Separation Anxiety


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Help your dog to cope with being alone
Separation anxiety refers to the distress that some dogs feel in the absence of a person (or less often an animal) to whom they feel highly attached.  The anxiety can be expressed in one or more ways including vocalization (barking, whining), destructive behaviour, salivation, pacing, house soiling, escaping or depression.
These undesirable behaviours need to be prevented from recurring in the short term.  Anxiety is a cascade type of phenomenon – once you get upset it is easier to become more upset very quickly.  The memory of the unpleasant experience and the last time anxiety occurred would make the same situation even more stressful for the dog on the next occasion.  Hence the need to avoid these episodes when ever possible until there is time to implement longer term strategies which will enable the dog to cope with separation with out distress.
Here are some short term strategies that can help your dog cope.
Denning and “Dog-sitting”
Some mildly affected dogs may accept confinement in an exercise pen, crate, cubby or den.  It is ideal if an item such as an unwashed sweater can be placed with the dog, together with appropriate chew toys such as Kongs.  Some dogs may prefer the car and settle better there.  However be aware of the heat on warm days and in some cases the dog is very destructive.
Another alternative is access to a place closely associated with the owner such as a couch or bed.
You may have a friend or neighbour who is willing to check on the dog at certain intervals or temporarily “dog-sit”.  “Doggie Daycare” at a veterinary hospital or boarding kennels can be a great help at those times early in the programme when you just have to leave.
Departure Routines
Many dogs will readily identify departure routines and use them as cues to become distressed.  Ideally we need to try and identify ways that will relax the dog and help him tolerate your departure better.  It is useful to carry out activities such as picking up keys, putting on a uniform or packing a briefcase but then staying home.  Practice these mock departures many times.  Alternatively, you might be aware of a cue that helps your dog relax eg putting on joggers indicates a short departure for a morning jog.
You might put the joggers on and got to work.  This can help to ensure that the dog is unable to reliably predict which activities precede your departure.
Relaxation Cues
On days when you are leaving for very short periods only, you can start to develop some specific cues that indicate your return is imminent.  These could include such things as a particular piece of music playing, a special rug or blanket, a novel toy etc.  These signal to the dog that the departures are “safe” and that you will be back very soon and can be provided during a desensitization programme.  These items must be removed at other times or they will  lose their significance.
Greetings and Departures
Greetings and departures should be down-played.  The dog should be ignored 15 minutes before you leave and for 15 minutes after you return.  This helps to avoid the intense highs and lows that are contributing to the anxiety levels your pet is experiencing.  Setting a light or a radio on a timer programmed to come on 30 minutes before your arrival home can help to defuse the sudden nature of your return.
In the case of dogs with separation anxiety we often come home to find precious things destroyed or urine or feces on the carpet.  Our bodies get tense and we speak with a loud stern voice.  Dogs are very sensitive to body language – it is a large part  of their communication with each other.  You think your dog looks “guilty” for what he has done, but in reality he is just responding to your angry body language and submitting to your authority.  Some dogs will cower even before you have the opportunity to assess if any damage has been done.  This is because they have learned from past experience that you are displeased if there is any destruction or soiling, not as a result of guilt about making the mess.  In fact, your dog would show exactly the same reaction if another dog were responsible for the problem.
Punishment in these circumstances will only make him more anxious and the signs of distress will get worse.  Remember he is not doing this out of spite but because he is anxious about being left alone.