Separation anxiety is a behavioural problem with various degrees of intensity, yet may sometimes be resolved without the assistance from a professional. Some of the more unfortunate stories have been so incredulous you might find yourself enlightened or frightened by the level of destruction! Although some cases have not had a positive outcome, the innovative efforts of some dogs must be noted. I have found that the two most significant components for success will be the environment in which the dog lives and the commitment of the family. Consequently, if a dog’s persistence is allowed to prevail and the family isn’t able to alter their schedule, there’s little one can do.
Our first order of business is to break down the cause and trigger for the dog’s reaction.
Destructiveness of both home and animal are the most common concerns when dealing with separation anxiety. A dog’s panic can range from shredded papers to exposed walls, missing doors (and their frame) or a jump out of a second story window … all of which can be just the beginning of life-long emotional turmoil. Any dog with this type of history will need a family willing and capable of providing a nurturing, stable environment. It will take time, patience, and consistency.
Our first order of business is to break down the cause and trigger for the dog’s reaction. The cause will usually fall under a ‘confinement’ or an ‘alone’ issue and in some cases a dog is devastated by both. Test to see if the dog reacts from being locked up while you are home. Then watch (through a window) the dog’s behaviour when you leave the house. For those that suffer from both, it is usually best to begin with his ‘confinement’ issue with a gradual desensitization program.
Some dogs are capable of escaping the most elaborate concoctions, regardless of injury to one self. When their determination appears unstoppable, your decision to work on this depends solely on the necessity of having them confined or because of the damage they do once they are free. It has surprised more than one pet owner that the dog being left alone wasn’t the real cause for concern. Many clients have been left speechless when I suggest leaving their dog free roaming in the house, only to discover a happy relaxed pet when they arrive home.
For those of you not so lucky, fixing the ‘confinement’ issue can be a long and tedious affair. Some dogs need to be in padlocked crates, while others need only a gated hallway. Regardless of the type of enclosure, it is critical that the dog be left in a neutral part of the home so as not to add to his anxiety. The long trip to the basement (if you never spend time there) is a problem ‘trigger’ you must avoid. The next step is that the dog must be confined daily (more than once is better) while you are at home. Once you commit to this program, the dog cannot be left alone in his enclosure and you will have to make alternate arrangements for when you leave the house. Depending on the dog’s history, this could take several days or even weeks!
Your goal to fixing his confinement issue is that he is quiet, relaxed or sleeping (night-time doesn’t count) whenever you put him in his enclosure. In short, you must make this feel like a normal comfortable routine.
Initially, stay in the same area just outside of his enclosure and act very busy (such as cleaning the house). Gradually you should be able to leave the room or even go outdoors (such as getting the mail) without triggering a reaction. Since your goal is to improve his anxiety of being confined, do not rush leaving the house. Of course whenever you re-enter his space, there should be minimal acknowledgement.
When we begin working on his ‘alone’ issue, your reaction when you return should be relaxed! Your dog considers your voice, eyes, and touch the ultimate in praise. If you’re trying to teach him that leaving is normal then returning shouldn’t be so fantastic. It is so easy to unintentionally reward the wrong behaviour. If he/she had been feeling even slightly stressed or nervous, you could quickly increase his anxiety with too much attention. I also encourage using a tie-down technique. Certain times of the day, such as dinner or TV time, you can attach a five-foot lead to a heavy object and place the dog with a toy and a treat. He can be left just out of your reach so as to get used to being at a distance from you.
Remember your dog has a sixth sense (or very acute awareness) to your emotional state. You must be convinced yourself that this is helping not hurting him. During the hours in between the lockdowns and tie-downs, you must avoid reinforcing any needy type behaviour. Goldens are very affectionate dogs, so I am not saying ignore your dog. I am only suggesting you portray a calm and confident approach similar to any other healthy relationship in your life. You can be happy when you come home, you just don’t need to be ecstatic!
For dogs who have come out of traumatic experiences, you might need to alter parts of the program. The type of confinement might need to be more or even less spacious. Depending on the history you’ve received with the dog or whatever information you have learned through trial and error, will help you determine what changes need to be made. What is most essential is that the dog is not further traumatized. Some dogs can never go back into a crate, while other dogs might need an enclosed crate compared to a wired one. Trying to figure out these specifics is sometimes the greatest obstacle but through your patience and persistence success is around the corner.
One type of anxiety that always proves to be frustrating for owners is when a dog is not reliably destructive. Not that they complain about the lack of destruction just the inability to predict it! When a dog is only destructive once or twice a month, most owners try to live with it by puppy proofing the home and keeping their valuables out of reach. When episodes become a little more frequent (i.e. once a week), an owner’s frustration usually builds to where they want a fix! In all cases, I get to play Sherlock…looking for clues! I recommend owners keep a daily journal noting any and all activities. Often we can see the correlation between the weekend’s events (long hikes, swimming, etc.) and the dog’s Thursday afternoon destruction. They hadn’t noticed the dog’s good behaviour at the beginning of the week had to do with him being physically exhausted. After a couple of days rest, he was back to full speed and what they thought was unrelated destruction. Not all cases will be so simple, but thorough note keeping will help to pick up any unique triggers that cause your dog’s anxiety. Look closely for any patterns. Sometimes it will be the time of day/week while other situations are brought on by the changes in their routine. Trying to pinpoint the cause of a dog’s separation anxiety can only enhance his quality of life and better help you understand what makes your dog tick.
In all cases of separation anxiety the dog’s mental and physical health are considered a priority. If a dog is so destructive that he is in harms way when you leave, consider hiring a professional. If you feel your dog is just a little too dependent on routine, start to make gradual adjustments to his day. The actual time when you feed, walk or play can be altered by half hour intervals just to help him develop a greater tolerance to change. Where you exercise, train or socialize might need to be increased so your dog develops a well-rounded social life. The number of new experiences your dog has in a day, week or month might also need to be increased. Monitor how your dog handles these changes and alter them according to his reaction. At no time is a panic or shut down reaction acceptable. Immediately stop what you’ve been doing and help him snap out of it by re-directing him into something he is comfortable with. Don’t let your compassionate outlook make him think you feel sorry for him. In order to be successful, you must be confident in your decisions, even when you have made mistakes. Your guidance will make the difference for a healthy happy future!