety. Behavioral reconditioning, however, shouldn't be attempted until a medical disorder is eliminated as the etiology of her behavior. This would entail re-evaluating what she's been eating - particularly in the evening - and a thorough physical exam including a fecal ova and parasite exam (or presumptive worming). Separation anxiety therapy should be tailored to the individual patient by a specialist veterinary behaviorist as can be found here: Here's a very general synopsis of this behavior not all of which is pertinent to Bella:

"When a dog has a very close relationship with a family member, it may become anxious when it suddenly loses access to that person. Anxiety-based problems, including separation anxiety, tend to occur with increased frequency and intensity in the adult/older pet dog population. Situations such as changes in the family members' work schedule or returning to work after a long stay at home can lead to this type of problem. The dog with a separation anxiety problem may show signs of either increased activity and anxiety (pacing, restlessness, whining) or depression (lying around, reluctance to move or eat) as the owner prepares to leave. These behaviors often begin as the pet becomes aware of predeparture cues, such as putting on a coat, reaching for keys, or picking up a briefcase. When the owner returns home, the dog usually exhibits high levels or arousal and may show exaggerated greeting behaviors. Separation anxiety can also occur when the owner becomes involved in an activity or relationship that takes a significant amount of attention away from the pet at home. The anxiety then becomes a driving force for excessive vocalization, self-mutilation, destructive behavior, or housesoiling. An important clue that differentiates separation anxiety-related housesoiling from other causes is that these pets will often eliminate in the home every time the owner leaves, even when the absence is of very short duration, and in spite of the fact that the pet has eliminated in an appropriate area just prior to the owner's departure.

Treatment involves desensitization to predeparture cues and gradually accustoming the dog to separation from the owner. If the owner can provide a dramatic increase in daily exercise, this will usually have a calming effect. Enriching the pet's environment (rubber toys stuffed with treats) or distractions (another pet, radio) may help, although some dogs experience such high anxiety that food and distractions are ignored. During the early stages of treatment, a small confinement area, a pet sitter, or boarding may be necessary and general principles of housetraining should be followed. Drug therapy with tricyclic antidepressants (clomipramine, amitriptyline) an benzodiazepines (clorazepate, alprazolam) may be helpful when the anxiety is intense.

Please see my essay below for a more formal approach to separation anxiety and respond with further questions or concerns if you wish.

The discussion of separation anxiety is exhaustive - lectures I've attended encompass hours on this problematic behavior alone. I can, however, give you a synopsis of its management that should be helpful. If possible it would be best if you could have a board certified animal behaviorist come to your home to better evaluate the dynamics that exist there.

Step 1) Change the relationship - Teach Bella independence. She should not be allowed to get attention on demand. When she gets what he wants every time she nudges or whines, she is more likely to be anxious when she is alone and can't get social attention. You can give her attention when you so desire but it must always be on your terms, not Bella's.

Step 2) Departures and predeparture cues - Departures should be kept as calm as possible. The presence of certain departure cues will typically create anxiety about an impending absence of you. Bella should be desensitized to those cues that can't be avoided during departure. You should repeatedly pick up the car keys, open, shut, and handle the door, put on a coat or pick up a briefcase so that Bella habituates to these cues and they lose their strength in eliciting anxiety. Placing her in her cage, locking it in the kitchen, or opening and shutting the door are events that Bella should be constantly exposed to when you're at home, during sit-stay and reward training sessions. Until Bella has been desensitized to these cues, they should be avoided whenever possible during actual departures. Putting jacket and boots on in a different room, leaving a briefcase, handbag or key in the garage, and leaving through a different door while Bella is otherwise occupied or distracted can greatly help reduce departure anxiety. Cues that are commonly associated with calmness, food, and your presence can be provided during departure to reduce anxiety. During departures, a TV, radio, or videotape can be left on, or Bella can be provided with a favorite blanket to lie on. Some owners do not understand the principles of these techniques so that the dog is placed in a cage or a radio turned on only when the owner leaves, so that these cues become associated with anxiety and departure, not calmness.

Step 3) Greetings - Homecoming should be kept very low key and Bella should be ignored until she is calm.

Step 4) Obedience - Teach "sit", "down" and "stay" commands so you can begin teaching Bella to tolerate being alone.

Step 5) Teach the pet to be alone - phase 1 - This phase should begin with Bella staying for a very short period before accompanying you to various rooms throughout the home. Gradually, she should be required to stay for longer periods of time, until she will remain in another room for 30-60 minutes or more.

Step 6) Teach the pet to be alone - phase 2 - After Bella has been desensitized to the departure cues, you should practice short mock departures. You should initially leave for a very short period of only a few seconds to a few minutes. The duration should be shorter than the time in which it takes Bailey to show signs of anxiety. Periods can be lengthened gradually as she responds without associated anxiety. The duration of departure should be lengthened on a variable schedule, so that she can't predict exactly how long you'll be gone.

Step 7) Exercise - Lots of aerobic exercise should be provided.

Step 8) Distractions - Bella may be less anxious when she has something to do while left alone. Highly stimulating toys should be provided. New chew toys, food chews (pigs' ears, rawhide) or strongly motivating food pieces hidden in the toys, such as meat or cheese may get her interest. These treats can be hidden inside toys so that they are difficult to remove, in packages that she must open, or hidden under bowls around the home. In rare situations, having another pet will provide a playmate (or distraction) for a dog.

Step 9) Confinement - May result in increased anxiety unless Bella is already accustomed to confinement. Acclimating a pet to confinement should be done gradually. If this is not practical, anxiolytic medication (benzodiazepines, TCAs, SSRIs, buspirone) or D.A.P./Adaptil may be useful.

Step 10) Punishment - Punishment should be avoided as should any other treatment modality that might cause anxiety.

Step 11) Hormones/Drugs - Dog Appeasing Hormone (D.A.P./Adaptil available online) may reduce anxiety, especially in primary hyperattachment disorders. Tricyclic antidepressants such as clomipramine (Clomicalm from his vet) are a good choice for chronic anxiety problems and have proven efficacy in clinical trials. Fluoxetine or other SSRIs may be an effective alternative. Benzodiazepines such as alprazolam and clorazepate may also be useful for immediate control of severely affected pets, especially those that have panic attacks. Other drugs such as barbiturates, propranolol, buspirone, and phenothiazines may also be helpful adjuncts to behavioral therapy techniques. However, on their own, they are rarely successful for treating severely affected pets.

As you can imagine, this behavior is difficult to address. I'm hopeful with your understanding this behavior better and by following the guidelines presented above you'll help her address her anxiety. We should see positive results within 6 weeks. The prognosis is poor for dogs who don't respond within that time frame."

Please respond with further questions or concerns if you wish.
Dr. Michael Salkin and 2 other Dog Specialists are ready to help you
Thank you for your kind accept. I appreciate it.

I'm going to check back with you in a few weeks for an update. Feel free to return to our conversation - even after rating - prior to my contacting you if you wish.

Please disregard the info request.