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Separation Anxiety


One of the most common phrases I hear used to describe a dog that appears to become extremely stressed when the owner leaves home or sometimes even leaves the room is separation anxiety. We can define separation anxiety as a behavioural disorder that shows itself through excessive salivation, barking, whining, destroying items in the home, attempting to escape from crate and room, eliminating in the room or crate, scratching at walls, doors and floors near doors and even jumping though windows.
There is no doubt that this is very distressing to the owner not only for the damage done but the distress they feel their dog is experiencing.

In my experience there is true separation anxiety and what I term ‘simulated’ separation anxiety, where the behavior appears to be separation anxiety but is in fact learned and the dog lacks owner as well as self control The first is true stress at the owner leaving. The second is the dog knowing that he will get attention for the actions he performs and with some even being verbally reprimanded is rewarding because he feels he was noticed. Negative attention is a reward for some. In this instance there is little stress involved when left – just mis-behavior. In many instances I find this fairly easy to overcome with a gradual approach to increased time containment in a crate (when you are at home as well as away), good obedience, exercise and leadership. With severe cases of true separation anxiety modification becomes a more difficult task

There is no doubt in cases of separation anxiety, however it manifests itself, can be unknowingly encouraged by ourselves. We make a big fuss when we leave and in doing so reward the concern, and the stress increases at the time of leaving. We like our dogs to be with us and when puppies, and we take them everywhere for socialization. Then we have to leave them alone and they have reached an age where they now not only want, but also feel the need to be with us – we are their confidence, their security and their pack.

With some dogs, a change in their routines can create the symptoms of separation anxiety. After being neutered or spayed we spoil them because they have been to the vets and had an operation. We feel sorry for them and reinforce their “neediness”. A new baby arrives in the family and the dog suddenly gets demoted, even ignored, with no preparation for this change. Moving house or leaving the house for long periods such as work, after you have been at home most of the time even at weekends can also bring the symptoms on.

Some destruction and stress can be created by boredom and lack of exercise or even by the characteristics of the breed. Terriers are born to dig, retrievers to carry and protection breeds to protect. So in some instances we are controlling and directing in-built instincts and drives. So remember Cesar’s mantra, which is a good start Discipline, Exercise and the Affection. Plus No Talk, no talk approach. We need a balance between patience, obedience and confidence in themselves. With some breeds this is not always easy to achieve. We should be seeking to develop a character in our dog that demonstrates the partnership we seek together with a belief in himself. A confidence in himself and a confidence in your leadership. He is confident in situations such as being left alone and he knows that when you are present you provide the leadership and guidance when required.

Vets may prescribe drugs, which tend to calm the senses a little but they are not a cure. Drugs only provide a support ‘mechanism’ to assist the owner rehabilitate to achieve the cure.

So how do we help our dogs overcome this problem? It really starts the moment you get your puppy. All too often a puppy taken from the litter begins to cry when left alone. This is a big change for the pup – no more pack. When he cries, we go and pick him up and show sympathy – his crying is rewarded. If he is crying in a crate, and you let him out he is being rewarded for his crying. From the beginning we need to teach our pup to be quiet and settle down for increasing periods of time. We need to teach patience and calmness. When he is out with us, we should not be attempting to constantly interact with him. Let him learn to entertain himself with toys – his toys. For some reason many dog owners cannot let their dogs relax for a second. Even when relaxed and calm, owners feel that they have to touch them, talk to them and generally disturb them so the dog thinks his job is to entertain the owner all the time. There is no life outside contact with the owner.  So teach pup to accept the crate. Allow him to explore under supervision and to learn the limits and boundaries of his environment.  To gain respect for this environment and the people in it. And that means consistency in all the things you do, and that includes everyone in the family who interacts with your dog.

I believe a lot of the cure for separation anxiety comes from obedience and discipline. Self-discipline – where your dog knows what is right as you have taught him this and now his good behaviour becomes a habit. He feels wrong showing an unwanted behaviour even without you indicating it. So spend time training, that does not mean classes but showing your dog what you want from him in and around the house and during daily routines. Two minutes here, five minutes there. Not just going for a walk but training him as you go to sit at curb sides and sit when meeting others, people and dogs. Teach him to sit at the door, down and stay while you go out of site for increasing periods of time (do this in your house), sit and wait to be greeted by guests, move aside when you go to the refrigerator, and go to the bathroom on cue. In general you should be teaching your dog in small steps to ‘Be a Gentleman” and have confidence in these actions.

