Separation anxiety – an interview with Eva Bertilsson

Separation anxiety, or to be more precise, separation-related problem behaviour (not necessarily caused by anxiety), is common in dogs.

About 50% of family dogs will show problem behaviour, related to separations, at some point in their lives.
  • What do we know about this phenomenon? Which dogs show it, and when?
  • What can we do to prevent, reduce or eliminate it?

As you know if you’ve been reading this blog for a while, I’m not a dog person. I haven’t lived with this problem, I haven’t worked personally on such topics.

But, in 2016, I interviewed my friend Eva Bertilsson, who as it so happens did her Master’s thesis on the subject. You may recognize Eva’s genius from Carpe Momentum, as a level 3 Tag Teach instructor, a Clicker Expo faculty member, or perhaps from her old days as an Agility Pro (gold medal in the Swedish Championships).

This interview has been a part of the content offered exclusively to the students of my Animal Emotions course, but I decided to share it with the readers of this blog!

This audio interview is 35 minutes – just press the little orange button at the top left of the image below to start listening.

(Yes, that’s me (left) and Eva (to the right)! We’re wearing these goofy smiles because we were on our way to the first ever Tag Teach Summit, in Verona. Crossing the river on an old stone bridge, as I recall)

Here are the main points that we cover in our discussion of Separated Related Problem Behaviour (SRPB):

  • Which types of behaviours are typically shown
  • Which types of dogs show them
  • The types of events that trigger the onset of SRPB
  • Whether single-household dogs or multiple-household dogs show them
  • Types of treatments and their outcomes
  • Decoupling triggers from leaving
  • Systematic desensitization and counter conditioning
  • How well people follow instructions – which instructions are followed, which are not
  • Medication and what we know about how well they work
  • How making changes to the environment may help
  • Limiting space – using crates. Is this useful?
  • Why dogs develop SRPB
  • Is SRPB due to boredom or loneliness?
  • Eva’s own experimental study
  • Eva’s results that open up new possibilities for prevention/treatment
  • Eva’s recommendations on how to prevent SRPB – and what not to do
  • Environmental design and enrichment

If you don’t have 35 minutes, here’s a transcription of our conversation.

And if you’d like to read Eva’s finalized Master’s paper, here it is!!

Finally, this discussion prompted me to question and discuss whether we separate dogs too early from their moms.

The interview was made in 2016. What’s happened since then – what potentially effective treatments have been found? A quick search of the scientific literature gives this:

  • Petting a dog immediately before a short separation reduced heart rate, and dogs displayed calmer behaviour while waiting for their owner’s return.
  • Oxytocin could potentially be used to treat separation-related problem behaviour (SRPB), but it hasn’t been evaluated yet.
  • The owner’s odor, and voice, can potentially help manage SRPB.
  • It seems that dogs are generally not helped by having other dogs in the household, but there is some evidence that the presence of a cat may help (I heard this on the Animal Training Academy’s podcast with Malena Demartini)

Have you successfully reduced or eliminated separation-related problem behaviour in your dog? Please share with us in the comments’ section what worked – and what didn’t!

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References:

Mariti et al. (2018). Effects of petting before a brief separation from the owner on dog behavior and physiology: A pilot study.

Shin & Shin (2016). Evaluation of effects of olfactory and auditory stimulation on separation anxiety by salivary cortisol measurement in dogs.

Thielke & Udell (2017). The role of oxytocin in relationships between dogs and humans and potential applications for the treatment of separation anxiety in dogs.

 

8 Replies to “Separation anxiety – an interview with Eva Bertilsson”

  1. Just read your post about puppies with their mothers and SA. Very interesting. And has got my brain going. This is very feasible. And makes perfect sense to me. Well worth perhaps a study to look into this further. Thanks for your insights.

  2. Very interesting interview, thank you for sharing; there are a few parts where i have different experiences

    1) pain in dogs – i have had a few consultations where separation anxiety was diagnosed but when the dog was checked for muscular-skeletal issues it turned out the dog was in pain – behaviours such as spinning, chewing, whining, barking in relations to owners leaving, all declined as the dog was treated and reoccured if the dogs treatments (physio) were spread too far appart or inflamitory medication (caprieve) was stopped to early during treatments- mainy of these dogs had headaches and back aches

    Inactivity in dogs- an active study by Sindoor Pangal of India- who studies free raning street dogs – Life of streeties- found that high % activity shown most by these dogs is resting and sleeping. While our dogs are not street dogs as many would argue, these street dogs share the same behaviours and values as our house dogs; from that we may conclude that passive behaviour has to be seperated:
    Balanced inactivity (resting, sleeping, changing the place they lay down to another) and learned helplesness (shut-down)-

    With desensiation protocols i always use the dogs sense of smell + food – just like chewing a bone, it is calming but seems to have an interesting side effect of the dog wanting to experience more with the nose. This may be though, that here in New Zealand, most dogs are walked in very controled fashion (heel most time or running next to owner) on a very short lead. Most dogs are not allowed or cant (lead to short and in collar or anti pull device) put their nose to the grownd where they want to smell. Once they learn they are allowed to sniff and the negative association decreases, behaviour(s) change. Dogs become more confident.
    I use scent games early on with puppies instead of the general puppy classes which focus on obedience- get the owners to learn to walk dogs on a y-shaped harness and long lead.

    Just a few experiences from down-under

    Regards
    Bono

    1. Thanks for sharing your experiences, Bono! YOu’re making a very important point about pain! It can be related to all kinds of behavioural problems: noise phobia, separation related problem behaviour and aggressive behaviour come to mind.

  3. I am not a dog person per se, however this was fascinating to hear. Eva’s elegant experiments and clarity of thought were a pleasure to listen to.. Karolina you asked exactly the questions that I wanted to ask. Thank you both!

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