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Treating Separation Anxiety in Dogs

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If your dog suffers from separation anxiety, you know how challenging it is. While you’re pleased that Fido thinks so highly of you, his anxiety during your absences is so high that you are concerned he will become a danger to himself. Up to this point, your house has borne the brunt of his frustrations. You didn’t know that a dog was capable of that much destruction! But things can be replaced, your main concern is Fido’s emotional well-being.  What can you do to help a dog with separation anxiety?

What is Separation Anxiety?

Separation anxiety is far more serious than simply a dog who is sad when his owners are away. Dogs who suffer from this condition experience an extremely heightened anxiety response to the absence of their owners. This is evidenced by a variety of different behaviors including attempts to flee, accidents in the home (in an otherwise housetrained pet), chewing, digging, and even extreme vocalizations.

Dogs who suffer from separation anxiety typically seem quite calm and happy in the presence of their families. It is the stress of a missing loved one that causes the emotional trauma in the dog.

At best, a dog undergoing separation anxiety engages in nuisance behaviors, but some dogs are unable to find any relief from their suffering and begin to self-mutilate in an attempt to cope with their overwhelming feelings. There is no doubt; dogs with separation anxiety need help.

What can you do if your Dog has Separation Anxiety

Having a dog with separation anxiety affects the whole neighborhood. Many neighbors become frustrated with excess barking, howling, and whining and threaten to call animal control if a solution cannot be found. Most cities have noise by-laws and not all residents in an area are tolerant of excess noise, no matter what the cause may be.

Unfortunately, sometimes you do have to leave your house, and it’s not always possible for Fido to come with you. You love Fido, so rehoming him is not an option. The only answer is to try to help him learn to cope more productively with the stresses he struggles with when away from your family.

Here are some suggestions to help your dog overcome separation anxiety:

Identify the triggers
When we study the root causes behind many behaviors our dogs exhibit, we often discover that our own previous actions have led to where we are today. Many owners make a big production out of leaving and returning their homes. This creates a heightened sense of “awareness” in our dogs, turning ordinary events into over the top extravaganzas.

Some dogs are unable to cope with the stresses of an owner leaving home and become extremely anxious as soon as a jacket comes out of a closet, or they hear the jangling of keys.  This is why it is critical for owners of dogs with separation anxiety to take the time to carefully observe their dogs in the context of their daily routine to ascertain when the dog begins to become agitated.  You cannot treat what you do not know. Identifying triggers is a key component to helping your dog learn to manage his stresses more successfully. 

Begin desensitization training
Desensitization and counterconditioning are two powerful techniques many dog trainers use to help reduce anxiety and fear responses in dogs. Desensitization works by teaching a dog that his triggers really aren’t so scary. Once this process has been completed, owners can then help their dogs to learn that the thing they once feared can actually be an indication of good things to come. This technique is called counterconditioning.

Both desensitization and counterconditioning take time.  Progress is often slow and fraught with setbacks, but it is critical that you work at your dog’s pace.  A rushed dog often becomes a shut down dog, or even worse, a reactive one.

If your dog begins to become upset when you walk to the closet to gather your shoes and coat, this is where you must begin. The simplest way to break the cycle of anxiety is to change your routine. By teaching your dog that you going to the closet does not necessarily mean that you are leaving, you remove its power to elicit a negative response in your dog.

To do this, go to the closet and grab your shoes and coat, but instead of leaving sit and stroke your dog for a while or take him outside for a game of fetch. It will take time, but eventually, the cycle of CLOSET=LEAVING will be broken.

This is but the first step in a series of actions that will lead to a reduction then elimination of the behavior. It is not an overnight cure, but progress can be made in small, measurable steps towards your ultimate goal.

Start crate training
If destruction of your home is an ongoing problem, it is time to introduce Fido to a crate. Perhaps you have attempted crate training in the past but without great results.  The key is to teach Fido that his crate is a fun and relaxing place to be.

To do this, you can make use of tools such as Susan Garrett’s Crate Training Games, a step by step DVD that teaches you how to make your dog’s crate a fun place for him to be.  Alternatively, you can start by rewarding him with exceptionally yummy treats or high value longer term rewards such as raw meaty bones that he only gets when he is in his crate. Your dog will soon learn that his crate equates to fun stuff and will start to anticipate opportunities to be in there.

This becomes a great tool in the battle against separation anxiety, but it is important to remember that Rome was not built in a day. For best results, keep Fido’s crate time to very short periods of time and gradually build up to longer stays.

Always provide something for Fido to do when he is in his crate as boredom will cause him to revert to destructive behaviors and in the absence of anything else in his crate, he may begin to lick or chew on his paws or tail. 

Provide alternatives to engage Fido’s mind and body
If your biggest challenge with separation anxiety is the complaints from your neighbors about all the racket coming from your house when you are not home, alleviating boredom is the key.  Providing a variety of toys, bones, and puzzles can help keep Fido’s mind and body stimulated.  A dog whose mind is engaged is far less likely to get into trouble.

Alternatively, consider a visit to a doggy day care a few times a week or even hiring a dog walker to wear off some of Fido’s excess energy throughout the day.

Consider medication
Dog trainers often refer to working with stressed dogs as needing them to be “below the threshold” for progress to be made. Some dogs reach such heightened states that it is impossible for them to regulate their own behavior, and medication is required to help them achieve more focus.

Medication can be prescribed by your vet to assist with reducing anxious behavior. It is never a cure and must always be accompanied with behavior modification training to help find relief from the dog’s stresses.

Consult a professional dog trainer.
Separation anxiety is serious business.  It doesn’t just cost you money; it is an indicator that your dog is in pain.

In general, separation anxiety is more than the average owner is able to handle without help. Ask your veterinarian for a recommendation for a professional dog trainer who specializes in behavior modification. They will have the experience to guide you and Fido through the desensitization and counterconditioning process to get the best results.

If you have a dog with separation anxiety, you know that it is no laughing matter. Thankfully, help is available.  Follow the tips in this article to help reduce Fido’s stresses and to learn that he can still have fun even if you have to be away from him for a little while.

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