Thursday, August 11, 2011

Understanding Separation Anxiety

Working with rescue dogs, this issue has come up.  This issue comes up for people who gets dogs from all sorts of places.. rescues, breeders, etc.  It can be a frustrating thing to understand and deal with, especially since it tends to be accompanied by destruction in the home.  We get frustrated, and it just gets worse.  We met a dog at an adoption event, and they were amazing and had no history of destruction.  We get them home, and we come home to poop and destruction.  Perhaps some new owners wonder if the rescue was lying about the dog's behavioral history.  I can almost promise you they weren't.  Pets need consistency and routine, period.  Any change in that, depending on the pet, may result in separation anxiety.  (As a cat owner, I can say that I find cats even that much more sensitive to change, and they manifest their "destruction" by unwanted urination.)

Separation anxiety can be described as a dog's over dependence on it's owner to feel safe and content.  This can be because you've rescued a shelter or rescue dog, they were separated too early from their dog mom, general fear of isolation, and sudden home changes.  Home changes may fly under the radar for us, but not for our dogs.  A new baby, new work schedule, new emotional state, missing a deceased family member, or other changes to the environment.  By definition, this unwanted behavior occurs when the animal is left alone, and doesn't happen in your presence.

Often I hear people say, "I only left him alone for a minute!"  The reality is, the general school of thought suggests their anxiety peaks at 30 minutes.  So the destruction isn't necessarily because you left them alone an hour longer than usual.  At this peak, that is when the damage occurs.  Scratching at doors, pulling down drapes, etc.  They may also go potty inside, and it is then not related to house training at all; not if when you are home, they ask to go outside as they should.  They may also whine/bark/talk a lot when you are gone, not eat or drink, and perhaps take excessively long to greet you when you get home.  "You're home?  Really?  Are you sure?  You're not leaving again are you?"..   ten minutes later..  "So, you're really home, right?"

As in my previous article about desensitizing your dog, this is often the suggested method to remedy separation anxiety.  Leave for a short period of time, and then come back.  Short may be even just 5 minutes.  Gradually increase your time out until they can be left for 30 minutes.  Then increase it to 1.5 hours.  I have read at this point, you should be okay.  Your dog may take longer, you'll have to see.  We can also employ counter conditioning; getting your dog to associate you leaving with a good thing.  "OOh!  Every time before she leaves she plays with me for 5 minutes with my favorite toy!  Then, she leaves me a peanut butter Kong.. yay!"

My literature suggests that crate training to address separation anxiety may not be effective at truly reducing the anxiety.  It may spare your couch from being eaten, but the problem isn't being addressed and the anxiety will persist.  Punishment is not effective; I doubt I need to go into why.  Lastly, people may try to add another pet.  "Oh, he just is bored and needs a play mate".  Likely not true.  You, and your absence are the issue, and he may just transfer than anxiety to the new pet also.  "Why are you so freaked out?  Should I be freaked out too?"  Remember that there is a difference between boredom and/or not enough exercise versus anxiety behavior.

Sadly, I've seen too many instances where separation anxiety has been cause for an owner to surrender.  I think they may have lied to themselves when they said they'd have the time to really train and work with their dog.  It's hard to find the time.  It may mean you have to get up a little earlier or do a little more after you get home from work.  But spend the time.  No one has ever suggested this modification process needs to take years.  Chances are, you did a great thing by adopting a rescue dog who came home and found cause to be a little insecure about you and your home.  Can you blame him?  Walk him the rest of the way down that road of his "forever home".  Patience, love, and understanding.  Shoes are replaceable, they aren't!

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