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Norwich Bulletin - 9/24/2006

Separation Anxiety Hurts Everyone

Deemed Separation Anxiety by animal behaviorists, the chewed up carpets, shredded slippers and socks, eliminating in the house and ruined dining room tables all spell out frustration to the dog owner, while howling and barking nonstop cause problems with the neighbors.

And the poor dog won’t leave his owner alone when the person finally comes home after a long work day and has no clue why there are no happy smiles as they come through the door. This makes separation anxiety just about the perfect no win situation all the way around.

Obviously this is a serious problem for both owner and dog and can cause the ultimate breakdown between them, resulting in the dog being left at a shelter to who knows what fate. But there are other options if the human is willing to try and understand the dog’s perspective of things. It is especially worthwhile if the dog’s behavior is well behaved and easy to deal with when the owner is at home.

The first thing that the human must understand is how important attachment is to your best friend. Dogs are social creatures and form strong personal bonds with their families. They do not have the ability to understand why the family must leave them alone and so they become anxious and afraid.

Dogs who are closest to their people, actually can have the worst cases of separation anxiety. They have no understanding of why they feel the way they do, they just know they miss you. And so they act out in the only ways they know how, which happens to be destructive in most cases. However, there are some tried and true methods that have worked in even the most difficult cases.

The goal of treatment is to gradually teach the dog how to be alone, starting with many short separations during the course of a day and building up to longer and longer periods of time, which will allow the owner to go to work relatively sure their home will still be in order when they get back every day. Of course, the word gradual means just that – gradual. It takes time to teach any animal a behavior and it takes longer to change an undesirable one.

I would suggest beginning at the source of the problem – the dreaded door. The dog should be taught that there are rewards for being quiet when you go through that door. If you can make the dog less anxious during your preparation to leave time, it will be easier to work on the rest of day. Start by doing the normal preparations you do before you leave in the morning.

Leave for only a few seconds or minutes and open the door before the howling and barking begins – praise your pet and reward him with a treat. Repeat and repeat and repeat for longer periods of time, several times a day. Do not give up and do not lose persistence. Many failures are the result of the human not wanting to spend the amount of time necessary to begin the cure.

When your dog shows no predeparture anxiety or exaggerated greeting behavior when you “come home”, you can increase the time. Once you can leave for a half an hour with no destruction or bad behaviors, the problem is usually on its way to full control.

Unfortunately studies show more about what does not work rather than what does. Punishment is useless as the dog has forgotten what it did seconds after it’s done – what seems to you as guilt is really a behavior the dog has learned because he is always scolded when you return.

Crating isn’t always the answer either because a dog with true separation anxiety can destroy the crate and hurt itself in the process. It also can increase the barking and elimination problems.

I can suggest doggy day care for two days a week, which will eliminate some of the boredom a dog develops and also socializes the dog so the owner is not the only thing the dog ever has to look forward to.

It has worked wonders for the behavior of my own dog because besides looking forward to the full days of day care, my dog is tired the day after and content to rest and concentrate on chew toys and behavior that does not destroy my home.

Try different things – not everything will work for every dog. Do not be afraid to call a dog behaviorist who can work one on one with you – the time and expense will be worth it in the end. After all, who loves you more than your dog?

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