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Dog separation anxiety causes and current solutions

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Dog separation anxiety can be one of the saddest and cruellest behavioural traits that many owners and dogs have to deal with. Separation anxiety is a common behavioral problem that happens when a dog is separated from its "pack" or owners.

Signs that your dog may be heading towards such stress inducing separation anxiety behavior can be:

• Dog frequently exhibits signs of anxiety. This includes depression (not eating or moving much) or excessive excitement when you are about to leave home

• following you from room to room when you are at home is an overly strong attachment.
• Upon returning to home they jump at you with excess excitement and find it hard to become calm again.

These in itself are not necessarily a problem, the issue is that they are usually a precursor to dog separation anxiety that can present itself in the following symptoms:

  • excessive salivation
  • barking and whining,
  • destroying items in the home,  (tearing up pillows/ clothing may be to get closer to your scent)
  • attempting to escape from the crate, room or yard (to follow you)
  • eliminating in the house or other living quarters rather than the yard (taking new territory)
  • scratching at walls, doors, floors in an attempt to escape

Dog separation anxiety issues

Firstly the dog is causing itself and its owner major stress that can have a high immediate negative impact on health. Next there can be considerable destruction to the home and the dog (bleeding paws etc) which can be expensive and debilitating to the dog

Long term separation anxiety can see a dog locked in this vicious cycle of long term stress so that it is harder for the dog to rehabilitate and just relax at home

Excessive barking can lead to neighbor complaints and eventual removal of the dog.

Separation anxiety often leads to owners feeling less likely to want to allow their dog to be socialized in off lead areas. This can further reinforce the dogs behavior as it can only bond and take its pack information from its owner rather than other dogs.

The dog may escape and cause injury to itself or others.

DOG SEPARATION ANXIETY TREATMENT GOALS

The goal of dog anxiety treatment is to teach a dog how to be calm and relaxed when the owner is away. Treatment often involves changes to:

  • Dog/ owner interactions
  • leaving and return situations
  • teaching the dog how to behave when alone,
  • environmental changes  to the house and yard

Before I discuss traditional methods of dealing with separation anxiety. Cesar Milans’ site has an article that also mentions  that some dogs can have ‘ simulated separation anxiety’. This is not a true stress induced reaction to an owner leaving, but simply the dog knowing that it will receive attention if he acts badly. “For some dogs, even being verbally reprimanded for such behavior is rewarding because he feels he was noticed. Negative attention can be a reward in many cases where the owner is unaware that certain needs of his dog are not being met.”

THE SOLUTION FOR ALL DOGS BEFORE ANXIETY STARTS

“Some destruction and stress can be created by boredom and lack of exercise or even by the characteristics of the breed. Terriers are born to dig, retrievers to carry and protection breeds to protect. So in some instances we are holding them back from their instincts and drives, rather than nurturing them. Remember Cesar’s mantra, which is a good start to correcting these problems: Exercise, discipline, and then affection. Also – use the “no talk, no eye contact” approach.” Ref 1

I thought I would bring this information to the surface, because MANY people and even some of my clients have been unaware of the MASSIVE importance that exercise plays in the development of a dog’s life. Daily exercise (twice per day preferably) is not a luxury, it is mandatory of you want your dog to ‘behave normally’. As the quote above suggests, when dogs are at home with us we can micro manage how they behave and give them guidance. But a dog that has become dependent on us, then is ‘cut free’ by us ‘abandoning’ them can suffer terrible anxiety with their pack leader gone. They will naturally revert to their most dominant behavior, which usually results in what humans call trouble.

An exercised dog that has had a chance to run and sniff other dogs and the environment until it is mentally and physically tired out has little energy left to put into ‘misbehaving’ or ‘separation anxiety’.

TRUE dog separation anxiety

The first of the treatment goals is to address thet dog/ owner interactions .

The is to help the dog become more independent and less anxious. It is desirable for the dog to consider you as the pack leader when you are at home, but not to the level that they follow you from room to room. Then when you leave the dog has to be confident enough to know that it is in charge and that you will be coming home at some stage to interact with it.

The change in the dog owner dynamic is to ignore ‘attention-seeking behaviour’ when you are at home with the dog, and reward the dog with dog treats and patting only when they are calm and relaxed. They need to be separate from you when you are at home at some stage. Comforting the dog all of the time and being overly affectionate will only build on your bond in a negative way as the dog will then expect you to always be there and it will never have to be alone, or think for itself.

