Positively Tackling Separation Anxiety (Victoria Stilwell)
Separation anxiety is one of the most difficult behavior problems to deal with in dogs because successful modification relies on people being present at all times during what can be a long training process. It is a hugely important problem to solve, both for dog and owner, as separation anxiety is one of the main reasons why dogs are relinquished to shelters every year.
Dogs and humans have a mutual need to form social attachments, and while dogs may suffer from a little separation distress at times, most of us learn to cope with a person’s absence. In contrast, there are some dogs that become anxious when left alone and exhibit some or all of the classic signs of that anxiety including:
excessive vocalization (barking)
pacing and restlessness
whining and crying
eating through walls
destroying points of entry
jumping through open and/or closed windows
Separation anxiety has many causes, but it is believed that genetics and/or an early history of abandonment can contribute to what can quickly develop into a deeply rooted problem which is highly resistant to change.
Before a treatment plan can be designed, it is important to make sure your dog is suffering from anxiety rather than just being a bored dog trying to entertain herself during your absence. Setting up a video camera and recording your dog’s actions while she is alone will give a more accurate picture as to the cause of the behavior.
The best way to find out whether constant barking or destruction is just boredom or true anxiety is to video your dog when he is alone. This is easily done by putting a camera on a tripod and focusing it on areas where the destruction is worst or by the door that is used most regularly to come and go. If the barking, whining and destruction is very severe particularly within the first 30 minutes of your departure, that is a good indicator that your dog is suffering some distress on separation. If however your dog goes to sleep after you leave and then wakes up and barks or chews, the behavior is more likely to be due to boredom.
Why Does My Anxious Dog Destroy My House? Dogs that suffer from separation anxiety can display anything from minor to major destruction when left alone. Such destruction is normally focused on points of entry such as doors and windows, or places and objects that are more intimately associated with an owner such as shoes, the bed or the sofa.
Anxious dogs often chew things because chewing releases pleasurable endorphins into the body, promoting a feeling of calm – just as some humans release tension by biting their nails.
Of course it can be distressing to come back to a home that has been damaged by your dog, but try to avoid responding using physical or emotional punishment – d these are ineffective and only serve to increase your dog’s anxiety.
How Do I Start Modifying My Dog’s Separation Anxiety?
First and foremost, anxious dogs require appropriate exercise, a potent stress reliever, and an hour of exercise a day can help lessen a dog’s anxiety, being particularly effective if done just before your departure.
Boredom and lack of exercise contributes to anxiety. If your dog has been physically exercised and mentally stimulated before you leave, this might increase his ability to cope while you are away.
Daily exercise can be complimented with a compliance teaching program that allows your dog to learn new basic cues centered on impulse control and problem solving. This helps activate the learning part of your dog’s brain which in turn deactivates the emotional center of the brain responsible for the anxiety.
It is much easier for your dog to cope with your departure if you make little fuss of her when leaving. The same is true when you return.
Dogs are also sensitive to changes in their environment and the transition from the energy when you are present to silence in the home when you leave is profound. Leaving lights on and tools like DogTV or playing specially-designed calming music for dogs during your absence will help make the transition easier.
Desensitization to departure triggers is important, as dogs can become anxious as soon as they see you picking up keys and putting on your coat.
Masking these triggers by hiding the keys in a different place, using a different bag or not wearing your coat can help, but you might find your dog becomes wise to what you are doing as departure energy is difficult to hide.
Putting on a coat and exiting followed immediately by a return, allows your dog to see the trigger in a different light – the coat doesn’t always mean you are going to leave for a long period of time.
Constant repetition over a number of days can help desensitize your dog until departures no longer trigger a response.
Time spent away can be gradually increased until your dog is confident that you will always return.
Should I Leave My Dog With Appropriate Activity Toys?
Your dog might be too anxious to eat or play with a toy when you are absent, so it is important to introduce her favorite toys and/or chews while you are present, building up a positive emotion around that particular toy.
Once that positive feeling around toys has been built you can give them a few minutes before you depart which will allow her to focus on the toy rather than you leaving.
Interactive toys such as rubber toys stuffed with treats and treat balls can help re-focus the mind, causing your dog to release anxious energy on an appropriate item rather than the sofa.
Treatment for separation anxiety can be highly effective if implemented diligently and a once destructive and anxious dog can become a much more relaxed and contented animal. In most cases, true separation anxiety cases require the guidance of a qualified positive dog trainer to help the behavior modification process.