My two-year-old Shih-Tzu has recently become very destructive when he is left alone. My neighbors complain that he howls and barks when we are gone. What can we do?
People used to think that dogs who destroyed the house or barked or urinated while alone were acting out of anger or spite. Veterinarians now recognize that these behaviors are often signs of a common disorder known as "separation anxiety." Dogs with this condition are usually well-behaved when they are with their owners, but often panic when left alone. They can chew or dig (especially around doors or windows), have accidents in the house, drool, bark and whine. A dog with this condition may follow you from room to room, become upset when you get ready to leave and greet you over-enthusiastically when you return.
The good news is that separation anxiety can be managed - and it is vitally important to do so. If you ignore it, the problem can become progressively more severe. There are a few simple steps you can follow at home to help your dog overcome the anxiety of being alone. First, ignore him for half an hour before you leave the house. Make your exit quietly without telling him goodbye. Leave a special toy to distract him for the first few minutes after you leave. The Kong toy, a hollow, indestructible chew toy, is ideal for this because it can be stuffed with treats.
When you return, avoid eye contact and physical contact with your dog until he is relaxed; reward calm behavior only. Punishing your dog for destructive or anxious behavior while you were gone will only increase his anxiety level and is not recommended. Also be aware that your dog watches you carefully for signals that you are getting ready to leave the house. If you put on your coat or play with your keys several times a day when you are not leaving, it will help your dog become indifferent to these clues.
Remember that barking and destruction (such as chewing exit points) are signs of severe anxiety in your pet, and are not “misbehaviors”. Punishment for the signs of separation anxiety is not only unwarranted and inhumane, it will only make your dog more anxious.
Recently, a medication called Clomicalm® was approved for use in dogs with separation anxiety. Your veterinarian may prescribe this medication to help relieve your dog’s anxiety. Clomicalm® is not a tranquilizer and will not alter your pet’s personality. It will help him learn new, positive behaviors more rapidly. Combining behavioral training with the medication is the most effective way to reduce separation anxiety. The length of treatment varies on a case-by-case basis, but dramatic improvement is usually seen in one month or less. The medication will be gradually reduced and discontinued as your dog becomes more relaxed.
Remember, your veterinarian is an expert in all areas of your pet’s health and should be consulted if you suspect that your dog might be suffering from separation anxiety.