Kate Voss is a freelance writer who researched audio and visual therapies to help her dog with separation anxiety. She wrote this and sent it to me to share with you. — Jan Rasmusen
Canine separation anxiety can occur in any dog regardless of breed, age or background. Symptoms may include pacing, inappropriate chewing, destructiveness, panic, exaggerated excitement upon greeting, excess barking and whining and/or increased urination.
Veterinarian Dr. Lynne M. Seibert, DVM, MS, PhD, Diplomat ACVB, describes canine separation anxiety as, “a distress response to separation from an attachment figure or being alone. Its prevalence in the canine population is estimated to be about 15-17 percent. It is the second most common presenting complaint in behavior specialty practices.”
When a dog experiences separation anxiety, there are a few things dog owners can do to help ease their dog’s distress and reinforce improved behavior within the home. Exercising your dog is known to increase their serotonin levels, which allows your dog to appropriately release their energy and concentrate less on anxiety. It also encourages napping while owners are away, which is less stressful than remaining awake and on edge. However, mental stimulation is believed to be equally important. Dog trainers and veterinarians have claimed that audio and video techniques can not only help ease canine separation anxiety, but also can be used to aid in training efforts.
Audio stimulation, such as Through a Dog’s Ear, incorporates music therapy to “prevent and treat canine anxiety.” The science behind Through a Dog’s Ear focuses on bioacoustic research which is defined as the study of sound in non-human animals. Two pilot studies were performed: one to “mine the efficacy of external rhythm and pattern identification on canines,” and one to determine if music would have an effect on specific anxiety issues in canines including fear of separation, thunderstorms, and fireworks. The results showed that in the home environment, slower music calmed on average 85 percent of the dogs, with over 50 percent of them falling asleep. In the second study, 70 percent of anxiety behaviors were reduced with “psycho acoustically designed music.”
Another study discussing bioacoustic research found that “Seventy percent of anxieties in dogs were reduced when they listened to relaxing piano music.” In addition, a 2001 study by American Veterinary Medical Association found that “exposure of dogs to different types of noise may not only reduce their noise phobias but also their fear of abandonment.”
It seems that the research behind auditory stimulation on dogs proves sound can be effective on the majority of dogs. Still, it is important to note that not every dog is affected by the audio stimulation. There have also been advancements in what is known regarding the effect of visual stimulation on dogs. Though it is a common ritual for some dog owners to turn on the television before they leave home, it is still unclear if dogs actually watch television, or at least if they are perceiving it in the same way humans do. And if dogs do watch TV, can it treat canine separation anxiety?
A new television network specifically with dogs in mind, DOGTV, currently only available on DirecTV, offers 24/7 programming organized into “3 to 6 minutes of relaxing, stimulating and behavior-improving segments that work collaboratively to provide just the right balance for the daily routines of our beloved ‘stay-at-home’ dogs.” DOGTV claims that the channel is “scientifically developed to provide the right company for dogs when left alone.”
That description, though, isn’t very clear as to what exactly DOGTV attempts to do. Combining audio and video stimulation for dogs seems like it would be a powerful technique in aiding canine separation anxiety. However, the website offers only sparse information and a commercial-sounding explanation of the science behind the television programs for dogs, so, as a dog owner, I felt more research on the effect of television on dogs was needed.
According to a 2010 study by the University of Bristol, “play and playback of sounds and picture at the age of eight weeks and significantly reduce stress and anxiety in dogs.” Not only did the young dogs respond to video images, but it also helped expose the dogs to stressful situations, improving their training and reactions to otherwise stressful stimuli. By exposing a dog to video, especially in their young age, you may be aiding to your training methods and also decreasing your dog’s future stress and anxiety.
However, according to TV dog trainer Victoria Stilwell, who helped to create DOGTV, leaving a regular tv channel on for dogs can actually have a detrimental effect on dogs because they never get to experience an auditory break. DOGTV, on the other hand, claims to have designed the programming to cater to the attributes of a dog’s sense of hearing, insisting the shows are “tailored to a dog’s sensitive hearing and are kept within a specific range of frequencies that won’t startle or annoy their ears.”
While it is clear that dogs respond to audio stimuli, and that puppies will respond to visual stimuli, little is known on the true effects on visual stimuli in adult dogs. And, according to Prof. Lee Niel, from the Ontario Veterinary College at the University of Guelph, “While there are some recent studies showing that dogs can detect images on a newer type of television screen, we don’t know if they are actually able to comprehend these types of 2-D images.”
With a great amount of research on the topic, especially on bioacoustics, it could be deduced that slow-paced audio and (in some cases) video stimulation in dogs does indeed positively affect some dogs with separation anxiety. However, it is important to note that all dogs do not equally respond to mental stimulation — some dogs may react negatively to audio or video stimulation, such as barking at the TV screen, and some may not react at all.
It is also important to note that mental stimulation should not replace human interaction, ever! Making sure you spend quality time with your dog while you are home is a contributing factor to your dog’s improved condition. And before investing in an audio or video “therapy” technique for your dog, test their attention to these stimuli first. If your dog responds noticeably well to soothing music or a quiet television show, investing in DOGTV or Through a Dog’s Ear may just be the solution you need to help ease your dog’s separation anxiety.
Note from Jan: In Culture Clash, an excellent book on understanding dogs by Jean Donaldson, she talks about the common practice of keeping a radio on for dogs “to keep them company” and thus alleviate separation anxiety. She writes: “It is important to understand that it is not the radio, per se that relaxes the dog but it’s reliable pairing with tolerable levels of aloneness that establish it as relaxing.” In other words, it takes the teaming of food with the ringing of Pavlov’s bells that caused dogs to salivate at the ringing.
I eased separation anxiety in one of my dogs by practicing leaving. That is, I’d leave for a few seconds and come back. No big deal. Then I’d go for 15 seconds, then 30 seconds, then a minute and so on. I practiced leaving — including putting on shoes, picking up keys, etc. — for various lengths of time numerous times a day for several weeks. I never returned unless barking had stopped for 10 seconds. It didn’t take long for my dog to relax; he has been fine since.
Want to monitor what your dog does when you’re gone to see when/if separation anxiety kicks in? A friend who rescues little special-needs dogs told me she has installed Dropcams to monitor her dogs when she is away. Dropcam calls itself “a cloud-based Wi-Fi video monitoring service with free live streaming, two-way talk and remote viewing that makes it easy to stay connected with places, people and pets, no matter where you are.” Check it out here. Belkin also makes an inexpensive webcam.
Smithsonian.com has an article about a new product that will soon be available to video chat with your dog. It will even deliver treats. Will it help alleviate separation anxiety? Who knows?