Does Your Dog Suffer from Separation Anxiety?
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A few years ago we rescued our beloved Milkbone. He was a total sweetheart. But he was also a handful! MB had separation anxiety.
We would come home to find the house destroyed. We put him in his crate before we left and yet we would come home to find him free and wreaking havoc. He was quite the escape artist! To this day, we still have no idea how he managed to Houdini his way out of it every single time.
He flat out panicked when we went out. He clawed at the doorframe leaving pieces of paint and wood chips on the carpet. Undoubtedly, he was afraid that we would never come back.
The rescue told us that he had been returned from a home after pushing an air conditioner out the window to follow his owner! Wow, right? He probably destroyed 4 ac units in the 5 years we had him.
Does your dog pee or poop in the house when you go out? Maybe he or she incessantly barks, whines or cries? Perhaps, like MB they persistently chew and claw at doorways to try to escape? If so, perhaps you have a pup that struggles with separation anxiety. It is very common, especially with shelter dogs. (Maybe cats too, but I am horribly allergic to them so I really don’t know much when it comes to felines.)
What is Separation Anxiety?
According to Wikipedia, separation anxiety describes a condition in which a dog exhibits distress and behavior problems when separated from its handler. This anxiety typically manifests within half an hour of departure of their human but often can occur within mere minutes. This is very stressful for a dog and can cause many behavior problems as a direct result of their anxiety. It does not mean you have a bad dog.
If your furry friend demonstrates some of these behavior issues when you are home, then maybe the dog is not house-trained or has other types of issues. Separation anxiety comes from exactly that … separation. You will need to rule out medical issues – see a vet (I have personal experience with this but I am no doctor!)
Many times an untrained, or partially trained pet will exhibit some of this behavior as well. Juvenile destruction is, as they say, a puppy will be a puppy. Not sure anyone actually says this. The more common expression is “boys will be boys”. But the same theory applies here, no? Bottom line, it is important not to confuse anxiety with basic training.
Additionally, dogs need activities. Bored pups can become destructive pups. Try freezing a Kong with some peanut butter inside. Dogs love this and can keep them entertained for hours! Well, unless you have a Duke – then it may be more like minutes. But that’s a whole ‘nother story.
Common Causes for Separation Anxiety
As I said above, this type of anxiety is common for shelter pets. Why? Well, one of the main causes is change. Change in family, schedule, home, etc. Sadly, many animals find themselves in a shelter. Sometimes, they are found wandering the streets alone and are brought in by kind volunteers. Other times, owners dump their dogs at shelters citing reasons ranging from the dog is untrainable, to they just had a baby or they are moving and sadly even, the dog is too old and no fun anymore.
Regardless of the excuse, our canine friends often find themselves in a new environment, The kennel, is not always a good place for them and they begin to shut down or display signs of fear and depression. Even after being adopted and surrounded by a family and love, the dogs can harbor these feelings of fear. Without the benefit of doggie psychiatrists, they find themselves delving deeper and deeper into their anxiety. Sometimes, they literally fear their humans will not return. Because, for some of them, it has happened before.
(If this pulls at your heartstrings like it does mine … consider fostering or adopting.)
How To Help Your Pup With Separation Anxiety
So clearly the goal is to get your pet to tolerate and even enjoy alone time. Ok, but how? First things first. Do not scold or punish your dog. He or she is scared, not bad. If you were afraid and someone constantly yelled at you, would it make you not scared? Ridiculous notion, right? So why yell at your dog? Trust me it won’t help.
Make Them Feel Safe
You want to give your dog a predictable environment. The goal is to make them feel safe. Try starting with short separations. In order to avoid a fearful situation, simply leave the room while your dog is chewing a bone (or the cool Kong trick I mentioned earlier!) Come back in just a couple minutes to reassure your dog that you will indeed return. This can be repeated with slightly longer intervals to get your dog to feel secure that you will come back. Plus they will begin to associate your going out with a tasty treat!
In our old house, we had a separate room for Milkbone. It was HIS room. His crate and bed were in there along with all of his bones and toys. He knew that it was his safe space and it helped to make him more comfortable and confident. I realize not everyone has the luxury of giving their dog their own room. But at least make sure your pup has his or her own space. Do not ever make their space a punishment. If your dog is crate trained, then the crate is never a punishment. It is the dog’s safe place.
Typically, when we are getting ready to go out, we give off cues. Little signals that tell our pups we are going out. The mere sound of keys jingling can send your dog into hyper overdrive. Try changing up these cues. Maybe grab your keys and take them into the next room with you. Then just sit down on the couch and turn the tv on. Show your dog that grabbing your keys does not have to be a bad sign.
Put on your shoes and then just go to the kitchen and wash dishes. Changing up these little signs can help relax your dog so that they know every time you put your coat on, does not necessarily mean you are leaving them. Granted, there will be times that this is exactly what it means. But if your dog always associates you putting on your coat with leaving, it will trigger their anxiety. Calming them with these same cues teaches them to not immediately panic when they see your car keys come out.
Calm Comings and Goings
This was a huge one for us with Milkbone. Every time we were going out we would talk sweetly to him. “Love you bud. We will only be gone for a little while. Promise we will be back soon. Be a good boy, ok. Love you.” And every time we came home, we made it a big deal. “We are home Dogbert!” (See my post Who Rescued Who regarding this odd nickname.) Often, we made such a big deal when we came home, that it became a bigger deal when we were leaving. Grand departures and arrivals like this can make your pup incapable of dealing with being left alone. After all, dogs are pack animals and it goes against their very nature to be left alone.
Instead, make it a quick goodbye and actually refrain from petting your dog the second you get home. Take off your coat and put away your keys. Then calmly say hello and maybe give a tiny butt scratch. (Duke loves having his butt scratched!)
Dogs need exercise. Take them for long walks; play with them until they are completely tuckered out. Then let them nap it off. A tired pup is a good pup. Often it is boredom that leads to misbehavior. Especially with a highly anxious pup. They will often work up such an energy that they need to find an outlet. Give them one!
Our buddy MB not only suffered from separation anxiety but he also had many fears. Thunder. Fireworks. Loud noises of any kind really. We liked the idea of a thunder shirt. The feeling of being hugged seemed to help. He felt comforted and therefore felt calmer.
It didn’t always prevent his amazing escape artistry. Nor did it always stop the destruction and accidents.
But then, there was always doggie Xanax…