Friday, September 21, 2012

Separation Anxiety

Welcome to our 100th post!

Last Friday we promised that today we'd talk about separation anxiety, a common condition in pets that can lead to destructive behavior. Does your dog chew up the house when you're gone? Dig or scratch at doors or windows in a desperate attempt to be reunited with you? Howl, bark, or whine when he's home alone? Forget his potty-training every time you go out for the night?

These are classic symptoms of separation anxiety, a condition which may affect up to 10% of dogs and puppies. Sadly, this condition is a major reason why dogs are left at animal shelters, and rescued pets are at particular risk for developing this type of anxious behavior. We'll look at the symptoms and root causes of separation anxiety and what can be done to address this issue.

A dog is considered to have separation anxiety if negative behaviors occur mainly when the owners are out of the house, whether the separation is for a short or long amount of time. These dogs will greet their owners with particular enthusiasm when they are reunited, and may follow their people from room to room when everyone is home together. Dogs learn the signs that owners are preparing to leave, and those with separation anxiety will respond with over-excitement, depression, or anxiety.

We don't understand completely why some dogs develop this condition and others don't (just like we don't fully understand the same condition in human beings). Dogs are very social and don't like to spend time alone. They also don't react well to changes in routine. Common triggers for separation anxiety are:
  • A major change, particularly a negative one like a move, a divorce, a death, or a change in the family structure like a child going away to college
  • Situations where the owner goes from spending all day with his pet (like a vacation or extended unemployment) to the dog being left alone for several hours at a time
  • A traumatic event, like noise from a fireworks display or time in a boarding facility, that occurs when the dog is alone
  • Past experience - many rescue dogs have already experienced losing their people, and may perceive time alone with particular anxiety.
The most important thing to remember when dealing with separation anxiety is this: the dog is not intentionally misbehaving and the behavior cannot be fixed with punishment.

Instead, create positive associations with alone time and build up your dog's confidence that you will always return for him.
  • Practice desensitizing your dog to being left alone by leaving him in an empty room. Start with a few moments, then gradually increase the time until the dog is comfortable being alone for several hours. Don't reward your dog for anxious behavior by returning when they are barking, digging, or so on. Come back in when they are calm. Don't encourage clingy, dependent behavior, and routinely spend some time apart even when you are home.
  • If the mere action of preparing to leave sets the dog off, practice the routine without leaving so it loses the negative association. Make your lunch, get your keys and your coat - then don't leave. Doing this frequently and in association with events your dog enjoys, like mealtimes, will break the connections that cause your buddy to begin his panicking ritual.
  • Don't make a big production out of coming and going. Fussing over the dog during these times just reinforces the idea that coming and going is a big deal. It's ok to say goodbye and to greet and treat the dog when you return, but do so calmly, without a scene. If you are calm, they are more likely to be calm.
  • The dog's area should be clean and comfortable. Provide fresh water and a comfy bed.
  • Reduce the impact of boredom on this behavior by making sure your pet is well exercised and has access to toys that will distract and entertain them for the duration of your absence.
Continue practicing these simple techniques and give your pet time to adjust to the idea of being alone. For bad cases, create a safe zone where the dog can't be destructive, but isn't contained. The safe zone should still provide toys and distractions. Crating only helps if the dog already has positive associations with the crate. If they hate being in the crate, this is just another hurdle to jump. Dogs can be desensitized to their crates using the techniques described above, but ideally, should not be crated for extended periods. If you are gone all day for work, it's not a great solution.

If you are still having problems, your vet may recommend calming medication. This is for a truly worst-case scenario. Consider other options as well, such as a doggy day-care, hiring a dog walker, or leaving your pet with a friend or family member when you are gone. You may even be able to take your buddy to work with you. There are also many professional trainers that will assist in solving this problem. Choose one with good credentials and references that you feel comfortable working with.

Finally, here are a few things that we don't recommend for separation anxiety:
  • Getting another dog - the problem isn't just being alone, it's being apart from you. Worst-case scenario: TWO pets with separation anxiety!
  • Leaving the TV or radio on - the dog may come to associate this sound as a safety cue. But it's not an instant solution.
  • Obedience training - we recommend such training for everyone. But because separation anxiety isn't a matter of disobedience, it cannot be fixed with obedience training.
  • No Bark collars - these deliver an electric shock when the dog barks. This may stop barking (at least for a while), but will not actually solve the problem. The dog will continue to act out in other ways. 
  • Punishment!
Fortunately, the majority of dogs can overcome this problem. Follow the steps above, and be patient. It may take some time for your friend to unlearn his negative patterns of behavior, but with love and time, you can overcome separation anxiety.

Have you had a dog with separation anxiety? What worked for you?

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