I heard Bob’s frantic barking before my feet hit our driveway. I cautiously walked into our bedroom. The dog pen bars were bent! The linoleum strip was shredded. The white lab’s frenetic panting distorted his handsome face. I was shocked. I was gone for only 30 minutes! Why was he so worked up?
The next day I left him in a room without the pen for five minutes. He destroyed whatever he could chew or knock off the desk.
This was our first fostering experience for Labrador rescue in Denver. What was wrong with Bob?
What Is Sparation Anxiety?
After desperate calls to Lab Rescue and the Denver Dumb Friends League, my husband, Tom, and I learned that Bob had separation anxiety, a common canine behavior problem. These dogs have a dramatic panic response often within minutes of being alone. They may dig, scratch, bark, whine, pace, pant, drool and eliminate in the house. Some tear up objects as Bob did. Like people who chew their nails, chain-smoke, or drink alcohol in an attempt to relieve their anxiety, these dogs are doing their version of stress reduction. They are not being spiteful. If punished for these actions, the anxiety often worsens. It’s best to ignore the destruction, even though it may be difficult to do.
Dogs are social creatures. Being alone is not entirely natural. In the wild, they live in packs. To the domestic dog, its human family is its pack.
What were we to do? We were leaving in a week to visit Bryce Canyon and Zion in Utah. We knew Bob wasn’t adoptable like this. The choice was to either take him back to the shelter-or take him with us.
Does My Dog Have It?
Separation behaviors ALWAYS and ONLY occur when Fido is left alone either for short or long period of time. Your dog may have this problem if most of the following statements are true. He:
Follows you from room to room.
Is anxious if he can’t see but not reach you.
Displays frantic, prolonged greetings (whining, jumping on you, and continually licking you).
Reacts with depression or anxiety when you prepare to leave.
Dislikes being alone outdoors.
Watching your every move.
Vigorously attempts to escape when left alone at crate or small area.
Chews or licks his paws or tail, resulting in self-mutilation.
For the most part, this described Bob.
What Causes Separation Anxiety?
Fear of abandonment may develop after a stay at a shelter or boarding kennel. Conversely, separation anxiety can develop if a dog is rarely left alone, or following a vacation when dog and guardian are constantly together.
It can be sparked by a change in environment or daily routine. A move to a new home, a change in work schedule, or a child leaving for college may be all it takes. A new pet or person in the home can trigger it. Why some dogs suffer from it and others under similar circumstances don’t is not fully understood. To prevent separation anxiety in a new puppy, get him used to being alone for brief, then gradually longer periods of time.
Protecting Your Home
Treatment of this issue takes time. Take measures to protect Fido and your home in the mean time. It will make your life easier.
Inadequate outdoor exercise and mental stimulation often make separation anxiety worse. Backyard exercises not enough! Constructive ways to tire your dog include puppy play dates, playing fetch, romping at the dog park, and agility or obedience training. This will help reduce the stress and hyperactivity.
When you leave, restrict Fido to a damage-proof portion of your house to minimize destruction. If he likes his crate, leave him there for a short time.
If your dog chews and destroys things, give him a chew toy he really likes. A Nylabone or a Kong stuffed with food are good choices. Allow him to have it only when you are gone. However, a chew toy may not allay panic in extremely anxious dogs.
Take your dog to doggie day care as an interim solution, leave him with a friend, or take him to work with you. Your vet or animal behaviorist may recommend a homeopathic remedy or anti-anxiety drug as temporary measures.
Helping Your Dog To Overcome Separation Anxiety
You will need to set aside time to help your dog adjust to separation. First, if he must be in the same room with you all the time, work with sit and stay until he can tolerate you being out of the room. Gradually increase the distance you move away from Fido. Your goal is to move briefly out of his sight while he remains in the “stay” position. The point is to teach him that he can remain calm and happy in one place while you go to another. Do this during your normal daily activities, like leaving him in the living room while you go into the kitchen to get a snack. Always reinforce good behaviors by treating or quietly praising him when you return. Never punish your dog during these training sessions.
