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Separation Anxiety in Dogs

By: Dr. Alice Moon-Fanelli

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Many owners erroneously feel that if separation is so stressful, then they should spend more time with their dog before leaving. Unfortunately this often exacerbates the condition. Everyone in the family should ignore your dog for 15 to 20 minutes before leaving the house and for at least 10 to 20 minutes after returning home. Alternatively, your leaving can be made a highlight of your dog's day by making it a "happy time" and the time at which she is fed. Departures should be quick and quiet. When departures (and returns) generate less anxiety (and excitement), your dog will begin to feel less tension in your absence. Remember to reward calm behavior.

You should attempt to randomize the cues indicating that you are preparing to leave. Changing the cues may take some trial and error. Some cues mean nothing to a dog, while others trigger anxiety. Make a list of the things you normally do before leaving for the day (and anxiety occurs) and the things done before a short time out (and no anxiety occurs).Then mix up the cues. For example, if your dog is fine when you go downstairs to do the laundry, you can try taking the laundry basket with you when you leave for work. If your dog becomes anxious when you pick up your keys or put on a coat, you should practice these things when you are not really leaving. You can, for example, stand up, put on a coat or pick up your car keys during television commercials, and then sit down again. You can also open and shut doors while you are home when you do not intend to leave. Entering and exiting through various doors you leave and return can also mix up cues for your dog.

When you are actually leaving, you should try not to give any cues to this effect. Leave your coat in the car and put your keys in the ignition well before leaving. It is important to randomize all the cues indicating departure (clothing, physical and vocal signals, interactions with family members, other pets, and so on).

The planned departure technique can be very effective for some dogs. This program is recommended only under special circumstances because it requires that you never leave your dog alone during the entire retraining period, which can be weeks or months.

Timing is everything when implementing this program. If your dog shows signs of anxiety (pacing, panting, barking excessively) the instant you walk out of the door, you should stand outside the door and wait until your dog is quiet for three seconds. Then go back inside quickly and reward your dog for being calm. If you return WHEN your dog is anxious, this reinforces your dog's tendency to display the behavior because it has the desired effect of reuniting the "pack" members. The goal is for your dog to connect being calm and relaxed with your return. Gradually work up to slightly longer departures 5 to 10 minutes as long as your dog remains quiet, and continue in this fashion. Eventually, you should be able to leave for the day without your dog becoming anxious when you depart. When performed correctly, this program can be very helpful in resolving separation anxiety.

Background measures:

Obedience training helps to instill confidence and independence in your dog. You should spend 5 to 10 minutes daily training your dog to obey one-word commands. It may be helpful to have training sessions occur in the room where your dog will be left when you are gone. All positive experiences (food, toys, sleep, training and attention) should be associated with this area of the home.

Your dog should receive 15 to 20 minutes of sustained aerobic exercise once, preferably twice, per day. It is often helpful to exercise your dog before you leave for the day. Exercise helps to dissipate anxiety and provides constructive interaction between you and your dog. It is best to allow your dog 15 to 20 minutes to calm down before you depart. Fetching a ball is good exercise, as is going for a brisk walk or run with your dog on leash. Even if your dog has a large yard to run in all day, the aerobic exercise will be beneficial since most dogs will not tire themselves if left to their own devices.

A decrease in some fear and anxiety has been seen in conditions when some dogs are switched from a high protein, high energy food to a low protein (16 to 22 percent), "all-natural" diet (with no artificial preservatives). Nature's Recipe Lamb and Rice is a good choice. You may wish to feed your dog a low protein diet for a trial period of 2 to 4 weeks to see if it makes a difference in her behavior. If no improvement is seen, you can switch back to the original diet. Dietary changes should be made gradually, usually over 3 days, in order to avoid gastrointestinal upsets.

Medication:

Medication is often used in conjunction with the above treatment strategies and is generally helpful. Traditionally antidepressants like clomipramine (Clomicalm®), fluoxetine (Prozac®) or amitriptyline (Elavil®) are recommended. Clomicalm® has recently been FDA approved for use in dogs to treat separation anxiety.

Other measures:

Some dogs with separation anxiety actually manage to escape from the house so we recommend that they wear identification tags on a buckle collar. You may also want to consider tattooing or microchipping your dog so she can be identified if she panics and escapes.

Audio or video recordings of your dog's behavior when you are away can help confirm a diagnosis of separation anxiety and can be helpful to allow you to monitor her improvement.

You may have wondered about getting a pet for your dog, so she won't be lonely when you are away. This almost never works because the excessively tight bonding is between you and your dog, not between another animal and your dog. Having company has little effect on the distress most dogs feel when you are away.

Dogs should never be punished for the physical consequences of their distress when separated from you. In fact, punishment can exacerbate any underlying anxiety and worsen the behavior problem. Dogs do not make the association between making a mess and being punished for it at a later time. They also cannot reason that if they don't make a mess in the future, they won't be punished.

Owners often report that the dog looks "guilty" when they return home to destruction or urine or feces on the floor. The dog is not exhibiting guilt as we know it. Your dog has learned that when you are present and a mess exists, she is in trouble. If someone who had never scolded your dog went into the house, and a mess was present, your dog would not look "guilty." In an attempt to avoid punishment, your dog may respond with submissive postures which you misinterpret as "guilt" or "remorse." Submissive postures are actually an effort to appease you and avoid confrontation.

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