SEPARATION ANXIETY IN DOGS AND HOW TO STOP IT BECOMING A PROBLEM FOR YOU AND YOUR DOG
Separation anxiety is a major problem for many owners and their dogs. What actually is separation anxiety? Well just as it sounds, it is anxiety that develops within an individual when they are left alone by their owner or owners. How this anxiety manifests itself in the dog can be vastly different in the intensity and symptoms from dog to dog, with one dog just being quiet and subdued when left alone, to another that will destroy the house, urinate and defecate frequently and howl yours and the neighbours house down until your return. In cases of extreme separation anxiety pharmacological help from a vet combined with behavioural modification carried out by a good behaviourist will probably be required.
As I have said in earlier sections on this site I will not be addressing actual existing anxiety issues with your dog but giving you the advice to stop it manifesting in the first place. I will however be giving some advice about things you could try to help out an existing problem at the end of this section. Please remember to try the D.A.P (dog appeasing pheramone, brand name- Adaptil ) for any new pup/dog and for any dog that might already have separation anxiety issues.
A lot of dogs with separation anxiety develop it at a young age and things often get worse as time goes on if nothing is done about it. The first thing I would like to talk about, in the following paragraph, is how owners often unwittingly put their pup or dog in a position that might easily allow this anxiety to develop; especially if that dog or pup has a genetic predisposition to it or other nervous/fearful behaviour.
Probably one of the biggest contributors to separation anxiety is when an owner first brings a pup (or older dog) home, takes a couple of weeks off to help the pup/dog settle in (which is a good thing), but after the two weeks of being continually with the dog/pup suddenly goes back to work, and the pup/dog goes from continuous interaction with that person/persons to none. It is not hard to see how this might have a drastic affect on the behaviour of the more vulnerable pup/dog. I would like to say here that if you take a dog on and all the people in the household work or are at school (not with the dog often) and no other plans (dog walker, taking to work, sitter etc) can be made then you will be more at risk of ending up with this problem; which is obvious to anyone really. You could have a quick look at the /preparing-your-home-for-a-new-dog topic then come back here.
As an owner you have to introduce your new friend gradually to the idea of being left alone, really this process needs to start as soon as you think your new friend has found his feet a bit in your home and as I said it needs to be a gradual (very gradual) affair. The first thing you need to think about is where you will leave your pup/dog when you leave them, in the kitchen with a baby gate across, in the lounge, run of the ground floor, run of the house (though a gate will be required at bottom of stairs to stop pup when too small from going up and down them); whatever you decide try to stick to it to start with. Personally I have always given my dogs run of the house and had no real problems (with a gate on stairs when pups), remember though we will build up to leaving them for any length of time.
What you should do. To start we only want to leave them for a minute or too, when you go into another room or upstairs you will be leaving them on their own and this is where we need to start. When doing this do not say things like “ I'm only going upstairs now, there there, be a good boy “ as this usually employs a worried tone and will only get your new friend thinking that something bad is happening to them, also when you do return to them do not mollycoddle them too much either, no saying things like “ there there, I was not gone long then” as again this might reinforce their thinking that something bad has just happened to them. I do though think it is OK to give your dog some reassurance if they are actively asking you for it; just try not to go over the top with it
My present dog Buster, whenever I leave him I say “won't be long” in a normal calm voice before I go out the door and this let's him know I'm going out and will be coming back. You could use a similar short phrase but say it in a matter of fact, nothing to worry about way. Also if I am leaving my dog for a fair length of time I will leave him a Kong toy with something nice in it that is hard to get out, this let's him know that I will be gone some time but will be coming back; he has learnt this over time through association and conditioning..
Studies have shown that a dog with separation anxiety issues will start to have problems in the first few minutes of you leaving them so when you leave if you can give them something like a Kong full of something nice that is hard to get out it will take their mind of things and help stave off those anxious feelings. I truly believe that a kong toy or similar are great tools to help the owner and dog out when they are being left alone for some time.
Getting back to your new pup/dog, after leaving them for short periods while in the house we now want to start leaving them for a few mins and actually leave the house, you can use your phrase for leaving them but only that and use a matter of fact plain voice. To some this may sound in some ways a bit harsh but it isn't, remember we are doing this so you don't end up with a house destroying, weeing, pooing and howling anxious dog.
