Working with Separation Anxiety

 

Separation Anxiety

 

Dogs with separation anxiety exhibit behavior problems when they’re

left alone. Typically, they’ll have a dramatic anxiety response within a

short time (20–45 minutes) after their owners leave them. The most

common of these behaviors are:

 

Digging, chewing, and scratching at doors or windows in an attempt to

escape and reunite with their owners

 

Howling, barking, and crying in an attempt to get their owners to return

 

Urination and defecation (even with housetrained dogs) as a result of

distress

 

What to Do If Your Dog Has Separation Anxiety

 

For a minor separation anxiety problem, the following techniques may

be helpful by themselves. For more severe problems, these techniques

should be used along with the desensitization process.

 

Keep arrivals and departures low-key. For example, when you arrive

home, ignore your dog for the first few minutes, then calmly pet him.

This may be hard for you to do, but it’s important!

 

Leave your dog with an article of clothing that smells like you—such as

an old t-shirt that you’ve slept in recently.

 

Establish a “safety cue”—a word or action that you use every time you

leave that tells your dog you’ll be back. Dogs usually learn to associate

certain cues with short absences by their owners. For example, when

you take out the garbage, your dog knows you come right back and

doesn’t become anxious. Therefore, it’s helpful to associate a safety

cue with your short-duration absences. Some examples of safety cues

are a playing radio, a playing television, or a toy (one that doesn’t have

dangerous fillings and can’t be torn into pieces). Use your safety cue

during practice sessions with your dog.   Be sure to avoid presenting

your dog with the safety cue when you leave for a period of time longer

than he can tolerate; if you do, the value of the safety cue will be lost.

 

Leaving a radio on to provide company for your dog isn’t particularly

useful by itself, but a playing radio may work if you’ve used it

consistently as a safety cue in your practice sessions.

 

If your dog engages in destructive chewing as part of his separation

distress, offering him a chewing item as a safety cue is a good idea.

Very hard rubber toys that can be stuffed with treats and

Nylabone®-like products are good choices.

 

Teaching the Sit-Stay and Down-Stay

 

Another technique for reducing separation anxiety in your dog is

practicing the common “sit-stay” or “down-stay” training exercises

using positive reinforcement. Your goal is to be able to move briefly

out of your dog’s sight while he remains in the “stay” position and

thereby teach your dog that he can remain calmly and happily in one

place while you go to another. To do this, you gradually increase the

distance you move away from your dog. As you progress, you can do

this during the course of your normal daily activities.  For example, if

you’re watching television with your dog by your side and you get up

for a snack, tell him to stay, and leave the room. When you come back,

give him a treat or praise him quietly. Never punish your dog during

these training sessions.

 

Interim Solutions

 

Because the treatments described above can take a while, and

because a dog with separation anxiety can do serious damage to

himself or your home in the interim, consider these suggestions to

help you and your dog cope in the short term.

 

Consult your veterinarian about the possibility of drug therapy. A good

anti-anxiety drug should not sedate your dog, but simply reduce his

anxiety while you’re gone. Such medication is a temporary measure

and should be used in conjunction with behavior modification techniques.

 

Take your dog to a dog day care facility or boarding kennel.

 

Leave your dog with a friend, family member, or neighbor.

 

Take your dog to work with you, even for half a day, if possible.

 

 

What Won’t Help a Separation Anxiety Problem

 

Punishing your dog. Punishment is not an effective way to treat

separation anxiety. In fact, punishing your dog after you return home

may actually increase his separation anxiety.

 

 

Getting another pet as a companion for your dog. This usually doesn’t

help an anxious dog because his anxiety is the result of his separation

from you, his person, not merely the result of being alone.

 

Crating your dog. Your dog will still engage in anxiety responses in the

crate. He may urinate, defecate, howl, or even injure himself in an

attempt to escape from the crate.

 

Leaving the radio on (unless the radio is used as a “safety cue,” as

described above).

 

Training your dog. While formal training is always a good idea, it won’t

directly help a separation anxiety problem.

 

Separation anxiety is not the result of disobedience or lack of training;

it’s a panic response.

 

 

 

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