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Preventing and Controlling Separation Anxiety in Dogs
Most of us love our dogs dearly and are lucky to get the same degree of affection in return. This mutual admiration society is a large part of why so many people choose to have dogs as part of their families. But, as with most relationships, time spent apart is a normal and necessary component. Dogs are superbly social creatures. Add to this that the typical pet dog spends the vast majority of their time with a small group of people (their family) and it should come as no surprise that it can take some effort to ensure that ther is a sense of calm when your dog is left alone. Unfortunately, many dogs suffer from some degree of separation anxiety. This can range from a dog who follows you around the house and is mildly distressed when left alone to a dog who is essentially a ‘velcro dog,’ unable to leave your side for even a moment, and who is extremely anxious when you leave. This anxiety can result in destructive behaviors such as inappropriate chewing, house soiling, excessive barking, and even self mutilating behaviors (such as chewing at their own fur and skin and creating irritation and raw spots). Separation anxiety can be heartbreaking and frustrating as you witness your dog’s suffering and try to deal with the potential for complaints from neighbors or a landlord. It can also do serious damage to the canine/human bond and ultimately result in a dog’s banishment from the home or surrender to a shelter.
Some cases of separation issues are really just the dog suffering from boredom and being destructive (i.e. inappropriate chewing, excessive barking, etc.) as a result. Each case of true separation issues is unique. But, as a general rule, some or all of the following are likely to be observable when a separation issue exists:
-The dog seems to become distressed at signs of your departure (such as turning off the lights, or reaching for keys or a coat).
-The dog barks excessively throughout the day, usually most often immediately after your departure and/or just prior to your return.
-The dog salivates excessively prior to and during your absence.
-The dog is unlikely to eat or play with otherwise favorite toys when you are absent.
-The dog is destructive in the home when you leave and may focus this destructive behavior near exit areas such as windows and doors.
-The dog is wildly excited, to the point of being stressed, when you return home.
-The dog consistently follows you around the house.
-The dog demands your attention by jumping on you, whining, barking, muzzle nudging, and/or scratching at your legs.
-The dog eliminates inappropriately in the home when you leave.
-The dog chews inappropriate items only when you leave.
Helping a dog overcome separation issues can be challenging. Not the least of which is due to the fact that so many people inadvertently play a large part in the development and escalation of this issue. While some dogs may be more genetically prone to suffering from separation issues, those dogs which are not taught to spend time alone during their most formative early months will most surely suffer most gravely. As social group oriented creatures, dogs need to start learning the skill of spending time alone calmly as soon as they join their new family. This lack of early preventative measures is a sure fire way to set the dog up to fail in this regard. As with all behavior issues, prevention is easier than cure. So, if you have just welcomed a new dog into your home or are planning on doing so soon, be sure to focus on helping your dog to learn to spend time quietly alone on a consistent basis every day using some or all of the suggestions outlined below.
If your dog is already suffering from some degree of separation anxiety, one of the first hurdles to overcome in regards to successfully helping your dog, it to realize that your dog is counting on you to lead the way and do what is necessary to help him or her. In the short term, it might take your dog some time to become accustomed to some of the tools and new daily routines you establish. But, failing to stick with a plan due to guilt or misdirected kindness will only result in your dog and you continuing to suffer. So, take a deep breath as you endeavor to set your dog on a new course to becoming equipped to spend time calmly, quietly and safely alone. Depending on the severity of your dog’s issues, you should plan on strict adherence to some or all of the following guidelines for a minimum of anywhere from 3-6 months. When you are confident your dog can handle a slackening of the rules then you can gradually reduce the use of some of them. But, be careful not to go back to your old ways of interacting with your dog that may have caused or exacerbated the problem. In most cases, it is advisable to err on the side of caution and help your dog to maintain his or her new ability to spend time alone by sticking with the course.
1. Keep Greetings and Departures Short and Sweet: Few friends are likely to greet us with the same enthusiasm as our dogs. A wiggly body, wagging tail and woofs of happy excitement are sure to make most pet parents feel they are truly missed and loved by their canine buddy. However, for each time you enter your home and interact with your dog while he or she is in the throws of this canine love fest, you are reinforcing or rewarding your dog for an over the top expression of their happiness to see you, but also for their relief from their time without you. Doing so surely makes time spent without you that much harder for your dog to bear (especially those with a predisposition for separation issues) the next time you leave, if only for the fact that they must be spending some of their time in eager anticipation of the ‘happy fest’ that will ensue when you walk through the door.
