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The Pain of Separation

By David Dickey

Dogs are members of our families. We are their main social group—their pack—and they depend on us for virtually all of their physical needs. Dogs also rely on us to fulfill their emotional needs with companionship, affection and love.

While most dogs have healthy bonds with their owners, some may develop high levels of dependency. As a result, they suffer from separation anxiety, a condition that brings on extreme stress and anxiety immediately after a dog is separated from his owner.

It’s difficult to know exactly what causes separation anxiety. Sometimes, it’s caused by a change in the owner’s routine, a traumatic event or an external factor such as nearby construction noise. Perhaps a puppy is taken away from his mother too early or is sick and becomes unusually reliant on his owner, or an older dog slowly loses his abilities to see or hear and becomes newly dependent on his owner. Though some dogs seem to be genetically predisposed to separation anxiety, there is little hard data to support that contention.

It’s important to correctly diagnose separation anxiety before treatment. Common symptoms manifest themselves through problematic behaviors such as vocalization, destruction, and excessive salivation immediately after the owner leaves. Some dogs also display nervous or shy behavior around new people, show reluctance to leave the owner’s side, or follow the owner from room to room seeking attention. Dogs that have separation anxiety can harm themselves in states of panic, so immediate treatment is the most humane option.

The good news is that there has been significant progress in treating separation anxiety with both behavioral modification and anti-anxiety medicine. One action you can immediately take to help your anxious dog is to increase his exercise, which will tire him and provide the mental stimulation and physical activity he needs to relax. I also recommend that you try not to pay attention to your dog for 10 to 15 minutes before you leave or after you return. This may be difficult for you, but it helps reduce anticipation of the attention he will receive prior to your arrival or departure.

One of the best ways to treat separation anxiety is positive reinforcement training. Rewarding your dog for positive behavior can modify his negative behavior and alleviate his fears. When training, plan to devote time to the commands “down” and “stay.” Use a dog bed or something that designates the area in which you desire your dog to stay in the down position. Then, slowly increase the amount of time and distance of your separation from him. Make sure to reward any calm, relaxed behavior. Next, initiate an extended down-stay position in another room. If training goes well, place your dog in a down-stay position while you prepare to leave. It may require several weeks to reach this point, so take your time. The more consistently you practice, the better and quicker the results will be.

Another training method involves gradual departure exercises that require you leave for very short amounts of time and increase the intervals as you achieve desirable results. You’ll need a watch with a second hand or stopwatch to track the exact time span of each leave. You’ll also need to establish an auditory cue, such as a radio or TV, to let your dog know you’re doing a practice drill and not the real thing. Turn on a TV or radio and leave for about five seconds, then walk back in and give the dog a treat if you didn’t hear vocalization. Since a common trait of separation anxiety is vocalization, listen carefully for the absence or presence of whining and barking to measure how well the method is working. One trick you can use to listen in is to call your home phone from your cell phone and answer the call when you’re still in the house--don’t hang up, and leave the home phone by the front door. Once you leave the house, listen for whining or barking through your cell phone.

Once your dog succeeds for five seconds, increase your leave time in five-second intervalsbut only if he didn’t vocalize during the last trial. You may have to practice longer intervals repeatedly until your dog is ready for the next level. Always start with a shorter time limit than you think your dog can handle. Check his progress while you’re gone with a tape recorder or video camera to make sure the exercises are working.

A dog with separation anxiety is clearly suffering, and I recommend a veterinarian exam for such a dog. Significant advancements have been made in solving separation anxiety through drug-assisted therapy. In severe cases, a combination of a behavioral modification and medication may be necessary. Only your veterinarian can determine if your dog’s issues justify medication. (Caution regarding medications: Results from drug therapy may not be seen for 14-30 days, and the owner must be committed to continuous and uninterrupted usage.)

The most important aspect of successfully treating separation anxiety is patience. Remember that in most cases, the behavior did not begin overnight, so don’t be surprised if it takes a while to diminish. You can improve your dog’s life significantly if you know what to do and when to ask for help. Without separation anxiety, your dog can become a happy and well-adjusted part of your family.

WHAT NOT TO DO

When your dog is suffering, never use negative measures to alleviate the problems associated with separation anxiety:

• Crating A crate may intensify the problem and/or cause the dog to injure himself in an attempt to escape.

• Bark Collars Commonly used to curtail nuisance barking, bark collars may only temporarily mask the real issue and make things worse.

• Another pet A dog’s anxiety is the effect of his separation from you, not simply of being alone. Getting a companion for your dog usually doesn’t help anxiety.

• Punishment May be ineffective or mistimed to a point at which it actually increases the negative behavior instead of eliminating it.

SHORT-TERM SOLUTIONS

While you’re working on long-term treatment, consider these suggestions to help you and your dog cope in the interim:

• Daycare Take your pooch to doggie daycare a few days a week for some socialization with other dogs and people while you are out.

• Walker Have a friend, family member, neighbor or dog-walker walk your dog while you’re out; it will break up the day and help your dog to release some anxiety.

• Coworker Ask your boss if you can bring your dog to work with you. If not, go home for lunch (if you live close) and take him for a walk.

• Reward quiet times When your dog is resting quietly in his place, reward his calm behavior with quiet attention and treats.


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