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Separation Anxiety: Treatments and Training Overview

Mary reviews separation anxiety, a disease that is both perplexing and frustrating as a dog owner.

Separation anxiety has different symptoms and causes.

Symptoms can range from mild whining or barking when you leave to an all out disaster zone in your living room with crates and doors destroyed and your dog injured and anxious. Some dogs are naturally more insecure than others and have more anxiety in situations than normal.  We see different forms of anxiety, such as storm anxiety (a dog that shakes and drools during thunderstorms) and dogs that bark enough to annoy the neighbors when we leave the house. Some dogs become very anxious as they recognize the habits of their owner preparing to go to work or leave for a trip. The growing trend of people working at home is great for when housebreaking a new puppy, but can wreak havoc when the schedule changes and the person has to be out of the house for a long time. Reliable crate training can be essential for new pups and not just for housebreaking or for having a place to sleep at night. A crate can also create a comfortable and secure place for our dogs to be when we need to move around the house without them or when we need to leave them in the house for a period of time. Some of this anxiety worsens as a dog ages, and some dogs don’t even develop these symptoms until they are older.

The problem with separation anxiety is that most pet owners don’t recognize it until it is a problem.

The neighbors complain about the dog barking, or the dog breaks out of its crate or worse, the dog destroys door jams or goes through a window, injuring itself. The symptoms can start out so mild that we just don’t see it as a problem until it’s too late. At this stage, I have known people who have had to move from their apartment as well as some who have had to rehome their dogs.

There is not a quick way to treat separation anxiety. It takes time and energy but many cases have been successfully “cured”, and it can be managed effectively once we network and use the resources available.

One of the first things we may want to try at home is to measure the level of anxiety our dog is experiencing when we leave it alone. A video camera or Skype on your computer is a great way of watching your pet when you are gone. Does your pup lie down for awhile and then start to get anxious?  Is your pup just bored and has come up with other non-productive ways to keep itself entertained? Does your pup immediately start to whine and bark and drool as soon as you leave?  Does your dog make it through half of the day before becoming anxious? Does your dog only become anxious when there is a storm? Has this become a new behavior since you have moved or the neighbors having construction done at their house? There are many things that could be going on that we are not aware of if we are not home to notice it. We need to know the level of anxiety we are dealing with before we can effectively modify the behavior.

Let us start with some basic training which we can do at home.

Mat training, one of the first things we teach in our classes, is to train your dog to go to his bed, lie down and remain there until released.  We use this with separation anxiety dogs to help them learn how to distance themselves from us. It carries over to crate training or barrier training as well. If your house has a room where the dog can rest comfortably, you can always barricade it off with a gate or exercise pen instead of using a crate. We still need to teach it to stay behind the barrier without getting anxious first.

We also want to teach the dog to use his thinking brain vs. his emotional one. To do this, we will teach the dog to eat his food out of puzzle toys, kongs, stuffed bones, anything creative so that he has to figure out how to get his food and use some mental capacities to accomplish this. We want the dog to start working for a living instead of being our guest. Simple sits and downs, also called “puppy push-ups” will not only use some energy but is simple training on our part. We need to have the dog sit anytime they want something from us. You can start at doorways and before feeding, as well as putting on his leash for a walk or getting in and out the car or kennel.

While we are on the topic of putting on a leash, let’s get our pups properly exercised.

We all feel better when we have exercised and are physically tired. Playing ball, running, taking longer walks, teaching tricks, agility, flyball, tracking, swimming; all of these exercises will help tire out pups out both physically and mentally. The dog sports world is big here in North Carolina, and there are multiple trainers and facilities where you can learn any of the dog sports or just have fun and train in your own backyard.

Once you have evaluated the level of anxiety your dog is experiencing, it is time to consult with your dog behaviorist or trainer to help set up a protocol to help you and your pup. The pace for treatment is slow and methodical, sometimes use of anti-anxiety medications will be implemented, but the main thing is that your dog has to learn by baby steps how to be alone.  You will need to enlist your friends and family to help babysit your pup when you can’t be with him, you can also use your local doggie daycare or dayschool program to help keep your pup busy during the day while you are at work. This process can take from 2 months to 6 months depending on the level of anxiety your dog has and your training time. The advantage to the training program is that once it is finished, you have a more stable dog who can handle time by itself allowing you to take back your time away from home confidently.

For questions concerning whether your dog has separation anxiety and how to treat it, contact Mary at Carefirst Animal Hospital at Oberlin.

Happy Training.

Mary Pollard CPDT-KA

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