Mr. Comfortable and I are going to visit our older son and his family for Thanksgiving. We’re excited about it but Remy and Henry aren’t going to be thrilled. They’re staying home. Because Mr. C is retired and I’m a professional cripple the boys aren’t used to us being away for more than a few hours. This trip will be more than a day away. So I’m taking steps now to be sure they don’t suffer separation anxiety. If you’re going away for the holidays these tips for Separation Anxiety in Dogs may help your fur baby deal with it better.
We already know that Henry (our “spare” dog) tends to chew things when he’s anxious. Although he hasn’t chewed up anything in several years we know that both of us being gone for such an extended period may be very stressful for him.
When we’d only had Henry a short time he was very destructive when we’d leave. Henry began tearing apart this toy just because he saw us getting ready to go out. The activities we engage in before leaving our dogs are called pre-departure cues.
Remy is very strongly bonded to me because he is my service dog in training. He howls when I leave the house without him, even if Mr. C is still home. We got a video of this but, for some inexplicable reason the sound won’t play on my computer although it does on my phone. Some people shred facial tissue when they’re nervous. Remy tears apart any paper towels he can find when he’s stressed. Knowing these things about the boys helps us prepare the house for our absence.
We’ve arranged for our younger son to come by the house to let the dogs out, feed them, and spend time with them. This is an ideal arrangement since they are so used to him stopping by and he’s excellent with both dogs. But there will be the overnight hours when they’ll be on their own. I’ll be practicing with them prior to our trip so they remember they’re okay alone even if it’s 8 hours or so.
And there are things you can do to help your dog if you go away for the holidays.
The most common symptoms of separation anxiety are:
- Urinating and/or defecating indoors: If this behavior only occurs when the owner is absent it’s a sure sign of separation anxiety.
- Barking/Howling persistently: If the only thing that triggers this kind of vocalization it’s a safe bet separation anxiety is to blame. This is Remy’s reaction when I leave him.
- Chewing, digging, and general destruction: If your dog chews on objects, digs at the doors and door frames, windowsills, and other things but only when you’re gone it’s separation anxiety. This kind of destructive behavior can actually injure your dog. Broken teeth, broken nails, cut and scraped paws are all possible injuries your dog can self-inflict.photo courtesy mirror.uk
- Escaping: If your dog attempts to escape the house or yard only when you’re away separation anxiety is the likely reason. The same types of self-injury may occur with this behavior as often happens with chewing, digging, and general destruction.
- Coprophagia: Some dogs will defecate then consume the excrement when suffering from separation anxiety.
- Pacing: While not as troublesome to you pacing is also a sign of separation anxiety. Constant pacing, in straight lines, circles, or from room to room while you’re gone is a sure sign of separation anxiety.
What you can do to help your dog:
It’s important that you rule out any medical problems that could cause these behaviors. Talk with your dog’s veterinarian and have a physical done just to be sure your dog is in good health.
If your dog gets a clean bill of health then you can assume the problem is separation anxiety and take some steps to lessen the dog’s anxiety. It’s important that you take your time with these methods. In dog training slow is fast. If you plan to go away you’ll need at least several weeks to prepare your dog.
Counter conditioning: This is a treatment process that changes your dog’s fearful, anxious or aggressive reaction to a pleasant, relaxed one instead. In the case of separation anxiety you want the dog to associate your absence with a pleasant experience. Try giving him a toy that can be filled with treats. The Kong Extreme Goodie Bone dog toy is one I like but there are also versions for smaller dogs and ones who don’t chew as hard. You can fill it with treats that your dog needs to work a little to get or stuff it with peanut butter or low fat cheese. Be sure to give the special toy to your dog when you’re leaving and take it away when you return. Your dog will learn that he only gets this amazing treat when you’re gone. Eventually he’ll accept your absence because he gets this great reward while you’re gone. This is a good way to soothe a dog with mild separation anxiety.
For dogs with moderate to severe separation anxiety you will have to take more time and use both counter condition and desensitization methods.
By starting with very short separations (just a couple of minutes in the beginning) and increasing it slowly over a period of a few weeks, you can help your dog adjust to your absence.
Be very careful not to cause fear in your dog. If the dog becomes fearful the counter conditioning and desensitization will fail and the dog will become even more anxious. For this level of separation anxiety it’s best to seek the help of a professional dog trainer. A Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist or Board Certified Veterinary Behaviorist would be the best person to help you and your dog.
For any level of anxiety there are steps you should take to help your dog.
Pre-departure Cues: There are things you do, like putting on shoes or a coat, that alert your dog that you’re going to leave. If the boys see me putting on makeup they know I’m going out. Most dogs are aware that the sound of keys means their owner is leaving.
Start by doing the things that indicate you’re leaving but don’t actually leave. This helps reduce your dog’s anxiety. The normal cues that you’re on your way out are lessened when you jingle your keys then sit down to watch TV. It’s important that you give your dog these “fake cues” over a period of weeks.
Once your dog is less anxious when he sees the cues that you are leaving; because of the fake cues you’ve practiced with him, you can move on to actually leaving.
Leave for less time than it takes your dog to get really upset. You can even practice by having your dog do a down/stay while you step out of sight inside the house. Then you can move on to doing down/stays while you step outside. But remember, these must be very short absences to start. As you practice with your dog you increase the time you are out of his sight.
Practice exiting through a door from which you normally don’t leave. If you usually go out the front door, practice at the back door to start. Put your dog in a down/stay and step outside the “unusual” door. By this time he should be used to the “game” of down/stay. His anxiety level, if you’ve taken things slowly, will be low at this point.
photo courtesy of Sacramento Dog Training
When your dog is showing very little anxiety when you play down/stay with him it’s time to start leaving. Give the dog his special toy and leave without showing your own anxiety or excitement. Don’t make a big deal of departing. Don’t tell the dog he’ll be fine or you’ll miss him. Just give him the special toy and quietly leave.
As you practice leaving for very short periods be sure that you also wait between sessions of leaving. Your dog must be completely relaxed when you leave. If he’s excited about your return and you leave immediately it could trigger an arousal that makes the separation intolerable for him. This could make the separation anxiety even worse!
Take your time! You cannot expect your dog to adjust overnight. Start with a down/stay and you leaving the room for only a few seconds. If your dog is showing signs of anxiety when you step back into sight shorten the time you’re out of sight. Again, slow is fast!
Most of his anxiety responses will occur within the first 40 minutes you’re gone. Start with very short (a few seconds) absences and build up until your dog can tolerate 40 minutes of being alone. At that point you can increase the time you’re gone; first by 5 minute increments then increasing the time in 15 minute increments once the dog is showing no anxiety. By the time your dog can handle being on his own for 90 minutes he can actually tolerate being alone for 4 to 8 hours.
You can normally expect success within a few weeks if you practice several sessions each day. And you must remember to be calm and quiet both when you leave and when you come back. Do not fuss over your dog when you return. Simply say hello then ignore him until he’s calm again.
Consult with your veterinarian as there are herbal remedies and medications that can help with your dog’s anxiety. Some dogs can even tolerate separation with just the help of these remedies and medications but others require a combination of medication and behavior modification.
And never, ever scold your dog for being anxious! He is not becoming anxious to upset you. Even if he defecates or urinates indoors be calm and understand that this is due to his stress and anxiety and isn’t to spite you. Punishment or scolding can make the problem worse.
This is a basic outline of steps that will help reduce separation anxiety in your dog. If the problem is severe or you are uncomfortable doing the counter conditioning and desensitization without guidance seek out a professional to help.
And I will gladly answer any questions within the boundaries of my experience.