Can medication help your dog overcome separation anxiety?

October 12, 2023

Medication can be a game changer when given alongside a behaviour modification plan for separation anxiety, but a lot of people are still reluctant to use medication, feeling it will change their dog’s personality in some way, or that they feel their dog should be able to overcome their separation anxiety ‘on their own’. And I understand having concerns. However, a lot of the concerns I hear about medication are unfounded or incorrect, so lets look at some of the myths surrounding the use of behavioural medication, and how it can actually help your dog!

Medication is extensively researched

All medications, including behavioural medication, will have been extensively researched and tested to ensure they are safe, and the medication used most commonly in relation to separation anxiety (and the one that about 85% of my clients’ dogs are on with great success) are extremely well tolerated in dogs, with minimal to no side effects experienced most of the time.

Now yes, ALL medication will have reported side effects. Every single medication prescribed for humans or animals will have a list of side effects. But these HAVE to be published by law, and it absolutely does not mean that every individual who takes that drug will experience those side effects.  Side effects are rarely experienced with the most commonly used medication for separation anxiety, and if they are, they are very mild and very short lived. Certainly not sufficient to put you off!

“I don’t like the idea of giving my dog drugs”

My reply to this is simple…..if your dog had a medical condition diagnosed, or injured themselves and was in pain, you most likely would not think twice if the vet prescribed medication that will help your dog.

And if you as a human were struggling with pain, or anxiety, or another medical condition, you would seek help from the doctor and, most likely, take medication that the doctor advised.

So why should this be different with our animals? If they are struggling with anxiety, why shouldn’t we do all that we can to help them? Remember – medication is there to HELP!

Medication will NOT change your dog’s personality

A common concern with medication is that it will sedate the dog or change their personality in some way. If the dose is right for your dog, their personality will not change in any way!

Depending on your dog’s general anxiety levels, medication may enable them to relax, and it is possible for people to confuse that with lethargy (remember, a lot of anxious dogs find it really difficult to relax!), so be sure to not confuse what is a normal sleeping pattern for a dog, with lethargy due to medication.

Medication is NOT a magic wand!

Medication must be given alongside a behavioural modification plan in order to be successful. If you give your dog medication with the hope that their separation anxiety will subside, then you will be very disappointed! Hence why most vets will not prescribe behavioural medication unless you are, or are going to be, working on a behaviour modification plan/separation anxiety protocol with a professional.

“Treatment with medication sped the rate at which dogs acquired calmer behaviours through behaviour modification” (K. Overall, 2013, P. 248)

Medication can help your dog cope with and manage stress more effectively, react less to certain triggers or stressors (e.g if your dog is sound sensitive), recover from stressful situation more easily and quicker, and medication can optimise learning.

BUT it is NOT a magic wand – drugs alone will NOT solve your dog’s separation anxiety!

Giving medication does NOT mean you have failed

Separation anxiety is hard. Hard for the humans working through it, but most definitely hard for the dog who is experiencing that phobia (yes – it IS a phobia). We are changing emotions, and in the same way it does with humans, this takes time, and there are multiple external variables and stressors that can affect how your dog copes and progresses. If medication is suggested or prescribed, it is absolutely not anything to do with lack of effort, and 100% does not mean you have failed.

What it DOES mean is that you are recognising the many nuances that are involved in working through separation anxiety, and that it is not as simple as just getting your dog used to being alone. It also means you are doing the absolute best you can for your dog, and optimising chances of success.

Medication should NOT be seen as a ‘last resort’

In fact, in my opinion, medication should be considered at the beginning. Working through a separation anxiety protocol is so much more than ‘training’ (you will notice through this blog I have not once used the commonly used term ‘separation anxiety training’!), and it is important it should not be considered as something that we need to ‘train’ our dog to do (like a recall or a lie down), but instead a situation whereby we need to understand and address the underlying emotions driving the fear response to being alone. This takes skill, knowledge, understanding, and also recognition of the many variables that can affect a dog’s ability to progress.

If a dog is experiencing anxiety in other areas of their life, as well as when left alone, that is going to affect their ability to even be able to start to learn that being home alone is safe. So rather than trying for months without medication, why not get it on board early on so that we optimise chances of success for your dog, and optimise your dog’s ability to learn that absences are safe.

D. Mills et al (2015) discovered that following treatment with a behaviour modification plan and a commonly used medication, “dogs with SRP (separation related problems) not only improved their behaviour when alone, but also showed an apparent improvement in the initial pessimistic affective state associated with the potential availability of rewards, at other times” (P. 10).

The effectiveness of ‘natural remedies’ are not backed by science

A lot of people feel more comfortable trying the more ‘natural’ approaches to addressing anxiety in dogs to start with – ie the remedies that are available without a prescription and have no pharmaceutical elements to them.  I tend to put these into the category of “cant hurt, could help”, but honestly I have never known them make any significant different with dogs who have anxiety. They certainly wont do any harm, and can be a beneficial part of a holistic approach, but, please do not expect these remedies to be a suitable replacement for pharmaceuticals.

A study was conducted in 2016 by S. Taylor and J. Madden into whether a popular natural remedy lowered stress-affected behaviour in dogs, and it was found that “no statistically significant differences were found” and it “did not have a discernible effect on changes in behaviour” (P.1).

So why waste money and time on remedies that have no science to back up whether they can actually help your dog, over pharmaceutical interventions that have a plethora of research into their effectiveness? Sure, give the natural remedies alongside medication (after checking with your vet that there are no contraindications, because yes, even remedies that are classed as natural can react with other natural remedies and pharmaceutical medication), but I would urge you to not see them as a suitable replacement for meds.

Speak to your vet

Vets or vet behaviourists are the only people who can recommend and prescribe pharmaceutical drugs that can help your dog. So why not open up a discussion with your vet regarding whether they feel medication could be a helpful and appropriate step for your dog.

If you would like help with working through your dog’s separation anxiety please complete the form on the page below and I will be in touch to arrange a free initial phone call:

Remote Online Separation Anxiety Dog Training (politepawsdogtraining.co.uk)

ANGELA DOYLE 2023

By Angela Doyle

I am a reward based dog trainer and behaviour consultant based in Surrey, UK. I am a fully qualified CSAT (Certified Separation Anxiety Trainer) and specialise in helping dogs overcome Separation Anxiety. I provide friendly puppy and adult dog training classes of all levels, scentwork classes as well as 121 training and behaviour consultations, and a variety of workshops, all using force free, science based methods.

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