By Lisa Nelson, VMD
Normally, Buddy was a well-behaved dog. Until he was left alone. As soon as his owner left the house, Buddy would raid the kitchen garbage, strewing coffee grounds, banana peels, and other treasures all over the kitchen floor. The problem escalated when neighbors started complaining that they could hear Buddy barking during the day, especially just after his owner left. Something had to be done.
Seeking advice, Buddy's owner called her veterinarian who scheduled Buddy for a complete physical to make sure there was nothing going on, such as pain or illness, that would cause this behavior. While at the vet's office, Buddy's owner mentioned that her canine companion would pant and pace and was always underfoot, and try to scoot out the door as she left.
Fortunately, Buddy's health checked out as excellent. What Buddy's suffered from was separation anxiety, a common and well-recognized behavior disorder.
Dogs express distress in many ways and the signs of separation anxiety vary. Some dogs act very depressed and mope as the owner gets ready to go; others, like Buddy, become fastened to their owner as if they are Velcro, following them from room to room, panting, and unable to settle down. Once the owner leaves, a dog with separation anxiety may do anything from urinating and defecating, to howling, chewing up household items, digging and scratching at doors and windows, and in extreme cases going through window screens or glass.
Owners need to work with their dog to reduce anxiety and teach him/her to tolerate short and then longer absences. Most owners of dogs with separation anxiety should seek professional help for their pet, but here are few steps to start on:
- Remember that this is a disease, not a misbehavior, so stop any punishment for getting into the garbage, or scratching at doors. Punishment will only make your dog more anxious.
- Ignore your dog if he follows you from room to room. Although this might appear to be a "cute" behavior, it is really a sign of anxiety. If you pay attention to this behavior, the behavior becomes rewarded. Instead, praise your dog when he is lying down calmly, or sitting down quietly.
- Have your dog learn to earn his/her attention. Many dogs with separation anxiety are often very needy of attention-they may paw or nudge owners and demand to be patted. If the owner gives attention on demand, this can set up a social vacuum when the owner is not there. Start by having your dog learn to sit for everything she wants-this is kind of a dog's version of "please" and helps most dogs to become less demanding.
- Make your leaving and coming home very low-key. Greet your dog quietly, and do not make a big fuss. Dogs with separation anxiety often overgreet their owners, so ignoring her until she sits quietly as you say hello will help to decrease anxiety.
- Give your dog something to do while you are gone. Use food-stuffed toys, such as a Kong, frozen the night before. These "special toys" are not out for your dog all the time, only when you leave or want him/her occupied. Some dogs with separation anxiety are too anxious and they will not even be able to eat. On the other hand, a frozen yummy toy is a great way to help prevent anxiety when you must leave your pet.
- Make a note of some of the cues that tell your dog that you will be leaving-such as the sound of keys, a door being opened, coffee pot being turned off, grabbing your briefcase. Start doing these activities and NOT leaving. As you are watching TV in the evening, jingle your car keys. Open the closet door where you keep your coat, then sit down. Pick up your briefcase twenty times in an evening and don't leave. Over time, these cues may become much more neutral and this will help to decrease your dog's anxiety.
- Do not assume that a crate will solve the problem-in most cases, a crate will make matters worse. A crate may save your door from being scratched, but your dog will probably be even more panicked and afraid.
There is no quick fix for separation anxiety. Treatment involves behavior modification, which takes time and effort, and perhaps drug therapy. However, drug therapy without a behavior modification protocol that is specific for your dog will not be helpful in the long run. Many dogs can get significantly better, especially if you seek help through your veterinarian before the behavior becomes long-standing.
Dr. Lisa Nelson is a member of the Vermont Veterinary Medical Association. For more information visit www.vtvets.org.