Rehabilitation begins by having your dog know what is expected of him. You and other members of your family are the pack leaders, to be recognized as such and not dictated to by him. For example – and golden retrievers do this a lot – he comes up to you and nudges your hand or slaps you with his paw. You think this is cute and he is petted. This becomes a habit and now your dog says I am in control and I can tell them what to do. Then it becomes a habit which, when he cannot carry it out, creates stress. OK, so your dog does this and he does not have SA. That means you have a balanced dog and congratulations because you have created that good balance of confidence when left alone. It is imbalance that is the concern.

Even when you are home have your dog familiar and accepting of being in the crate. Start with short periods of time and then increase it. Feed him in the crate, let him have his favorite stress reliever in there to gnaw on – a Kong type toy, a sterile bone or a nylon hard bone. Nothing he can pull apart. Do not put water in the crate – can be very messy! The crate should be your dogs safe haven, a place he feels secure and enjoys being in. It should be big enough for him to stand upright without his head touching the top and he should be able to turn around and lay down easily.  If he barks in the crate then look for ways to control that – teaching him ‘quiet’ is good, and interrupting the barking so he learns there is no reward from it, also works. A good bark collar is excellent when he barks in your absence. No one wants annoyed neighbors and this will device will correct him when you are not there.

When you leave him, do so quietly and don’t provide cues. No “Sorry Darling I will be back soon”. Go through your leaving routine, pick up car keys, open garage doors and then start the car. Then coming back inside paying no attention to your dog. Not even a “good boy”. Do what you always do when leaving – role-play. Increase the time, in small stages, (sometimes only in additional minutes), that you have him in the crate. Have him familiar with being in the crate both when you are home and when you practice the desensitization and leave the room or house. When you come back in your home once more pay no attention to your dog. Walk past him, wave and smile if he is quiet but if he is banging at the crate, ignore it and walk on. Come back and wait until he is quiet and then ask him to wait in the crate while you open the door. He should not come bursting out. If you feel one action such as putting on a certain pair of shoes, picking up your car keys, going to a certain door brings about the beginning of stress then do that action and do not leave. Get him so familiar with the action that he accepts it. Sometimes however your dog will recognize a series of actions. There you have to be clever. Changing your dog’s habits often means changing yours and that is sometimes difficult – we are creatures of habit. So change your routines – use a different door, put your coat on in a different place, put your briefcase or bag down in a different place. Make changes to create a different picture. If watching TV or working on the computer and your dog is with you, if he gets up every time you get up, simply get up and then sit down again. He does not have to follow you everywhere. Yes he can watch but wait until you request his company. These little changes will help teach him to have the self-confidence he needs to handle being alone.

Other little tips that can help. The type of crate can make a difference. I prefer a cage type crate placed in the busiest room in the house. I want him to become accepting of normal every-day movement, noises and happenings within your home and realize he it is not necessary for him to be involved in everything. You can always have more than one crate if, for example, you want your pal to sleep in the bedroom next to your bed. Sometimes covering the crate with a sheet when you leave gives the feeling of a den and your dog may like this more. There is the danger however that in his stress he could pull it into the crate and rip it up. So use this initially when you are home and see if it helps. All my dogs enjoy music and the TV and I will leave it on for them. Old westerns, musicals, sports and wrestling seem to be their favorites. It provides a familiar background sound and sight for them that gives them a feeling of security.  Some toys today are developed to entertain or occupy your dog when you leave. I prefer to use such interaction toys only when I am present.  However these can work, and your dog while attempting to remove treats from a toy gets the exercise which tires him, so that he then relaxes and sleeps.

Separation anxiety can be overcome – with some dogs you can turn them around fairly quickly. With others it takes time and patience.

Exercize, obedience, ‘life style’ training, leadership, limits and boundaries, confidence in you and confidence in themselves, security in their environment and consistency within the whole family pack has you moving forward to a much happier stress free dog and of course stress free owner. And all in balance.