Separation Anxiety

By admin Posted in Problems /

Dogs are pack animals and rely on others for protection and safety. While most dogs will be sorry to see their owners leave, some, around 14%, suffer from what is termed Separation Anxiety. These dogs are well-behaved when people are around, but when left alone they panic and become noisy and destructive. Some dogs become emotionally, over attached to one person and are sometimes referred to as, “Velcro dogs” or “My shadow.” Older dogs also tend to become more neurotic about being left alone. They naturally become more dependent on their owners as their hearing and eyesight begins to fail. Things that bothered them when younger becomes more intensified as the years pass. However, it is also often seen in younger dogs that have been rescued from animal shelters. They may have been abandoned or had multiple owners and multiple homes because they displayed unacceptable behaviour and their owners did not have the skills to rectify the problem.

When left alone, most dogs will find a favourite spot to wait and sleep. A few, however, are utterly “lost” when left alone and can become extremely anxious, not understanding where you have gone or if you will ever return. These dogs have been reported to jump over walls, bark continuously, howl, scratch and chew through doors, bend metal bars on crates, even jumping through closed windows or digging under fences. Inappropriate urination and/or defecation may occur.
A milder form of separation anxiety could manifest itself in excessive greeting or constant pestering of the owner which is often misconstrued as being a “loving” dog. Humans also often find it difficult to relieve their inner tensions. We see them pacing up and down; chewing their finger nails, chain smoking or drinking.

Some dogs behave badly when you are away because they are just bored and simply need more to do and more exercise. These dogs do not necessarily suffer from separation anxiety. The difference being that, in the case of separation anxiety the stress/discomfort behaviour starts almost immediately the owner leaves. In general, the dog either becomes depressed when the owner is about to leave, or hyperactive and disobedient.

Genetics, early learning and owner behaviour or mistreatment in the past may be at the root of the problem. Sudden changes in the dog’s environment such as moving home, a family member leaving or the death of a dog’s companion could also be a cause. However, dogs that lack confidence or understanding of what is expected due to under socialization or lack of obedience training are likely to exhibit behaviours related to separation anxiety.

Puppies must be taught to enjoy their own company and to be calm when you are away. Allowing a young puppy to follow you all over the house will encourage him to become over dependent and anxious when left alone at home. Right from the start Quanto was taught that there are areas in the house where he was not allowed and there are areas where he can relax and enjoy himself away from other dogs even when I am at home. Giving him chew toys that kept him busy in his play area and being rewarded for amusing himself became his area for long-term confinement. He sleeps in that area and at bed time when he receives a treat, rushes off to his kennel to eat it there. The dogs get fed only after I have eaten which means that although they know that I am up and about the house they will quietly and calmly await their turn to again bond with me which is then followed with a good meal.

Destructive behaviour by the dog cannot be left unattendedthe owner must do something about it because it will become worse over time (see Destructive chewing)! These dogs really suffer every time they are separated from the people they love most. They require effective behavioural intervention and possibly also medical treatment. Punishment usually aggravates the problem because the dog will not only continue to be anxious about being left alone, but now even more so because of what will happen when the owner returns. Instead of getting cross with these dogs, one should rather feel sorry for them!

Three things must happen to be able to solve the problem: Relief of the anxiety that caused the problem, protection of the property that was destroyed and long term therapy to help the dog to accept separation. There is unfortunately no short cut to modifying problem behaviour.

What you can do to help your dog:

Join a club, get advice and get your dog trained.

Puppies must be trained to get used to being left alone. They should be left alone regularly during the week for about 1 hour a day in their long-term confinement area. Check regularly and reward the puppy for being quiet. The aim here is not to let the pup associate the confinement area with your absence.                                                                                                           

Create a safe place to relax: Dogs need a place where they can cope without its owner. An indoor kennel to a dog can become a safe den or a safe hole in the ground; a place where it can voluntarily pop inside when it wants to rest or sleep or feeling worried when alone. This “den” is a way of treatment where the dog can become accustomed to confinement. Familiar blankets and toys are left inside or nearby and in the beginning the dog can be fed and encouraged to sleep there. The dog must have free access to go inside or out while the family is at home. Some of my dogs have used the back of my bakkie as a personal den. Dogs usually create their own den in the home, under a table or in a corner between the wall and a chair or cupboard. By putting a long hook onto an outside door it may be possible to allow the dog to rest indoors while you are away

Over-dependence on the family must be overcome by reducing the time he/she is allowed to spend in the direct company of his owners. Contact time must be reduced by as much as 50%. If the dog was allowed to sleep in the bedroom, it must slowly be moved further and further away to a position where a lower ranking dog would be sleeping.

