How To Remedy Your Dog's Separation Anxiety

Scientists have filmed separation-anxious dogs and discovered they're usually tearing up furniture or performing other destructive acts during the first 30-60 minutes of their owner's absence.

If you think you have a dog problem, consider this. A friend of mine purchased a well-bred English setter pup that had all the makings of a first-class companion/gun dog. My friend's life was such that for the initial 9 months of his time with the setter, man and pup were together constantly.

Then those circumstances changed, and my friend had to be away from the promising pup for 10 to 12 hours each working day and occasionally on weekends. That lifestyle shift brought their happy relationship to an abrupt halt.

When my friend arrived home after the first long day away from the pup, the dancing, barking, tail-wagging setter was waiting for him at the front door. He greeted her effusively, then walked into his living room … and was confronted with wreckage.

Drapes were stripped from the windows, furniture was chewed, cushions were torn apart, newspapers were shredded, lamps were knocked over with their shades ripped and piles and puddles covered the floor. And that was just the living room; the fine setter pup had thoroughly demolished the entire interior of my friend's house.

Unfortunately, my friend's experience is relatively common among dog owners who house their animals inside and leave them unconfined during absences. That's not to say the bulk of dogs wreak such destruction upon their surroundings when left alone.

However, animal researchers consider the problem to be second only to aggression on the list of most frequently occurring canine behavioral difficulties.

A number of reasons exist for destructive canine behavior, but the majority of them are lumped (not always accurately) into a single category called separation anxiety, a panic reaction that takes place when dogs are separated from their owners. Although my friend's case was extreme, the general symptoms of separation anxiety are similar to those exhibited by his English setter—my unlucky friend experienced a broad range of home destruction rather than the more common limited damage. But whatever a dog's behavior, I'll bet a year's supply of chow it won't make you smile.

Home Alone
Classic separation anxiety typically involves dogs that have become so attached to one person they can't tolerate being left alone. Such dogs haven't learned to cope with separation from their primary attachment figure; thus, they have a powerful and needy involvement with their owners and show it by always being underfoot, never letting their owner get out of sight and exhibiting mild nervousness at separations of mere moments.

With these dogs, stepping into a garage or using a bathroom can become an issue.

Without going into all the possible underlying causes, suffice it to say curing, or at least diminishing, well-developed separation anxiety is difficult and time-consuming.

Although it's nearly impossible to be completely rational when you find your house or vehicle trashed, one thing to keep in mind is your dog might have suffered an uncontrollable panic attack and was not revenging himself on you for leaving. However tempting it might be to discipline your dog, it's pointless. Given that dogs' destructive reactions are panic-based, behaviorists believe the only way to handle the problem is to relieve or ease the level of panic and allow animals to relax and control their behavior.

Behaviorists also agree the most effective way to relax an anxious dog is to desensitize it to your comings and goings by leaving your house repeatedly during the course of a day for however long it takes to relieve its panic. At first, these conditioning absences should be short, no more than a minute or two. As your dog shows fewer symptoms, gradually—a key word—increase your time away. An important point is to not make a fuss over your dog when you leave and return. When departing, use a short phrase (always the same) like “I'll be back” or “Be good”—anything that gives your dog a cue to associate with brief absences it can transfer to longer separations to come. When you return, give your dog time to settle down before calmly greeting or petting it.

Two's Company
There's a theory that separation anxiety can be alleviated by introducing a second dog, or even a cat, to your household. This is a very human reaction; we believe our dogs are lonely, as we would be if left by ourselves for extended periods. For the most part, canine loneliness isn't the major issue. However, there are numerous success stories of separation anxiety being solved by the addition of another animal. The best that can be said is this solution might work, and that you won't know until you try it.

Of course, like all things dealing with dogs, the best approach is to avoid the problem altogether. Soon after you bring a pup home, think about conditioning it to your arrivals and departures. If a youngster is properly crate-trained and gradually taught to accept confinement while you're absent, separation anxiety will rarely be an issue. Similar to older dogs, don't fuss over a pup when you come or go; put it in its crate, tell it it's a good dog and leave. A second way to avoid anxiety troubles is to kennel dogs outside—one of the reasons professional breeders and trainers don't have anxious dogs.

Although separation anxiety is a blanket term for destructive behavior, there are situations when panic attacks might not be the root cause. Some dogs, researchers believe, become just plain bored when deprived of social interactions, adequate exercise and opportunities to engage in normal dog behavior. Hunting dogs are by no means immune to separation anxiety—Labrador retrievers appear to have more of a tendency toward the problem than some other breeds—but they're also high-energy animals that thrive on activity. When a well-bred gun dog begins to exhibit destructive behavior, one of the first remedies to try is increasing exercise and training levels. In other words, spend time with a dog and give it something to do that focuses its inherent skills and energy.

The upshot is to avoid both the short- and long-term problems my friend experienced. After more than a year of his dog's destructive separation anxiety, enhanced by boredom and lack of exercise and social contacts, my friend married and settled into a more predictable lifestyle. Even with that stabilizing influence, his setter never completely recovered from her early trauma and remains untrustworthy. Nor did she fulfill her early promise as a working gun dog.

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