Separation Anxiety in Dogs
Written by Amber Corduan
One of the most frequent problems that people have with their dog is Separation Anxiety (SA). Some breeds are more prone to SA, but any dog can suffer from it. Some dogs will always have a degree of SA, but there are things we can do, as owners, to decrease the level of SA to make our pets more comfortable and less stressed. Keep in mind that SA is not a rational habit. You can’t talk your dog out of it. Dogs do not understand your reasoning and what you are saying. Dogs only understand emotion. If you are stressed, your dog is stressed. If you are scared, your dog will be scared. If you are excited, your dog will be excited. If you are calm, your dog will be calm.
Some dogs have SA so bad that they may need medication, but most vets will not prescribe anything until they know that you have tried behavioral tactics first. Here are a few easy things that you can do to help ease the problem of SA in your dog.
Crate your dog when you leave them alone. If their SA issues escalate into destructive behavior, they are far less likely to do damage to your property or to themselves if they are confined to a crate. You can give them a treat or toy to preoccupy them, such as a Kong filled with peanut butter. There is a natural calming supplement, called Canine Relax-N - Anxiety Complex, which has helped take the edge off of anxiety for some dogs and just helped them to chill out more easily. Every time you put a dog in a crate, you should give the dog a treat. You should never use the crate as a punishment or a “time-out” area. The crate should be the dog’s den and safe place. Nervous dogs need structure and fewer options to feel secure. Leaving the dog loose to race around the house obsessively looking for you and trying to find a way to get to you is very stressful. If they are confined to a crate, they will soon realize they can’t get out and they will eventually go to sleep and stop panicking.
After you have put the dog in the crate and given the dog its treat/toys, you should calmly leave the house. Do not drag out your exit by telling the dog how much you will miss them and that they will be fine, etc. That will only upset the dog even more. If you act like it is not a big deal, the dog will eventually believe your leaving is not a big deal.
When you return home, DO NOT let your dog out of the crate until the dog is completely calm and relaxed. If the dog is excited, pawing at the crate, whining, barking, screaming, etc, IGNORE the dog. Don’t talk to them. Go about your business, put groceries away, start making dinner, watch TV, etc. Wait until the dog is completely calm with no anxiety. This could take an hour or more, so be patient. Letting the dog out while they are panicking is rewarding that behavior and telling them that if they carry on long enough, they will get what they want. When the dog is completely calm, go over to the crate and let them out. DO NOT say ANYTHING to the dog. Do not pet the dog. IGNORE the dog completely. If you make your return to the house a non-issue, your dog will eventually take your return in stride and not stress about it. Your dog will be very excited to see you after you let them out of the crate. PLEASE ignore the dog at this point. When the dog is finally calm, you can casually pet the dog. Please don’t get the dog revved up or gush over your dog at this point. Your goal is to keep emotions on an even keel. After the dog has forgotten about the event of you coming home, then it is fine to play with your dog and go about your normal routine.
When you have to leave your dog somewhere, like the vet, groomer, or kennel, your dog is obviously going to have some anxiety. We want to reduce that anxiety as much as possible. If you work on the things talked about above, your dog will do much better in these cases, but there are still a few things you can do to not make the situation worse for your dog. As mentioned above, do not drag out your departure. Tell your dog you’ll see them later and to have fun. They don’t understand the words you say, but they do pick up on emotion, so try as hard as you can to be positive. Make it short and sweet. If your dog is panicking, DO NOT coddle them and tell them it will be OK. You are actually telling them the exact opposite. Through your emotions, you are telling them that there is something to be afraid of and that they should be nervous and watch out for it. If the dog is panicking, just calmly tell the dog to stop. Their behavior is not appropriate, so they need to stop.
Dogs do not understand the reasons for their behaviors, they just understand their actions. If you tell them that their action is inappropriate, they will choose to do something different, which hopefully, in this case, is to stop being nervous.
SA is stressful on everyone – the owner, the dog, and everyone else around them. Solving the problem sooner rather than later will benefit everyone who interacts with your dog, but more importantly, it will greatly benefit your dog. Good luck!
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