Monday, December 16, 2013

Separation Anxiety

Separation anxiety is not a dog being bored and unruly or destructive because of it, but one who panics when left alone. Symptoms can include jumping, clawing or mouthing when the person is about to leave and when she re-enters, but commonly the expressions are more severe: considerable damage to doors, window frames or walls, urination and defecation in the house, ongoing loud vocalization. 
Understandably, that is difficult to live with, and finding a solution a pressing issue. Unfortunately, there is no magic quick fix that makes a dog who feels unsafe, suddenly feel safe and relaxed when separated from her humans. 
Popping the dog in the crate is not a viable answer. Rather than it being a refuge, the dog feels even more trapped and in an attempt to get out, could injure herself. 
However, there are number of things that, in time, indeed enable a dog to deal with being left alone. 

One of the best ways to make an animal feel safe is to reassure her that care is available when she needs it. With many micro exists and enters the dog experiences exactly that. If you return before she becomes unnerved, latest with the first whimper, she will increasingly feel more secure in her environment and ability to communicate, and then can be left for increasingly longer periods of time.

Don't leave your dog guessing, but provide information if she is coming or not. A precise word and gesture that tells her what is happening next makes events more predictable, and that can decrease anxiety. When my Will questioningly looks at me when I get ready to leave, I either grab her harness – the informational cue that we are taking her, or say seeya - our departure cue followed by the  commonly used good-bye gesture. With the former, she excitedly moves to the door; with the latter she settles on her mat, discontent perhaps, but not distressed.

When you return, acknowledge your dog right away. Yes, I know that is against popular advice, but when you reunite, your dog is really happy to have you back, and that often starts when she hears the car, footsteps, or keys in the door. If you ignore her greeting, you raise frustration, and underlying tension builds. Obviously, when we are dealing with a dog who is already anxious, adding to it is counterproductive. 
Acknowledging should be low-key. Ask your dog to perform a couple of tricks, or engage her in a hand-target game. That is structured interaction without overstimulation, she gets to do something with you and think, and because she learns that she gets a piece of you as soon as you walk in the door, she is less stressed and settles more quickly. After the initial hello, go about your business and direct your dog to a self-entertaining activity, and once everyone's settled, invite her for a longer walk or playtime. 

What you do when you are home is as important as your exit and re-enter behaviors.
Never deprive your dog of attention, but you also want to create opportunities for her to have fun without you. If you constantly stroke and entertain your dog, you make yourself indispensable and will be sorely missed when you are gone.
In our home, we are very affectionate and interactive with the dogs, but there are times each day when I do human-only stuff, with the pooches allowed to hang around, but otherwise ignored. An always-accessible, well-stocked toy box is essential for a dog to learn to self-entertain, and also should be the go-to place to self-sooth. 

Overly pampering a dog can create separation anxiety, but being inconsistent, overbearing, erratic or angry, in other words putting pressure on the dog, also does. Suzanne Clothier, author of “Bones Would Rain from the Sky”, said at one of her seminars that how dogs respond to dogs and people depends on how they know them. I’d like to add places to that. Places by extension. If the group the dog lives with feels safe, the place by association also does, and vice versa. So, make your home a refuge for your dog. 

There is more you can do:
Return home at different times. Dogs develop an internal clock with a daily routine, and if you always come back at the same time, your dog will expect that and stress when you’re happen to be late.
Dogs connect the dots, and dogs with separation anxiety are hyper-aware of dots/cues that precede their person’s departure, and charge up long before the door closes behind them. Changing the routine can decrease that anticipatory agitation.
Leaving the radio or TV on during your absence can be a safety cue. Safety cues are anything that trigger a feel-good emotion, and can also include a filled Kong or safe chew toy. In addition, background sound tunes out outside noises, and your dog won’t wind up with every sound she hears, thinking it is you. Introduce the safety cue when you are home, then when you are in another room, then when you exit the front door but re-enter right away, then gradually increase the time you are gone.
The D.A.P. collar or diffuser releases appeasing pheromones and is marketed as easing dogs’ anxieties. Good pet stores and veterinary clinics carry them, and also other natural products such as Biocalm. They don’t replace behavior modification, but can take the edge off and accelerate success.
What about another dog for companionship? Although I have had clients where this worked, it can also backfire: There is a real risk that anxiety spills over to the initially problem free dog. As well, some dogs are only interested in their human and won’t accept a canine replacement.

All of the outlined steps should happen simultaneously, not consecutively. The good news is that with patience, most dogs will improve. However, sometimes the temporary use of psychopharmacological drugs is necessary. Your friendly holistic veterinarian or veterinary behaviorist can help you with that.

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