When you leave, spy on your dog to figure out how long he waits before anxiety behavior kicks in. Some started immediately and others wait up to one hour.
Keep your coming and going low-key. When you leave, say goodbye in a normal tone of voice. An emotional goodbye or giving Fido lots of attention just before you leave makes it worse when you’re gone. Leave an article of clothing that smells like you with your dog, like a T-shirt.
When you return say a casual “hi,” but do not pet or talk to him at first. Hang your coat up. Read the mail. If Fido is very excited, wait until he is calm before you give him a couple of pats. Reward calm, quiet behavior with low-key praise and attention.
Techniques For Severe Cases
For severe cases, a desensitization process may also be needed. This time-consuming technique conditions Fido to accept being alone in steps. The key during the following “practice” departures and short absences is for your dog to remain calm:
Go through your normal leaving routine (get your keys, put on your coat). Sit back down. Repeat this step until your dog shows no distress.
Go through your leaving routine. Go to the door and open it. Sit back down.
Step outside the door. Leave it open. Come back in.
Step outside. Close the door. Immediately return. Repeat until you can close the door between you for several seconds.
When your dog tolerates being alone for several seconds, begin short absences. Give him a cue such as “I’ll be back.” Return within a minute. Either ignore Fido or greet him calmly. Repeat this if he shows no signs of distress. If he appears anxious, wait until he relaxes. Gradually increase the length of time you’re gone.
Practice many absences lasting under 10 minutes. Scatter practice departures and short absences throughout the day.
Proceed very slowly from step to step. If your actions produce an anxiety response in your dog at any time, you have moved too fast. Return to an earlier step to practice until Fido shows no distress. Then go to the next step.
Once your dog can handle 30 to 90 minute absences, he’ll usually be able to handle longer intervals alone. You won’t have to work up to all day absences minute by minute. The hard part is at the beginning, but the job gets easier. How long it takes to condition your dog to being alone depends on the severity of this problem.
What Not To Do
Don’t reinforce any dog’s need for constant attention, particularly when he seeks it by whining, barking, pawing, or jumping on you. Simply ignore him or turn your back so you won’t accidentally reward bad behaviors. Do not interact or even look at him. Give attention and affection only for good behaviors.
Unless the crate is a safe place for Fido, don’t create him when you leave. He will still panic in the crate, perhaps hurting himself in an attempt to escape.
If you punish Fido when you come home for any destruction, he will associate the punishment with your arrival, not with what he did while you were gone. It will actually increase his anxiety.
Your dog’s anxiety is the result of his separation from you. Getting another pet doesn’t usually help.
Although obedience school is always a good idea, it won’t directly help separation anxiety. This is a panic response, not a lack of training. However, the confidence that is built in Fido during training may help indirectly.
What If My Dog Still Isn’t Better?
Some dogs never overcome their fear of being alone. If you are still having trouble, ask your vet to refer you to a professional animal behaviorist.
Bob fell into the category of severe separation anxiety. During the three weeks we fostered Bob, I began the slow desensitization process. Needless to say, we took him with us to Utah, thanks to pet-friendly motels. Dogs were not allowed in Bryce Canyon itself or Zion Park. What would we do with Bob when we went hiking? We found he did much better when we left him in our car, but only in cool weather, rather than the motel room. Between lots play, a crate in our Subaru with the hatchback open, Rescue Remedy (a homeopathic for stress), and a local daycare, the three of us had a pretty darn good trip.
Bob was improving and could tolerate being alone for 15 minutes when Lee adopted him. I explained Bob’s problem, and Lee was willing to take it on. His chocolate lab had just died, and he wanted a companion for himself and Copper, his white lab. It was love at first sight for these three.
I spoke with Lee several times after he adopted Bob. He spent a lot of time working with Bob. The destructive behaviors were lessening. Four months later I met the happy trio at the local dog park. Lee reported a full recovery! The trust between Bob and Lee was clear. Bob was at home with his new family, and that handsome fellow was smiling, truly smiling as he romped and played with Copper and the other dogs.