Nipping Separation Anxiety in the Bud
If you have just rehomed a dog, then you just may be surprised by how quickly you develop a powerful bond with your canine companion. It may be hard to leave him to go to work for the very first time, and you may worry if he starts showing signs of distress every time you close the door behind you.
Canine boredom and sadness to see a ‘human’ leave for work does not equate to separation anxiety; the former is common while the latter is a less frequent condition that requires help from a veterinary behaviouralist. In this post, we discuss the nature of anxiety and highlight popular approaches to quell it.
What are the Symptoms of Separation Anxiety?
Signs that your dog might be battling separation anxiety include extreme nervousness when you leave, panting, howling, barking, urinating and defecating inside the home, and gnawing at furniture/destroying soft furnishings and clothing items.
If your home is dirty when you get back, or precious items have been destroyed, it is vital to understand that your dog is not trying to purposely ‘punish’ you for leaving. Rather, all these behaviors are merely outlets for the devastating effects of panic.
What Causes Separation Anxiety?
Past trauma and fear of abandonment can bring about separation anxiety in a dog that has not previously showed signs of this condition, as can a change of guardian/family, schedule, or residence.
Why is a Vet Visit Indicated?
Your vet will be able to rule out the possibility of any other problems that may be causing the behaviour, including incontinence, medication, and other problems. Once your dog is diagnosed with separation anxiety, training can begin.
When the issue is not severe and mainly caused by boredom, simple strategies can work to reduce the degree of damage. To stop your dog chewing on wooden furniture, for instance, a simple spray comprising one cup of water and 20 drops of orange or lemon essential oil, can be sprayed onto furniture as a repellent.
Dogs need to be stimulated mentally and physically; an energetic walk daily is vital, and challenging toys (such as stuffed Kong toys) will keep your dog occupied when you are away.
Home cameras can also enable you to keep an eye on Fido when you are away, and dedicated pet chat devices exist that enable you to take part in ‘conference calls’ with your dog.
When separation anxiety is more serious, a dog behaviouralist can guide you through desensitization therapy, which essentially involves leaving your dog alone for increasingly longer periods of time. This therapy can take various weeks so be patient and consider a dog sitter if you have to be away from home for various hours on end, or you are working overtime.
The first few training sessions comprise ‘pre-departure cues’. Usually, your dog starts feeling anxious as soon as he realises you are getting ready to leave (think of your usual routine - it may comprise putting on your shoes, grabbing your bag and coat and heading for the door). The training starts with you performing this routine then staying home; this routine is repeated various times, until your dog stops associating it with abandonment.
In extreme cases of separation anxiety, veterinarians can prescribe medication, to help dogs tolerate solitude without severe distress. Often, however, steps such as increasing exercise and investing time in desensitisation training, do the trick. The key is to be patient, put out fires as they arise, and consider temporary help such as dog walkers or visits from neighbours during the day to soothe your dog. It is vital to avoid punishing or crating a dog with anxiety, since this will only add to his distress.
Author: Janette Bedlow