Is your dog always anxious when separated from you? Do your neighbors tell you that he cries, barks or whines for long periods while you are away? Do you come home to potty messes or property damage due to your dog? If so, your dog may be suffering from separation anxiety.
Canine separation anxiety is the number one behavioral problem today. This often misunderstood disorder causes loving pet owners to feel they have no other option than to find their dog another home. After much study, we now know that separation anxiety can be treated and prevented with a little understanding and some consistent training. To treat separation anxiety, you first must understand what it is and where it stems from.
Dogs by nature are pack animals that are not prepared to cope with isolation. They were not born with instinctive tools that allow them to deal with loneliness, so they must be taught how to be alone and reassured that they will not be alone for long. Some dogs adapt to periods of isolation on their own, while other dogs spiral into destructive behavioral problems in an attempt to cope with being solitary for any period of time.
Think carefully about your dog's behavior as you answer these questions:
• Does destructive behavior occur only when you are away?
• Does your dog frequently eliminate when you leave the house?
• Does your dog become stressed and worried as you prepare to depart?
• Does he whine, howl or bark shortly after you leave?
If the answer to three or more questions is yes, your dog's behavior is most likely being brought on by separation anxiety. In order to treat this disorder with success, it is necessary to make a daily training commitment.
If your dog is so anxious that he always has to be at your side when you are home, this is the first place you need to begin breaking the anxiety cycle. By working with a simple sit-stay command, you can ease your dog into brief sessions of separation by requiring him to sit and stay in one room while you briefly retreat to another. Over the course of several days, you can vary the time of your return, but the key is to help your dog learn that you are always coming back. Also, it is important not to make an issue out of returning; rather, greet the dog quietly or even ignore him for a few minutes till he calms down.
The next step is to begin to leave the house by going to the mailbox or the front yard for a few minutes. Some dogs can be eased into this; others may require the aid of anti-anxiety medication, such as Elavil or Buspar, prescribed by your veterinarian. If you think your dog would make greater strides in his training with the help of brief medication, you should consult with your veterinarian. It is important to keep in mind, though, that if you choose to medicate your dog, abruptly stopping medication can lead to a relapse of anxious behavior, so you will have to wean your dog off of the medication while continuing your training regimen.
Another important practice is to never return to the house if your dog is barking or crying. Rather, return only when he has quieted down. If your dog learns that he can make you return by being vocal, he may never accept being left alone.
Once your dog is able to tolerate separation for an hour or more, you should be able to make the jump to longer absences with greater ease. And if your dog has a relapse and you come home to find that he has acted out in your absence, do not punish or isolate him, because it will only serve to increase his anxiety and worsen the problem. Instead, ignore the situation if possible and be understanding. Remember, he is only acting out because of fear and anxiety.
It is good practice to always leave him with appropriate chew items and fresh water. And if you are away in the evening, a lamp left on and the soft grumble of a TV or radio will also go a long way toward calming his fears.
Canine separation anxiety is a tough hurdle for dog and owner, but together you can conquer his fears and help your dog relax into the happy companion you always dreamed he'd be.