Summer seems to be people’s preferred season to invite a new canine to join their family. Makes sense: House training, walking, and driving to the training school are way more pleasant without 2 feet of snow and the world in a deep freeze. Plus, being off work and school means more time is available for the pooch, and people hope that by the time everyone slides back into their normal routine that she’ll be acclimated to her new digs and not object to being left alone for several hours each day. Sometimes that works. And sometimes it doesn’t, and the dog, suddenly without her social group members and despite best intentions, stresses out.
Separation anxiety is one of the toughest behavioral issues. A dog who panics when left often damages doors and window frames, defecates and urinates in the house, and barks or howls – loudly and prolonged. Those are the expressions most difficult to live with, but even the lesser ones: Jumping, clawing and mouthing, before the person leaves and also when s/he re-enters, make life with a dog unpleasant.
On top, a crate makes matters worse if perceived as a trap rather than a refuge, which is more often the case than you might think, and injuries occur when the dog desperately attempts to free herself.
On top of that, there isn’t an easy, quick fix solution. However, there are a number of things you can do.
Dogs with separation anxiety feel unsafe when left alone, and one of the best ways to make her feel safe is to reassure her that care is available when she needs it. With many micro exists and enters the dog experiences exactly that. If you return before she becomes unnerved, but latest with the first whimper, she will increasingly feel more secure in her home environment and ability to communicate, and then can be left for increasingly longer periods of time.
When you leave, give your dog a departure cue, a precise word and gesture that informs her what is happening next. Information a dog understands makes events more predictable, and that can decrease anxiety, including separation or isolation angst. I use “seeya” and the typical bye-bye hand signal.
When you return, acknowledge your dog right away. Yes, I know that is against popular opinion, but when you reunite your dog is really excited to have you back, and that often starts when she hears the car, footsteps, or keys in the door. Whenever you ignore her when she is so happy to see you, you raise frustration and might build underlying tension, and that is counterproductive when we deal with anxiety issues. Acknowledge, but don’t make it a big event. Ask your dog to perform a couple of tricks, or engage her in a hand-target game. That is structured interaction without overstimulation, and because she knows that she gets a piece of you as soon as you walk in the door, she is less stressed and calms quicker. After the initial hello, go about your business, and once she lost focus on you, invite her for a longer walk or playtime.
What you do when you are home is as important as your exit and re-enter behavior. Never deprive your dog of attention and interactions, but you also want to create opportunities for her to have fun without you. In our home, we are very affectionate and interactive with the dogs, but we still have a balance and every day there are times when I do human-only stuff, with the pooches allowed to hang around, but otherwise ignored. If you constantly stroke and entertain your dog, you make yourself indispensable and will be sorely missed when you are gone. On that note, I believe that every dog should own an accessible, well-stocked toy box. It is essential for learning to
Overly pampering a dog can create separation anxiety, but being inconsistent, overbearing, erratic or angry, in other words putting pressure on the dog, also does. Suzanne Clothier, author of “Bones Would Rain from the Sky”, said at one of her seminars that how dogs respond to dogs and people depends on how they know them. I’d like to add places to that. Places by extension. If the group the dog lives with feels safe, the place by association also does, and vice versa.
There is more:
Return home at different times. Dogs easily get stuck in a routine and have an internal clock. If you always come back at the same time, your dog will expect that and stress when you happen to be late.
Dogs connect the dots, and dogs with separation anxiety are hyper-aware of dots/cues that precede their person’s departure and charge up long before the door closes behind them. Changing the routine can decrease that anticipatory agitation.
Leaving the radio or TV on during your absence can help if it is a safety cue. Safety cues are anything that feel good already, and can include a filled Kong or safe chew toy. However, with the radio/TV there is the added benefit that it tunes out outside noises, and that’s important because if your dog thinks that every car she hears is yours, she won’t be able to chill but stay wound up the whole time you are out. Introduce the safety cue when you are home, then when you are in another room, then when you exit the front door but re-enter right away, then gradually increase the time you are gone.
The D.A.P. collar or diffuser releases appeasing pheromones and is marketed as easing dogs’ anxieties. Good pet stores and veterinary clinics carry them, and also other natural products such as Biocalm. They don’t replace behavior modification, but can take the edge off and hence accelerate success.
What about another dog for companionship? Although I have had clients where this worked, it can also backfire: There is a real risk that anxiety spills over to the initially problem free dog. As well, some dogs are only interested in their human and won’t accept a canine replacement.
All of the outlined steps should happen simultaneously, not consecutively. The good news is that with patience, most dogs will improve. However, sometimes the temporary use of psychopharmacological drugs is necessary. Your friendly holistic veterinarian can help you with that.