Separation anxiety is a complex issue that faces many owners. It is rarely realistic to be with your dog 24/7. If you can - GREAT! If not, there are times when separation anxiety can be very detrimental to your dog. Has your dog scratched the back door until his paws were bleeding? Does your dog lunge at the plate glass window in an attempt to join you outside? At times, it may not be as physically dangerous, but it still may be very disruptive to you and your dog.
- Determine if this truly is separation anxiety. There are medical issues that can contribute to your dog's anxiety. For example, hypothyroidism can cause aggressiveness in dogs that can be misinterpreted as separation anxiety. Also, Cushing's disease (aka hyperadrenocorticism) can cause your dog to NEED frequent trips to the bathroom. A well-trained dog will do anything possible to avoid going to the bathroom in the house. This need can manifest itself in many different ways, including illogical attempts to get outside.
A visit to your veterinarian can help eliminate medical issue that you may be facing. Routine blood work often includes a CBC (complete blood count), chemistry panel, thyroid test, and a urinalysis. If any other tests are in order, your veterinarian can guide you in the right direction.
- Discuss separation anxiety with your veterinarian. Since you are already at your veterinarian's office, take the opportunity to discuss separation anxiety with your vet. Many well-educated veterinarians have the ability to recommend some behavior modification therapy or drug therapy. In the rare event that your dog's anxiety is extreme, your veterinarian may also recommend referral to a veterinary behaviorist. If your veterinarian feels that referral is necessary, your dog's symptoms may be more severe than you realize.
- Maintain a routine. For many of us, routine is something that we have come to enjoy. Dogs are no different. Keep them on a schedule. It can be very soothing to your dog. This includes bathroom breaks, eating, rest breaks, and playing. If your dog knows that they get to go for a walk after work, they may be less tempted to destroy everything when you leave.
- Do not make a big deal about coming and going. Obviously, separation anxiety centers around the comings and goings of the family. In fact, most destruction and poor behavior occurs within 15 minutes of leaving. Once you have established the routine, please do not make a big deal about leaving. Engage your dog in a good behavior (see below) and quietly slip out the door. Scenes such as, "Oh what a good boy, Mommy's going to leave, but she'll be back at the end of the day..." does nothing for your dog except get them worked up.
- Engage their attention in a good behavior. Dogs like to chew. There is nothing wrong with this behavior unless it is your favorite shoes or your checkbook. A special toy or "activity" toy can often engage their attention while you quietly slip out of the door. Busy Buddy toys are one great toy that all dog lovers should invest in. These are very tough toys to which you can add food or peanut butter (or both). As your dog focuses its energy on retrieving the food out of the Busy Buddy toy, your can quietly slip out the door. Do not give them a treat like this until you are ready to leave. Also, give them these treats at other times, so they do not come to associate the treat with you leaving. Weekends and evenings are a great time to add these treats as well.
- Exercise your dog. Unless your veterinarian has told you otherwise, exercise is a great way to relieve some of your dog's anxiety. A 20-minute walk a day is a minimum to help rid your dog of excess energy. If your dog suffers from separation anxiety, try a walk in the morning and a second walk after work. A walk should be fairly quick-paced and can be extended depending on the health of your dog (and of course, you).
- Cage your dog. Caging your dog in a metal kennel can be beneficial, as long as your dog does not engage in self-destructive behavior. Self-destructive behavior can include chewing at the cage door until your dog's gums bleed, scratching at the floor until his feet bleed, or chewing on himself. Also, this can be very useful for short-term management and should not be seen as a long-term solution.
- If none of these techniques help, see your veterinarian. Some of you did not read #1 and #2 - and that's ok. But now, if your dog is still suffering from separation anxiety, you really need to visit your veterinarian. There is medication that can often help reduce the anxiety your dog suffers from. This medication can provide a very high quality of life and reduce your stress and worries as well.
Separation anxiety is a frustrating condition for dog owners. Know that there are some techniques and medications that can help so that both you and your dog can live happier, healthier lives.
Dr. Ed is a consultant for Invisible Electric Dog Fence Company.