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Friday, October 15, 2010

Separation Anxiety

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      Separation Anxiety (SA)

Is your little fluff Muffin a maniac? Do you find feces under your footing? Do you come home to perforated paneling? Is the couch missing an arm? Is your carpet beginning to look like Swiss cheese? Chances are you have a good dog who is suffering from separation anxiety! (SA)

Does one actually have to leave their house and leave the dog alone before you see signs?
You can be upstairs and the dog downstairs, you could be sitting on the porch drinking Martini's with a friend and the dog could be in the kitchen. Granted most destruction comes when you are away for a long period of time , but that’s only because the dog is left alone longer allowing for more destruction. Believe me; you can come home to just as big of a mess in less than one hour of alone time by your dog! So, if Martini drinking on the porch with a friend finds your kitchen with chewed up napkins, the tablecloth ripped to shreds, and the dog munching on the remote as you walk through the door, he might be suffering from separation anxiety! At this point you’ll want to make an extra pitcher of Martini's for later!

I don’t know why I never wrote about this before. Maybe because I thought the majority of people already knew about it. After all it is the 21st century. This article was due in part to a recent consultation I had with a dear friend that made me realize just how many people may not understand Separation Anxiety in dogs.

Some people actually believe that the dog does these things out of spite because they were left alone! If you think that way, you’re really giving the dog too much credit! While dogs can problem solve in some situations, the forethought on how to get even with you is nowhere on their spectrum! They  don’t lie around the house thinking of ways to make you upset. A dog always wants to please its owner. It’s how we handle situations that may seem to have them change over a period of time. More or less dogs live in the 'now'. (What is going on around them NOW)  If you think about it logically, and I’m sure you will, if dogs really could plan things ahead regarding your departure, they would not be pooping on the floor and eating your furniture, they would learn how to open that fridge door and suck down that steak you have marinating for dinner! Let’s face it, if they are really thinking and they know they will get in trouble anyway they might as well make it worth the while!

Humans are creatures of habit and dogs pick up on that very quickly. They know long before we even give it a thought that we are about to walk out the door. In this case, our actions really do speak louder than words! We lay out our clothes for the day, turn on the shower, dress, slip on our shoes, grab a cup of coffee, pick up our car keys, put on our coat, and walk out the door. To us it is simply a routine. To the dog it is sending a nervous energy shimmering down the spine like little shock waves telling him that you will soon be leaving and he will soon be alone. Even if that alone time is only 15 minutes.

My dogs actually know when a weekend has befallen us! How? Because both hubby and I are home whereas during the week, he leaves for work a few hours before I do. Well they don’t really know we call it a weekend, but when the weather turns cooler we tend to take the dogs with us if possible on shopping trips to keep them engaged with people. So when we’re both home and the weather changes, the dogs are ready to go! They run back and forth to the door with every movement we make. Heck, they even know when Peter is going grocery shopping on a Sunday morning! Okay, okay, since the little incident where Pete took all five Newfs shopping with him and he neglected to fully close the hatch in the back of the van which thus sent a pile of big black fur pouring out onto the street behind him, those outings are not so frequent, but the dogs still look forward to it!

How to handle separation Anxiety. Steps to take to desensitize the dog to your leaving

Watch your dog’s behavior when you are getting ready to leave the home. Change you own behaviors to try and desensitize the dog to your coming and going. Pick up your keys then set them down again. Put your shoes on, then take them off, grab your coat and then put it away again. All of these are signals to the dog and if you mix the signals up over time, he will never really know if you’re leaving for sure and may start to relax a bit more because this routine does not mean what it once did.

Never give any long goodbyes, in fact, ignore the dog for 15 minutes before you leave and for 15 minutes after you come home. When you give your dog long goodbyes such as, “Oh baby, mommy will be back soon, you be a good boy, mommy loves you so much! Mwaah.” as you blow the dog a kiss and walk out the door, this actually gets the dog more anxious because he is already acting nervous inside, whether you see it or not, and all that lovey, dovey talk makes him think there is something to be nervous about! He doesn't understand your words; he understands that you are rewarding him for feeling frightened. So STOP THAT!

Train, train, and train in obedience using a positive reward based training method
 on a daily basis, even if this training can only be done for ten minutes at a time.

“But Sally, my dog already knows how to sit ~stay~ & ~come when I tell him!”

I hear this lot, and it kind of tells me that maybe the person really isn't picking up the biscuit I’m putting down!

