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Separation anxiety in dogs

Separation anxiety in dogs is a common issue. Dogs are pack animals who are highly motivated to stay with the "pack." Since most dogs view their human families as their pack, they become anxious when their pack leaves them alone. Separation anxiety is especially common in shelter dogs, many of whom have been through at least a couple of homes, and who may have been abandoned. Understandably, they become anxious when separated from the pack.

Symptoms of separation anxiety include (1) inappropriate elimination, (2) destructive chewing, (3) clawing at doors and windows, and (4) persistent barking, howling, and/or whining.

 

There are a number of strategies for helping your dog feel secure and remain calm before, during, and after your absence.

  • An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure: Use a crate. Dogs are denning animals, and a crate is a safe and secure haven for your dog. Provide a cozy blanket, a toy, or stuffed marrow bone or Kong, and your dog will while away the hours you are gone happily chewing on an approved item, or just snoozing. Do not let your human perception of crates as prisons prevent you from using a crate. For most dogs, crates are safe and secure dens, not places of incarceration.
  • Exercise your dog regularly, but especially before you leave for an extended period of time. Remember that a "tired dog is a good dog." Since most destructive behavior associated with separation anxiety occurs within the first 30 minutes of your leave-taking, a fast-paced walk, or game of fetch or frizbee will tire your dog enough to help her remain calm for those critical 30 minutes after you leave.
  • Make your departures and arrivals low-key and calm. Say goodbye with a favorite toy and walk out the door. You might also hide treats or toys around the areas in your home to which your dog has access. Your dog will spend those first 30 minutes playing hide-and-seek rather than engaging in other less desirable ways of relieving anxiety.
  • Vary your departure routine. Dogs learn the signs of your pending departure -- gathering coats, handbags and briefcases, and keys. Change that routine to the extent you can. Another good approach is to go through the routine and then sit quietly for a few minutes - without interacting with your dog. When you do leave, provide a toy or treats hidden around the house to occupy your dog's time and energy.
  • Vary the length of time you are gone from the house. If your dog is new to your home, begin leaving for only short periods of time, extending those absences as your dog becomes less concerned about your comings and goings. The point is to help your dog understand that you will return.
  • Mask noises from outside by turning on the radio or television. Research on dog behavior in shelters indicates that classical music is especially calming for dogs.
  • Treat your dog to weekly romps at a doggie daycare. Check out the facility first, and be sure to determine that the dogs are continually monitored.
  • Enroll in an obedience or agility class. Training helps you establish yourself as her guide and leader, helps to build a stronger bond between you and your dog, and helps make her better behaved and more secure.

Never punish your dog for behaviors associated with anxiety. (Indeed, punishment is rarely warranted or effective. The most punishment any dog should receive is a guttural "no" or "nah.") If you arrive home to find that your dog has chewed the sofa or house-soiled, ignore it and go back through the list of strategies discussed above. Punishment simply doesn't work unless you catch your dog in the act, and then, punishment should never be physical. Even if your dog chewed the sofa only seconds before your arrival, she will not associate the punishment with that act. She will, however, associate the punishment with you and your arrival home, which will simply enhance her anxiety and teach her to fear you. Fear of you will not improve her behavior; however, it will destroy your relationship with her.

Separation anxiety can be successfully treated using the methods described above. Patience, consistency, and lots of love can solve a lot of behavior problems, and keep your best friend in a life-long home.



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