The Doggie Blues: Separation Anxiety Causes and Treatment

 
 
 

“I came home today and found that Buddy has urinated and defecated all over my carpet, or… my sweet 40lb Lola ripped through a metal crate and ate my sofa, or…my neighbor could hear Lou howling all day while I was gone…” 

When the phone rings and I hear complaints like these my heart sinks a bit.  Separation or any type of anxiety case in a dog is probably one of the most challenging problems to tackle.  In the most severe cases it can be described as a “panic attack”….loss of all faculties, eliminating all over the house out of fear or a dog having the ability to accomplish Herculean tasks, like bending the prongs of a metal gate.  It is not only a terrible experience for the dog, but for the owner…you never know what you are going to come home to!

The best approach it to understand where this comes from, how to prevent it and if it is already present, how to properly treat it.

How the problem arises….

Dogs are pack animals and they thrive on living within a community.  We get dogs because they are our loyal companions and we love it when they follow us everywhere…we go to the kitchen – there is Fido to make sure that the trash compactor service is not needed, we go to get something from the office – Fido is there to make sure that you didn’t forget anything, we can’t even get away in the bathroom…the inspectors often accompany us to make sure that we shower appropriately and that our make-up and shaving jobs are top notch.  And then suddenly you leave.   What a shock!  Where are they????….the pacing, howling, barking, urinating, and all types of destructive behavior typically begin within a very short time of your departure.

There are tons of different reasons dogs experience separation anxiety:  being bounced around from home to home, being left alone when accustomed to constant companionship, or a traumatic event like spending time in a shelter.  It is hard to understand why certain dogs have a negative response under some circumstances while others don’t.  It is therefore important to not only take action after we notice the symptoms, but also take preventative measures.

Preventing the problem…

There is nothing special that you have to do to prevent separation anxiety other than to give your dog what it needs to be physically and mentally healthy.  What does your dog need?  

Leadership.  Most importantly your dog needs leadership.  He needs guidance, boundaries and structure.  He needs to know that you are in charge and you will make the decisions.  Often dogs will take on the leadership role and establish boundaries and make decisions by themselves.  It is a huge burden for a dog to try to be your leader and it creates an anxious, neurotic or even sometimes aggressive dog.  Since dogs are wired to challenge for authority constantly (this ensures that the most capable and strong leader is in charge), they will automatically fill the void when you are not doing it for them.  The more dominant dogs will become aggressive, the more submissive dogs will become anxious.  It is paramount that you act as an alpha dog, creating rules and boundaries.  You tell your K-9 friend, what, when and where…you don’t ask either!  Dogs need clear boundaries, which create a routine, structure and predictability, which then create an environment where they feel safe, secure and confident. 

Exercise.  Your dog also needs enough exercise to keep him mentally healthy.  Can you imagine lying on your couch all day without even a TV day in and day out?  All you know is that you are alone and you might not be sure when or if your friends are coming back.  You try to keep yourself busy. You start counting the paint chips, and then instead of just counting you start tearing them off the wall, and so on… Excess energy can contribute to an anxiety response.  Without a constructive outlet for energy, it can be used to fuel anxiety when your dog is left alone.  Dogs have different exercise requirements depending on their breed characteristics, but they all need it!

Affection at the right time.  Your dog also needs your love and affection, but at the right time and at the right place.  A lot of dog owners feel sorry for their rescued pet or submissive animal and coddle and love him when he is scared and unsure.  What you are doing at that moment is nurturing that state of mind.  When you give affection through coddling, hugging, petting, etc when a dog is in any sort of distress, you are enforcing the way he is feeling.  You are, in effect, teaching your dog that this is how you want him to behave.  Be sure, to only give affection and positive reinforcement when your dog is confident, never when he is scared or aggressive or dominant.

Treating the problem…

If you have rescued a dog that is anxious, you should still take all of the preventative measures as described before.  In addition, your number one objective is to build confidence in your dog through socialization, confidence and independence exercises and gradual introduction to being left alone. 

Socialization.  A dog with separation anxiety might also show signs of anxiety when going to new places and meeting new people or animals.  Taking your dog to as many new places and meeting as many new people as possible, will help your dog feel more comfortable and confident in all situations.   Make sure that these experiences are positive.  When the dog meets new people and has a good reaction you can reward with affection or a treat.  When the dog is having a negative reaction, correct with a loud sound or refocus. 

Teaching Independence.  To teach the dog independence and the ability to survive without you, do not let him follow you around from room to room.  Ask him to stay behind while you go to the bathroom or to the kitchen for a few minutes. 

Preparing for Leaving.  Prepare your dog for you leaving gradually.  Let him in and out of the crate.  Put him in the crate while you are at home when he can see you.  Leave the room for a minute and come right back.  Leave the house for a minute and come right back.  Build on your time away very gradually.  The ability to tolerate being left alone will depend on each dog, but you should not progress to the next step until the dog shows no signs of distress with the current step.

Drug Therapy?

Lastly, in the very severe cases, where the dog is actually not only destructive to your home, but also is hurting himself during the process I would recommend contacting your local veterinarian or behavioral veterinarian.  The medication will calm the dog down while you implement the behavioral modification techniques described previously.  After some time on the medication, the dog will be able to gradually stop taking the meds.

Separation Anxiety is one of the main reasons why so many owners give up their beloved pets.  While it does take a lot of commitment, dedication and patience to overcome this problem, it is possible!  While techniques may vary based on each dog, the basics outlined are a good start for prevention and treatment.  Contact your local dog behavioral trainer for a detailed treatment plan.

 

 

If you have questions regarding this issue or topic ideas, please contact Kinga at Kinga@kk9s.com or 703-868-7857.  View Kinga’s K9s website at www.kk9s.com.

 

 

 

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5 Comments

  1. Katie
    Posted September 3, 2008 at 10:33 am | Permalink | Reply

    Kinga- Thank you for the insightful view of seperation anxiety for dogs. Though it’s common, we can easily lose sight of what is the underlying cause. I agree with your advice on leadership, socialization, and exercise. I serve as a dog sitter for several families when they are out of town and have learned that routines also help. When the pups remain in their routine with exercise and affection in the absence of their owners, they trust their environment and are more settled.
    Keep the good advice coming!

  2. John
    Posted September 3, 2008 at 11:13 am | Permalink | Reply

    These tips have been very helpful. I have been practicing them for only 3 days and already my family and I are starting to notice a difference in our dog. Thank you for the extremely helpful guidance!

  3. Dan
    Posted September 3, 2008 at 3:01 pm | Permalink | Reply

    Kinga – That’s an incredibly informative blog post for the 1st submission. If you keep up this kind of detail, you’ll have to hire an agent and publish it in book form. Are you going to incorporate it into kk9s.com?

  4. kk9s
    Posted September 3, 2008 at 3:57 pm | Permalink | Reply

    Yes, this blog will soon be viewable from http://www.kk9s.com 🙂 No book deal yet!

  5. Lidia
    Posted September 3, 2008 at 11:06 pm | Permalink | Reply

    I have been considering getting a dog for quite some time and, while not quite ready yet, I have been preparing mentally. Your informative blog submission addressed my biggest concern: the separation anxiety likely to occur when I leave for work during the day. In particular, I noted your pointers to behave in a manner counterintuitive, by not reinforcing bad behavior and snuggling with your dog when they appear scared or anxious. I look forward to your next submission as I mentally prepare for my future canine friend.

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