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Separation Anxiety: Characteristics and Common Sense Solutions

by Melissa Gabor, Wagging Tails Dog Services

Characteristics Of Separation Anxiety

Your dog becomes anxious when left alone for any amount of time;

  • Whenever you are home, your dog is your shadow and follows you everywhere; When you arrive home, your dog frantically greeting you;
  • When you are preparing to leave, your dog reacts with excitement, depression, or anxiety;
  • Your dog destroys items when you are gone, such as excessively digging, chewing, and scratching at doors or windows;
  • Your dog is vocal when you are gone, such as howling, barking, or crying;
  • Other behaviours may include: urinating and defecating; pacing, panting, whining and hiding.

Simple Things You Can You Do To Reduce The Anxiety

  • Keep arrivals and departures low-key. When you arrive home, ignore your dog for the first few minutes, then calmly pet him. I find it helpful to put my dogs in the backyard for a few minutes, which helps to release excess excitement;
  • Leave your dog with an article of clothing that smells like you, such as a t-shirt you recently wore;
  • If your dog engages in destructive chewing as part of his separation anxiety, offer him a chew toy, such as a kong filled with peanut butter or a Nylabone®;
  • Teaching the Sit-Stay and Down-Stay - your goal is to be able to briefly move into another room and out of sight while your companion is in the "stay" position. This teaches your dog to stay calm when you are out of sight. Always complete the exercise by giving your dog praise or a treat;
  • Establish a "safety cue"-a word or action that you use every time you leave that tells your dog you'll be back, such as leaving the radio on, bringing out a special toy, such as a favourite stuffed animal or a chew toy.
  • If the anxiety continues, consult your veterinarian about using an anti-anxiety medication and contact a dog behaviourist to help your dog develop coping strategies.
  • For severe cases of separation anxiety, a doggy day care or dog walker may help to reduce some of the anxiety, and in the very least, breaks the day up for your companion.
  • The Desensitization Technique can be used for severe cases of separation, under the guidance of an experienced trainer or dog behavourist.

Desensitization Technique

With this technique, you are helping your dog develop and maintain a state of calm when you leave your dog alone:

  1. Begin your departure routine, such as getting your keys, and putting on your coat. Sit down. Repeat this step until your dog shows no distress in response to your activities.
  2. Engage in your departure routine and go to the door and open it, then sit back down.
  3. Now, go outside, leaving the door open, then return.
  4. Lastly, go outside, close the door, then immediately return. Slowly get your dog accustomed to being alone with the door closed between you for several seconds.
  5. Proceed very gradually from step to step, repeating each step until your dog shows no signs of distress. The number of repetitions will vary depending on the severity of the problem. If at any time in this process your actions produce an anxiety response in your dog, you've proceeded too fast. Return to an earlier step in the process and practice this step until the dog shows no distress response, then proceed to the next step.
  6. Once your dog is tolerating your being on the other side of the door for several seconds, begin short-duration absences. This step involves giving the dog a verbal cue (for example, "I'll be back"), leaving, and then returning within a minute. Your return must be low-key: Either ignore your dog or greet him quietly and calmly. If he shows no signs of distress, repeat the exercise. If he appears anxious, wait until he relaxes to repeat the exercise. Gradually increase the length of time you're gone.
  7. Practice as many absences as possible that last less than ten minutes. You can do many departures within one session if your dog relaxes sufficiently between departures. You should also scatter practice departures and short-duration absences throughout the day.
  8. Once your dog can handle short absences (30 to 90 minutes), he'll usually be able to handle longer intervals alone and you won't have to repeat this process every time you are planning a longer absence. The hard part is at the beginning, but the job gets easier as you go along. Nevertheless, you must go slowly at first. How long it takes to condition your dog to being alone depends on the severity of his problem.*

Sources: The Animal Health Channel & The Humane Society of the United States

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