Holistic Approach To Pet Food

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The Anxiety of Separation Anxiety

Jan 17, 2014

Posted By: Christine N.; Photo by Per on flickr

Photo by Per on flickr

More often than not when folks get a new dog, they complain that their new companion is being destructive-- "He ate my coffee table leg" "He poops everywhere" "She dug a hole in my living room rug" "My neighbors complained about constant barking."  A lot of times this can be the dog adjusting or even just bad manners that can be resolved with proper training. However, sometimes this can be a sign of distress.  If such behaviors are accompanied with acts of excessive drooling or unusual mood swings when the pet parent leaves the home, these could be indications of separation anxiety.  This is usually triggered when the pet parent departs and the anxiety of the dog being separated from the people it is attached to heightens. 

Although there is no conclusive reason for why this happens to some dogs, the percentage of adopted dogs suffering from separation anxiety are much higher than those that have lived their entire lives in a single household since puppyhood.  Certain changes such as loss of people that the dog was close to, numerous changes of environment, and abrupt change in schedule are believed to be causes.

Leaving a dog with separation anxiety untreated can lead to household destruction and accidental self-injury to the dog itself.  The main goal when treating this issue is to help the dog enjoy or at least tolerate its alone time rather than fear it.  

Some common symptoms of separation anxiety are as follows:

1. Excessive Pacing:  Some dogs who suffer from separation anxiety will walk or trot a certain path in repetition when left alone.

2. Urinating and Defecating

3. Chewing, Digging, Escaping, and Destructive Behavior:  Some dogs will chew on objects such as door frames, chair legs, and window sills. They may also dig, yes dig inside your house, often under doors, cabinets, and on rugs.  Some will do this in attempts to escape from an area they are confined to.  They may also just be generally destructive, destroying your furniture, linens, and other belongings. This behavior can be particularly harmful to the dog resulting in possible chipped teeth and damaged gums, broken nails and lacerated paws.

4. Incessant Barking and Howling:  When left alone, a dog with separation anxiety may bark or howl.  This act is usually persistent and only triggered when separated from their human.

5. Coprophagia:  Some dogs may defecate and then proceed to consume (yeah, it's gross but it happens) the excrement when left alone due to separation anxiety.

For those with mild separation anxiety, treatment could be as simple as counterconditioning. Counterconditioning is a treatment process that changes an animal’s fearful, anxious, or aggressive reaction to a pleasant, relaxed one.  It is done by associating the sight or presence of a feared or disliked person, animal, place, object or situation with something positive. In the situation regarding separation anxiety, periods of being alone can be associated with delicious treats and toys.  This gives the dog a sense of reward and pleasure while being alone.  For instance, every time a pet parent leaves the house, he/she may want to offer the dog a puzzle toy that is filled with food to keep the dog stimulated and occupied during alone time.  Such toys should be removed once the parent returns home to avoid constant access.

Dogs with more severe cases may require intense and complex desensitization and counterconditioning regimens.  When undergoing such routines, fear must never be a factor.  Instilling more fear into the dog can cause an entirely counterproductive result.  Some may require professional assistance from a certified animal behaviorist.  A list of professionals can be found here: Certified Trainers and here: Certified Animal Behaviorists

Many dogs begin to feel anxious not after the parent leaves, but when the dog sees him/her preparing to leave such as putting on makeup, changing, or grabbing their keys.  One way to help treat this is to let the dog know that whenever the parent puts on makeup, or changes clothes, or grabs their keys it doesn't necessarily mean that they are leaving.  One can do this by exposing the dog to these departure cues in different orders several times a day.  For instance, try putting on your coat and watching TV for a while.  Or grab your keys and read a book.  These routines can help to ease the dog's anxiety by slowly helping it realize that these cues do not always lead to the parent's departure.

If the dog does not show signs from pre-departure cues, it is probably safe to try short departures.  These short departures must be planned to be shorter than the time it takes for one's dog to become anxious.  Begin with an out-of-sight stay using a room with a door.   Have the dog sit or lay down and stay.  Go behind the door and come back immediately.  Gradually increase the time you are out-of-sight and eventually try this at the front door.  Be sure the departure lasts a couple of seconds to start out and the parent should have a calm demeanor when leaving and returning each session.  Once the time increases to a few minutes, one can try to incorporate the interactive toys that we mentioned earlier.  Gradually increase the time, but the dog's tolerance should be carefully considered to prevent regression.  This process is a long one, but can be very helpful.

It is important to note that during this time of desensitization, the dog should not be left alone for any time except during sessions.  This is usually where things get difficult for the pet parents due to obligations such as work and other appointments.  However, options exist.  For example, taking the dog to work could be an option as well as having a family member or a friend dogsit, or possibly enrolling the dog into doggy daycare.

Separation anxiety is a tough battle to get through, but the payoff of having a comfortable and happy dog is well worth it.  


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