In some cases, owner’s may even feel the need to touch and talk to their dog the whole time that they are home, like they might with a partner. By continually disturbing their relaxation owners are inadvertently conditioning the dog to think that their main job is to entertain the owner all the time. You can see how easy it would be for  such a dog to think that its letting the side down by not going on journeys with its partner/ owner.

You should be aware that vets often have a very different treatment path to dog behaviorists. A good behaviorist will change your dogs behavior by addressing the root causes, while a vet is more likely to prescribe anxiety drugs to sedate the dog. Like with humans, sedation is only a short term solution at best. With some dogs sedation can actually heighten their anxiety as the dog begins to feel strange on the drugs and further out of control.

Changes in leaving and return routines

The next big change in breaking the anxiety cycle is to change how you leave your home. Some owners go through a routine of patting and giving their dogs treats and unintentionally working the dog up into a frenzy before they leave. They think that their words will over rule their actions, but dogs take far more notice of the attention and the anxiety that the owners are feeling in leaving their dog than the owners realize.

TO resolve this it is strongly recommended that the owner take the dog for a 45 minutes on lead or off-lead run THEN up to 30 minute before leaving for work on the morning, to completely ignore their dog. Change of routine also means walking different paths inside of the house and doing different things before leaving the house. Essentially you are diffusing your dogs ability to predict that you are about to leave and so you are decreasing the time that it can become anxious about you leaving. Examples are like picking up dog leads and house keys then putting them back so that these cues alone can not predict you are leaving.

Likewise upon return to the home, the owner needs to greet the dog softly and quietly as if there is nothing wrong, no matter how much of a fuss the dog makes. And the big point here is that you can only speak and touch the dog after it has settled down and has become calm. This human change in behavior is often as difficult as the owner learning to leave the house without fuss.

Teaching your dog how to behave when alone

It is said that once you have desensitized your dog to leaving cues (such as keys rattling) that you can desensitize it further by taking short random trips away from the house. These small absences are not enough for the dog to settle into its complete anxiety routine, but they are long enough and random enough that it will learn that every time you go away it will not be for a very long time.

In this case dog behavior modification takes an example directly from human classical conditioning psychology. As explained: “classical conditioning is used such that a neutral stimulus is paired with a conditioned stimulus and results in a conditioned response. In this case, the neutral stimulus, NS = owner departure; the conditioned stimulus CS = 'safety cue'; and the conditioned response CR = good behavior, feeling relaxed.” Ref 2  It is suggested that the following safety cues can be used:  an auditory signal (bell), visual (a towel being placed in a cozy spot just prior to leaving), or a combination of auditory/ visual / smells.

Environmental changes

As mentioned early, the prime method of changing anxiety patterns may be as simple as taking your dog for a long walk in the morning (regardless of the weather). A well exercised happy dog will often be beyond bothering with being anxious about what the owner is doing. Be aware that while some people can use ‘doggy daycare’ for dog minding, that for some anxious dogs that feel that they have to play or perform all of the time. And so doggy daycare can be one of the largest stress inducing situations that a dog will ever be placed into. Trapped in a room of strange anxious dogs does not always make for a relaxing time for your dog.

Leaving a radio on to mask sudden load street noises, filling large unbreakable toys with treats, a dog walker visit in the middle of the day can further burn off any residual energy.

Continual training of your dog inside your home as well as sitting at curbs, how to interact with other dogs etc will reinforce that you are the leader and your dog will learn what are acceptable behaviors. Claiming your space at the door when you have visitors, having them sit and wait for when they can eat the food you have just placed in their bowl is all part of discipline and realigning the way that your dog thinks. You will find many dogs taught this way also know how to behave ‘nicely’ when you leave the home.

CONCLUSIONS

Dog separation anxiety can become debilitating and costly to many dogs and owners. There are usually no quick fixes and the only long term solution appears to be behavior modification of both dog and owner. Paradoxically it appears that while certain breeds and shelter dogs may be more susceptible to learning this behavior, that it is often a misguided over application of love without sufficient exercise and discipline that may be the cause of some of these dogs anxiety issues.

This is one topic that in many cases truly needs to consultation of a dog behavior expert to resolve the issues. If you have such a dog or see your dog becoming more anxious on your departures, the main advice is to get onto resolving the issues sooner rather than later for all of your sakes. Good luck!

 

Article by Bruce Dwyer. If you wish to use any of this information please refer to the article as a reference and provide a link to http://www.dogwalkersmelbourne.com.au

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References

Ref 1  www.cesarsway.com/tips/dogtraining/Dealing-with-Separation-Anxiety-by-Martin-Deeley

Ref 2  http://kb.rspca.org.au/What-can-I-do-if-my-dog-has-separation-anxiety_319.html

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