When you get home, spend the first five minutes ignoring your dog. Don’t spea, pet, talk to or even make eye contact. It may seem extreme, but separation anxiety can be an extreme problem and requires gentle, but tough love to resolve it. Don’t worry about hurting your dog’s feelings. Your efforts are intended to do all you can to ultimately protect your dog’s feelings. That is, to ensure that he or she won’t be crushed, anxious and possibly even panicked when you aren’t around.
The same holds true for departures. No need to draw it out. Simply provide your dog with some food stuffed chew toys at random times prior to your departure (i.e. sometimes 30 minutes prior, others 15 or 5 minutes prior), set them up in the chosen long term confinement area (more on that below) and leave. If you make a big fuss when you leave, odds are your dog will pick up on your intense behavior and respond accordingly for a dog who has separation issues. Look at leaving the house as no different than leaving a room. You wouldn’t try to ‘comfort’ your dog in the latter so don’t do so in the former.
2. Choose a Special Spot for Your Dog: Just as our dogs have special bowls for food and water, special toys to play with and special food, they should also have a special spot in the house where they can relax and enjoy meals and toys, and ultimately time alone. The choice of a spot depends on a number of factors, including your dog’s size, age and temperament, and the length of expected departures. In some cases, an appropriately sized crate is a good choise. For other dogs, a puppy proofed room or an exercise pen will do. Regardless of the type of confinement you choose, consider that this is a place where you will have your dog spend time alone for a number of reasons. Firstly, they will be as safeguarded as possible from causing themselves or your home harm. Secondly, if you feed your dog his or her meals in this area, offer food stuffable toys, and have your dog rest tehre for plenty of short (5-60 minutes) periods of time throughout the day when you are home, this will come to be a place where your dog is accustomed to resting alone and keeping occupied with things he or she enjoys. Your dog may feel isolated when first spending time in this area. So, keep it brief and remember that repetition is the key to building learning muscles as much as physical muscles. So, the more times you offer your dog an opportunity to rest here when you are home (while you are eating eals, on the computer, reading, etc.), the more opportunities you are giving your dog to practice spending time alone when you are home so he or she is better prepared to spend time alone when you are not home. When you go to let your dog out of this area, remain calm and quietly go about your business. This way, you don’t inadvertently reinforce your dog’s excitement at leaving this resting area.
3. Pratice On Leash Tethering: As with providing your dog with a special spot to relax, eat and plaay with toys, using a leash to tether your dog to stable objects nearby you when you are there to supervise is a gradual way to get him or her accustomed to not being able to make constant physical contact and eye contact with you. Start with your dog as clase as you feel necessary for him or her to be calm and comfortable and over the course of a few weeks, gradually increase the distance away from you. Be sure to offer your dog something engaging to play with (food stuffable toys, flossies and bully sticks are options), so he or she is less likely to be concerned with not having contact with you. Surprisingly, this simple and gentle technique of gradually getting your dog accustomed to time alone when you are home with them so they are more likely to be able to handle time alone when you aren’t home, is one of the tools to preventing and controlling separation anxiety that pet parents seem to find most difficult to adhere to. It seems the concern is that after spending the day at school or work and being away from the dog, people feel it is inkind to prevent the dog from having unlimited access to them when they are home. While the ultimate goal is to have a dog who can roam freely, calmly and safely in your home when you are home and when you aren’t, consider how tough it is for a dog to go from one extreme to another, rather than a gradual introduction to soemthing. That is, you are home and they are following you about at all times, and then you are gone! This is as opposed to using management tools such as on leash tethering so your dog can gradually learn to be away from you and ultimately stay calm, cool and collected when you actually leave.
