Addressing Separation Anxiety and Boredom
Separation Anxiety (SA) is an extremely difficult behavior to diagnose and even harder to treat. For moderate to severe SA cases, most veterinarians and trainers recommend anti-anxiety medication because the dog’s quality of life can be so severely diminished. The medication leaves the dog in a “comatose” state much of the time and then the idea is to start changing the behavior and wean the dog off of the medication. I am not a big fan of medication, and have been able to get very good results with my behavioral approach for dogs that have mild to moderate SA. By far the biggest tool you have for dealing with SA is exercise! If your dog is going to the dog park or daycare five days a week he isn’t going to have nearly as much energy to put into freaking out every time you leave the house! If you know your dog has severe SA do yourself a favor and find someone who specializes in SA, like Malena De Martini. She deals with SA cases exclusively and has resolved hundreds of them. You will probably not get a dog over severe SA without suspending all absences while working on it and it will likely take between six and nine months! An even better option to consider is a board and train. The only trainers I like for board and train are Amy Peterson at MyCleverCanine out in Dixon and Blair Diamond in Mt Shasta. Amy and Blair do a great job with these difficult behaviors!
First – Figure out if it is SA or something else
- Does your dog constantly follow you around the house when you are there?
- Does your dog act out when you are in the house and she can’t get to you?
- Will your dog eat treats if you give them as you are leaving?
- Does your dog get excessively excited when greeting upon your return?
- Have you taken video of your dog while you are away? Does she pace? Whine? Bark? Chew? Pant? Eliminate?
For Mild Cases of Separation Anxiety
- Keep your dog in a designated area when you are unable to supervise her. Be sure that you have thoroughly exercised your dog if you will be leaving for an extended period of time. A tired dog has less energy for barking or trashing.
- Keep the curtains and/or shades drawn. If you don’t have adequate window coverage, hang a dark sheet or blanket across the window. A dimly lit environment has a calming effect on most dogs.
- Leave a radio or TV on as “white noise”. In many households, the TV and radio are on all the time as long as someone is home. Imagine how ‘LOUD’ the silence is when everyone leaves for school or work and the sound system is turned off!
- Supply your dog with an “only-when-I’m-gone” chew toy with your scent imparted on it; rub it between your warm palms or keep in your laundry hamper. This item should be something spectacular — like a flavorful, beef-basted knotted Bully stick or Kong filled with cheese spread or peanut butter served frozen. Give it to her as you depart; you will remove it immediately upon your return.
- NO EMOTIONAL GOODBYES. No smothering, hugging and kissing or begging and pleading to the dog to “ple-e-ease be a good kid”. You do not want to emotionally charge an already loaded situation. Leave matter-of-factly. With the dog already in her confinement area, put on your coat, pick up your keys, etc., give the dog her goodbye chewy and leave with a simple “see ya later”.
- If you come home to destruction in one form or another, do not discipline your dog unless you have walked in and caught her in the act of misbehaving. Discipline after the fact does not teach, it punishes. Just because your dog cowers when you walk in the door if she has done something you don’t like doesn’t mean she knows you don’t like it. It only means she know you get mad when she does it. She may have no idea why you get mad. She may think she didn’t leave a big enough puddle when she relieved in the house!
Set aside some time to figure out exactly what is happening. Take video of your dog to figure out if it is truly SA or something else. Some dogs start destructive behavior immediately when you leave and others wait a half hour or an hour or whatever. The more information you have about the behavior taking place the better you will be able to figure out what you need to do to start working on changing the behavior. If your dog does suffer from moderate to severe SA the first steps will be to teach your dog to “sit,” “stay,” and “go to her bed.” It can help a great deal to use an anti-anxiety medication, such as amitriptylline (Elavil Rx) or buspirone (Buspar Rx). Talk to your vet about this.