“I’ll Be Right Home”

This entry is article 5 of 5 in the July 2014 issue

We all know the saying, “dogs are a man’s best friend.” So it is not surprising that a dog may become anxious when separated from his/her owner. Dogs that develop separation anxiety are usually young. Older dogs, however, may develop separation anxiety in response to physical symptoms that accompany old age or because they are more dependent on their owners because of their illness.

Signs of separation anxiety are caused by a dog’s need to reduce tension or stress and only occur in the owner’s absence. The most common complaints by pet parents is that their dogs are disruptive or destructive when left alone. They might urinate or defecate; bark and howl; or chew on objects, door frames or window sills.

When treating a dog with separation anxiety, the goal is to resolve the dog’s underlying anxiety by teaching him to enjoy, or at least tolerate, being left alone.

You may be able to nip it in the bud with a few easy tips:

  1. Before you leave for the day, take your dog for a walk. In general, aerobic exercise is encouraged as it helps to alleviate anxiety. Fetching a ball or going for a brisk walk or run are good forms of exercise. This allows you to leave your dog in a quiet, relaxed state while you are away.
  2. Feed your dog right before you leave and provide a variety of stimulating toys and puzzles as well as long lasting treats.
  3. Keep greetings and departures low-key. Don’t make a big deal when you leave or when you return.
  4. Stay calm and assertive and display confidence when you leave. Your pet will perceive signs of you being nervous.
  5. Day care may be a good option if you are going to be away for many hours.

Stephanie Borns-Weil, DVM, of Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine at Tufts University recommends pet owners consider a more formalized approach to behavioral training if you’re still having trouble after implementing the above tips. “Tufts’ program is designed to teach your dog to “stand on its own four feet” when you’re home, with the goal to have the dog’s newfound confidence spill over to times when you are away,” says Dr. Borns-Weil.

According to Dr. Borns-Weil, the essential components of independence training aim to:

Stop reinforcing attention-seeking behaviors. Owners are encouraged to ignore attention-seeking behaviors (e.g., do not comfort your dog if he/she is behaving anxiously as this will reinforce the behavior). This means no eye contact, pushing away or commands to stop, all of which will reward the dog’s attention-seeking mission. Instead, provide attention when the dog is sitting or lying calmly.

Make sure your dog has had plenty of mental and physical exercise. A tired dog is a happier, more relaxed dog.

Teach the dog to remain relaxed in one spot, such as its bed. Owners should initially focus on training the dog to perform a sit-stay or down-stay, while gradually increasing the time period that the dog holds the command and remains separated from the owners.

Provide ongoing training. Once basic obedience commands have been mastered, the owner can train the dog to perform long down stays while moving progressively farther away. Rewards can be offered for remaining still. Each time the dog breaks its “stay”, a verbal correction should be delivered, with no reward, while escorting the dog back to his/her bed.

Teach your dog to be alone. Your dog should become accustomed to being separated from you even when you are home. You can set up child gates to deny your dog access into the room in which you are doing something, and instruct your dog to lie down and stay on a dog bed outside that room; you can then graduate by shutting the door to the room so he/she cannot see you.

Implementing a program of this type will take persistence and patience and in some cases “tough love.” Tufts Foster Hospital for Small Animals at Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine is staffed by professionals who are expert in helping you understand and handle canine behavior challenges, including separation anxiety. To consult with one of our Animal Behavior specialists, you may make an appointment by calling 508-887-4640.

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