4. Meet Your Dog’s Needs, But Not When They Demand You To: Lavish your dog with loads of love. But, avoid doing so when your dog demands it. Ignore attention seeking behaviors such as jumping up, scratching and pawing at you, whining and barking, and muzzle nudging. Yes, some of these behaviors can be very cute, but allowing your dog to learn he or she can get your attention whenever it is demanded is a sure fire way to make those times when you aren’t available to your dog harder for him or her to handle. Simply ignore your dog, turn away, or stand up and wait for your dog to refrain from being demanding. Then, ask him or her to do soemthing positive to get your attention. Some trainers refer to this as the Nothing in Life for Free (NILFF) program. Ask your dog to do something for you in exchange for each thing you do for him or her. A sit, down, some when called or any number of other behaviors your dog learns to do on your request can be exchanegd for a walk, scratch behind the ear, or a tasty treat.
5. Provide Outlets for Mental and Physical Energy: One of the key ingredients to preventingand controlling behavior issues is providing dogs with adequate outlets for their typically vast amounts of mental and physical energy. Of course, every dog is different and the exact amount of exercise which is ideal depends on a number of factors including a dog’s age, health, and temperament. But, for most dogs in good health, in addition to plenty of potty break walks, they need at least one hour of physical activity. If you have an especially high energy dog or a puppy or adolescent, odds are it is more like to hours. This can be a brisk walk or run or training and play sessions which incorporate lots of movement. Equally as impprtant is providing your dog outlests for mental energy. A dog who has been run for an hour and then gets back home where there is nothing to do, is essentially being set up to fail as they will surely not be sleeping for the rest of the day. In which case, their investigative nature will probably lead them into trouble (i.e. inappropriate chewing, digging, barking, etc.) unless you give them something appropriate to focus on. Variety is the spice of life, so be sure to provide as many unique enrichment opportunities as possible. Provide new social interaction when appropriate, the opportunity to encounter new sights, sounds and smells, and access to a rotation of enrichment toys. Some good options are: Busy Buddy Twist n- Treats, Gimborn white sterilized bones, Bob-a-Lots, Buster Cubes, Roll-a-Treats and Tux toys. These can be offered to your dog in his or her special rest spot or when tethered on leash as you supervise. Feeding your dog his or her meals from a variety of toys such as these is a way of allowing your dog to ‘hunt’ for their food in a safe, constructive, energy burning manner inside their home.
6. Pinpoint Departure Cues That Trigger Your Dog’s Anxiety: Dogs are experts at picking up on what, to people, can be incredibly subtle cues. Try to pinpoint those things which seem to start your dog’s anxiety about your departure so you can work on desensitizing your dog to them. This might be soemthing like putting on your shoes, looking at or picking up your coat or keys, or starting to reach for the front door. Try to repeat these behaviors many times throughout the day when you do not plan on leaving and pair them with tossing a few of your dog’s favorite treats on the floor. At first, your dog may already be too anxious to eat the food. But, with repetition he or she should be able to relax enoguh to enjoy the tasty treats and ultimately make a positive association between these departure cues and something good happening.
7. Practice Brief Absences: In addition to practicing being separated from you when you are home (by being tetheredat gradually increasing distances from you and by spending time in his or her special rest spot), you should also practice leaving your home for extremely brief bits of time whenever you are home so your dog has plenty of opportunities to become desensitized to what will now be a very normal, repetitive part of his or her day. So, instead of expecting your dog to handle one big absence each day and then prolonged exposure to you when you are home, you are helping your dog understand that absences from you are more often than not for tiny bits of time and not cause for major concern. Each time you walk out the door and right back in you are potentially increasing the odds that your dog will eventually be able to handle gradually increased absences.
8. Consider the Aid of Calmatives: There are a number of calming aids available from local pet retailers and on-line which may aid you in your efforts to help your dog overcome separation anxiety issues. Dog Appeasing Pheremone (DAP) is a synthetic pheromone which mimics the natural pheromone a lactating female dog emits to calm herself and her pups. It is available as a wall plug in, a spray to be used near the dog’s resting area, and as a collar. There are also homepathic remedies such as Bach flower essences Rescue Remedy. In some cases of extreme separation anxiety, veterinarians and veterinary behaviorists might prescribe a medication such as Clomicalm. However, all of these aids must be used in conjunction with a program which includes management tools, desensitization and counter conditioning in order to have a possible beneficial impact.
The process of resolving separation issues can be a daunting task. So, it is advisable to enlist the help of an experienced trainer who adheres to a gentle, positive approach. They can help you make a detailed and specific plan based on your dog’s particular temperament, the severity of the separation anxiety, and your daily routine.
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