For the next two to three weeks, or longer, the dog must not be allowed to initiate successful contact with the owner. Playing, petting, grooming etc. can go on as usual, but only at the owner’s initiation and not by the dog. Some dogs are very good at gaining attention. They will bark, follow the owner, rub against them, scratch at the door, wag their tails, look cute etc. to gain attention.

Before leaving a dog alone at home, the ideal would be to take it for a good walk or run to tire it out and then feed him a good portion of food in his “den” to create drowsiness. For the next ten to twenty minutes the dog must be totally ignored to hopefully begin to snooze while you get ready to leave. All attempts to gain attention must be ignored and a firm, “Go lie down” order be given if all else fails. Do not have any goodbyes, simple walk out the door.

When at home over a weekend or on holiday, the following exercises can be started. Give your dog a treat and quietly leave the room or yard for a short while, shutting the door behind you. Do not make a fuss when you return! Only play or interact with the dog when it is calm and relaxed. Gradually work your way up to where you can spend an hour or more in a separate part of the house without the dog being concerned about your absence. If the dog cannot be left alone in a room when you are at home, there is no chance of leaving it alone at home!

Prepare the dog for your departure. Dogs are very aware of the fact that their owners are about to leave. They see them getting dressed, change shoes, close windows, switch off the radio or TV and pick up the car keys. Stress is already building up in the dog and they begin to shadow the owner and become breathless without exercise; an indication of separation anxiety. Get dressed as you usually do, pick up the keys, switch off the radio and TV then sit down and read for a while.
Leave the house for a short while when the dog is used to being in another part of the house. This can best be done over a weekend. Go across the road and return. Next go around the block and return. Repeat as often as needed until the dog barely notices your coming and going.
Do not make a big fuss when leaving. Save your hugs and kisses for humans! No attention must be given to the dog for up to 20 minutes before leaving.
Paying too much attention when coming or leaving will make the dog more insecure. The dog must simply be ordered to go to its bed or kennel and told to stay.

Leave a treat. Something very nice to chew like a Kong with some peanut butter, cheese or something you know your dog likes and will find interesting and may even look forward to when you leave. Rawhide toys soaked in soup can provide a different flavoured chew a few times a week. Quietly place it near the dog before leaving. I have found it best to give it a short while before leaving so that the dog can get interested in it. Some dogs will bury a bone immediately you leave and dig it up when you return.

When you return avoid any excitement by delaying the greeting for a while. I now find that when I return home the dogs will be waiting in the front of the house to confirm that I am home and then immediately go to the spot where we will meet later. I then ask them to “fetch the kong” and we check to see if they got all the treats out. This creates new interest in the chew toy and soon the dogs entertain themselves by searching for chew toys left in the garden.

Practice the routine. The hardest part for the dog is immediately after you leave. Put on your coat, walk to the door and leave. Come back immediately, greet the dog calmly, tell him to sit and reward with a treat when he sits. Wait a few minutes and repeat the exercise, this time remaining outside a bit longer. Repeat. Repeat.
Exercise him regularly. Before leaving take him for a good romp so that he will be tired enough to sleep while you are away. This is especially true of the Working group of dogs such as Huskies, Pitbulls, Shepherds etc. that need to have their energy used up with 1 to 2 hours exercise in the morning and the evening. “A tired dog is a good dog.

Leave the radio on the station that you usually listen to so that he can hear familiar voices in the house.
Leave lights on if you go out in the evening so that it is more like you are at home.
Another dog or even a cat can help reduce stress. This may not work with all dogs; it could even make matters worse, so great care must be taken to ensure compatibility before getting another dog. Remember, it is not loneliness that causes the problem – it is people the dog craves for and usually one particular person in the house!

Together with behavioural training, discuss with your vet the possibility of using medication such as CLOMICALM which is reported to be fast and effective in relieving the suffering of these dogs. Clomicalm is NOT a tranquiliser or a sedative and will not affect the dog’s personality or memory.

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