Living with Separation Anxiety
By Honor Tarpenning, NextDayPets.com Staff
Does your dog bark, howl, and cry whenever you leave the house? Do you constantly come home to destroyed furniture, shoes, pillows, and general mayhem? Has your pooch ripped your blinds to shreds and convinced your neighbors you’ve left him home alone for days, even when you’ve been gone 20 minutes? Is your pup constantly under your feet when you are home, insisting on following you from room to room? If so, your dog probably has separation anxiety.
Separation anxiety is extreme anxiety experienced by your dog when you are away from him. It often results in inappropriate elimination in the house, destruction of your possessions, scratching and chewing at doors and windows, injury as a result of trying to escape to find you, excessive salivation and excessive vocalization. It is vital to understand that these behaviors are not revenge, or “acting out” to get your attention. They are the result of a panic response to your absence. You absolutely cannot, under any circumstances, punish your dog for behavior that is a result of separation anxiety; it will only make things worse.
Separation anxiety can develop after a traumatic event, such as a long stay in the kennel or at the vet. It can also result from a major change in the dog’s life, like a child leaving home or a new person in the house. Some dogs are just afraid to be left home alone, especially after a major incident like a tornado or fire, the dog is afraid to be away from you in case it happens again.
There are several ways to manage separation anxiety, and the best method is to use all of them in conjunction. Since the behavior modification training necessary to help your dog takes a lot of time and patience, there are a few things you can do in the mean time. Start by purchasing a Dog Appeasing Pheromone plug-in diffuser. The DAP is a synthetic pheromone that mimics the pheromone released by lactating female dogs. It calms your dog and helps him adjust to stressful situations.
When you aren’t home, try leaving the TV or radio on to keep your dog company. It also helps to leave your dog with something that smells like you, like a t-shirt you just slept in, this will relax and reassure him.
There are also several medications that can help your dog to relax when you are out of the house. Talk to your vet about Reconcile, and Clomicalm (clompramine). These medications should only be used for the short term, along with behavior modification training. They can help you and your dog get off to the right start, and help your dog to calm down before the training takes effect. There are also over-the-counter remedies, like the HomeoPet Anxiety. This is a homeopathic remedy that I believed to have calming effects on your dog.
Now that your dog and home are safe, you can focus on training. First, you must train yourself. Knowing that your dog will be in distress as soon as you leave his presence isn’t easy on you. Of course you feel bad for your pooch and want to snuggle and reassure him before you go, but this is counterproductive. If you act as if there is something to be upset about, it validates your dog’s feelings of fear and concern. Instead, give him a pat on the head and a kind word or two, but don’t make a big deal about leaving. Act as if it’s no big deal that you will be gone and it will hint your dog to that fact. When you return home use the same principal, do not react to your dog’s extreme excitement when you come back in the house, just calmly say hello and go about your business. Do your best not to reward fearful or anxious behavior with excessive praise.
Although you may not notice, you have a “leaving the house” routine that cues your dog to your impending departure. This includes putting on your coat, putting your phone and wallet in your pockets, and picking up your keys. This is when your dog knows you’re leaving and gets anxious. Desensitize your pup to these behaviors by performing your routine but not leaving. Several times a day, put on your coat, grab your keys, walk to the door, then sit back down. Continue this activity until your dog no longer displays anxiety when you get ready to leave. Next, do your “leaving the house” routine, walk to the door, open it, then go back and sit down. Again, perform this over and over until your dog no longer displays anxiety. Then, do the same thing, but walk outside, leaving the door open. After that, walk outside and close the door behind you, but walk back in immediately. Once your dog no longer responds to that, move on to standing outside the door for 5 minutes. Increase the amount of time in 5 minute increments until your dog is quiet and calm after you’ve been gone for 30 minutes.
Now you are in the home stretch. Your dog is beginning to understand that you will always come back, and learning to deal with his anxiety at your departure. The rest is essentially maintenance. A well exercised dog is a happy dog. You can curb the symptoms of separation anxiety, and the boredom your dog experiences when you’re away by taking him for a nice long walk before you leave. If your dog is home during the day while you’re at work, make sure to walk him until he is tired first thing in the morning. It is also helpful to take your dog for a long walk when you get home. One cannot overemphasize the importance of exercise to a dog. The health benefits lead to a longer, happier life for you and your best friend.
Another helpful method is to leave your dog with plenty to do while you’re gone. Kong toys and Nylabones are perfect because they are safe and virtually indestructible. Stuffable toys you can fill with snacks will keep your dog busy and entertained for hours on end, and chew toys will distract him from chewing less desirable choices like shoes and furniture.
Separation anxiety is not an easy problem to solve, but with plenty of patience, consistency, and love, your dog can be happier and more relaxed, and so can you.