So, when you leave use your leaving phrase like “won't be long”, or whatever you like, and put down a Kong to keep them amused for a few mins until your return, you will only need to put a small amount in the kong to suffice for the first few short periods but make the filling special, for instance small pieces of liver or chicken or other tasty morsels, also at this early stage the filling does not want to be too hard for the pup/dog to get out for fear of them losing interest in it and starting to wonder about your return. Later on when you are leaving them for longer periods the filling can be much harder to get out to keep them amused for longer, at any time though the filling dose not want to be impossible to get out or they may give up on this useful toy all together.
Again, I really do think that a Kong is a good tool for use in this situation and I would highly reccomend using one, I still use one with my dog Buster, now Eleven years old. If you happen to have a super chewer like a Staffie of Mastiff or similar you can get a Black Kong, the normal Red coloured Kong will do most dogs. Of course if you have something else that your pup/dog loves that you can leave them and will keep them amused for the required length of time then you could use that, just make sure it is something of a high value to them, preferably food orientated but if a special squeaky toy for instance, it must be indestructible (not easy to find). It would be a good idea to use whatever you decide on just for this one thing so you keep it special, as this is one thing you want to get right. I would like to add here that we are talking about pups/dogs that have just become members of your family and all the above will help the issue of separation anxiety not becoming a problem for you.
So by the end of the first week you want to be up to leaving them for 20 minutes or so a few times a day, by the end of the second week it could be up to an hour or two if going well, and so on (you cannot go too long too quickly as you will be sorting the house training at this time as well, see /housetraining-your-dog). Don't forget throughout this time you still want to be getting your pup/dog out and about too to help with socialisation. If you are waiting for a second jab for your pup you can still take them out in the car and carry them to the local pet store etc (don't put them down till after second vaccination). For older dogs get them out and about as soon as possible.
After a few weeks you should be able to leave them for a reasonable length of time, not all day though, say three to four hours, or less if you think things need more time. The main rule here is not to take things too quickly, doubtless there are many dogs out there that are fine when they are left and their owners did not take this amount of time to sort this out but there are also many out there that do have problems because they did not take the time and effort. Good luck, it will be worth it.
Let's have a quick look at the dog that already has separation anxiety issues. Really you need to be sure that separation anxiety is indeed the problem here and if it is how severe is it. A good pointer towards severe separation anxiety is obviously things like damage to the house especially if directed towards doors and the woodwork around it, urination and or defecation, persistent whimpering/howling/barking (probably the neighbours will inform you), destruction of other property (could be anything). If you have left something like a favourite piece of food of some description when you went out and the dog doesn’t touch it until you return then this is a good pointer towards severe separation anxiety as the dog finds the anxious feelings more powerful than the urge to eat their favourite food.
Some dogs might food guard something against other dogs in your house or wait until your return to try it on with you before they eat it, this is not connected to separation anxiety but you have other issues going on. As I have said earlier if you do have severe separation type issues going on your first port of call should be the vets to rule out any clinical problems, and if not clinical a good behaviourist working with the vet will be required.
If you have separation anxiety issues of a lesser nature going on then you could follow the same advice as for bringing the new pup/dog into the house, basically start all over again with very short times apart leading over weeks to longer periods making good use of a Kong or similar with any fillings/treats etc being of a very high value, and try an Adaptil diffuser while you do it.
A couple of things not to do if your dog has seperation anxiety issues is put them in a crate when you go out as they may well self harm themselves trying to get out. Do not get another dog thinking the companionship will sort things out as their problem is with you or a member of your family leaving, you may well end up with two dogs with seperation anxiety. Try not to re-enter your house when your dog is barking/crying etc as you may well reinforce this behaviour as they think it works when you return, try to come in when they are quiet.
Of course if there was any way of reducing time away from your dog (like taking them to work with you, shuffling working times around, employing a dog walker/sitter ) then these would help but ideally you do want to persevere with calm and consistent training from the start so you can leave them when you need to.
Why not take a look at my first book, a realistic novel about a wolf called Elmer, his family and their life. My hope is that you will learn much about wolves and mother nature, and that you will come to understand why man first thought to domesticate these most amazing social animals to give us our best friend, the dog.
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