Yes, yes, your dog may know his commands, but you are not training him so that he learns them further. This is why I say to use a positive reward based method. You are training him to succeed even further which helps to boost his confidence at being alone. The more things he gets right, the more confidence he builds in himself. Do not use the standard pull and tug method of training, he already knows his commands! This type of training for a shy or anxious dog is focusing on the negative when what we want is to focus only on the positive. But if you’re bored with teaching old commands then teach him new tricks, just but be sure you allow him to succeed each time. Let him figure things out on his own as well. When a positive training method with a treat reward is used and the dog only gets this treat during training, he is more likely to do anything to get it! He may dance around or lift the paw for which you can put a command to, such as “Fido dance” or “Fido, shake!” Voila! New tricks! Take the dog’s attributes and annoying habits and turn them into a trick by putting a command to the action.

Look, it’s similar to when children get nervous about having to read aloud in a classroom. Some do not have the self-esteem to put themselves out there and make mistakes which can cause a bad or embarrassing reaction from peers or the teacher. But the more they read aloud without negative feedback, the more self esteem the get, and the more they will start reading. Simple! :)

This is a slow process to work a dog through and it does not get better overnight. Your routine has to change. You may have to step out of the house for a few minutes, then come back in and gradually increase the time you stay outside the door before coming back inside the home. Never come in the door when the dog is crying or he’ll think all he needs to do is cry and you’ll come back. Wait for that quiet moment no matter how brief it is.


Sometimes it’s in the dog’s best interest if you offer a crate while your gone. If it keeps him safe from harm then it’s worth a try. Let’s face it any non food item eaten by a dog can quickly turn into an obstruction of the bowel. However, I would borrow a crate or seek one out in a yard sale before buying one as sometimes dogs with anxiety do worse when crated. So if you decide to try the crate do it several times when you are home with the dog to gauge his reaction. Leave him in there for only brief periods and gradually build up the time you leave him in the crate. Don’t let him out if he is crying or whining because he then learns that’s all he must do to get out. Again wait for that brief pause of silence and praise and reward that. Always take off his collar when you crate him. Leaving the crate door open when you are home so the dog can come and go as he pleases is also a good idea in the beginning. Every now and then when he is not looking toss in a new toy or a treat so he learns that he finds good things in there! If the crate seems to make him more anxious then ax the whole idea.

The crate is only recommended for the short periods of time that you need to leave the dog alone. It is not intended to be his jail. So if you must work all day and the dog suffers from anxiety then you may want to find a dogie day care or a sitter/walker who can come and take the dog out for exercise. If you feel you can’t afford the above and the anxiety is a big problem, then the best bet for you and the dog may be to find another home where someone is around most of the day. It’s tough I know, but let’s be fair; this is a life we’re talking about not a Barbie doll.


Before you go out put mind stimulating toys out for the dog and interchange them so the dog doesn't get bored with them. Remember how you used to do that with your children? They thought they got new toys but they just forgot they had them because they weren't out all the time! Yeah, yeah, I know, poor parenting on my part!

Treat dispensing balls like the buster cube can be filled with only a couple of treats and the dogs daily dose of kibble can be used to keep weight issues to a minimum.
Kong wobbler  another treat ball

Kongs stuffed and frozen with cream cheese or peanut butter also keep the dog active.

The Giggle ball which makes a silly noise when rolled can keep a young pup involved.

The Talk to me treat ball records your voice and each time the dog rolls it food is dispensed and he hears your message. Again you can use the daily kibble or something like Cheerios if weight is an issue.

Gatorade bottle: Yes you read right. I have updated this blog to include a Gatorade bottle, the  big one not the small ones in a 6 pack. This is a cheap effective way to keep your dog busy and reward him for keeping busy.  Fill it with the dogs daily Kibble, toss a few long biscuits in there so the kibble does not come out too easily and let him have it. My neighbor started putting peanut butter near the inside of the  rim  to make it a bit   harder to get things out.  To see video of my pal Brody (Newf/golden mix) using his bottle click here         If you do this with more than one dog make sure none are food aggressive:)  Also try this a few times while you are home to make sure the dog does not take interest in eating the bottle.  The bigger the bottle the better!  

The makers of dog toys are starting to realize that a dog’s mind needs to be stimulated and challenged so new things are always on the market. You want to be sure that the toy you pick is nothing your dog can actually destroy. Kong and Nylabone are two well trusted names for sturdiness. Shop around online because you’ll be amazed at what new mind stimulating toys you can find.

Using Drugs

No, no, sad to say not for you, but for the dog! If it’s a severe case your vet may want to prescribe medication while you train. There is a drug called Reconcile that is used or you can talk to your vet about the use of over the counter Melatonin. The DAP (Dog Appeasing Pheromone) collar or plug in may also be helpful. Drugs without training won’t work as they are short term and if you have not trained the dog then your problem will reappear once the drugs are stopped.

Melatonin use click here 
Assessing Canine Separation Anxiety: click here

So, start your training and then sew up those holes in the couch, re-plaster the walls, purchase cheap throw rugs to hide the holes in the carpet and buy little Muffin a dogie cookie  for a reward!

Until next time happy training!

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