By Martin Deeley
One of the most common phrases used by owners to describe a dog that appears stressed when the owner leaves home (or sometimes just leaves the room) is separation anxiety. We can define separation anxiety as a behavioral disorder that shows itself through symptoms like excessive salivation, barking, whining, destroying items in the home, attempting to escape from the crate or room, eliminating in the room or crate, scratching at walls, doors and floors, and even jumping though windows.
There is no doubt that this behavior is distressing to the owner not only for the damage done but for the anxiety they feel their dog is experiencing.
In my experience there is true separation anxiety and what I term “simulated” separation anxiety, where the behavior appears to be separation anxiety but is in fact a learned behavior. This means the dog lacks leadership as well as self-control. For true separation anxiety, the dog does experience real stress at the owner leaving. In simulated separation anxiety, the dog knows that he will get attention if he acts badly. For some dogs, even being verbally reprimanded for such behavior is rewarding because he feels he was noticed. Negative attention can be a reward in many cases where the owner is unaware that certain needs of his dog are not being met. In this instance there is little real stress involved– just misbehavior. In many instances I find this fairly easy to overcome with a gradual approach, slowly increasing the amount of time spent in a crate (when you are at home as well as away), good obedience, proper amounts of exercise and strong leadership. With severe cases of true separation anxiety, modification becomes a more difficult task.
However separation anxiety manifests itself, there is no doubt that it is often unknowingly encouraged by the owners. We make a big fuss when we leave or come home and in doing so we reward the concern, and the stress increases at the time of leaving. We like our dogs to be with us and when they are puppies, we take them everywhere for socialization. Then we have to leave them alone and they have reached an age where they now not only want, but also feel the need to be with us – we are their confidence, their security and their pack.
With some dogs, a change in their routines can create the symptoms of separation anxiety. After being neutered or spayed we spoil them because they have been to the vet and had an operation. We feel sorry for them and reinforce their “neediness.” A new baby arrives in the family and the dog suddenly gets demoted, even ignored, with no preparation for this change. Moving houses or leaving the house for long periods such as a vacation, after you have been at home most of the time (even just the change from the weekend to the work week) can bring on the symptoms.
Some destruction and stress can be created by boredom and lack of exercise or even by the characteristics of the breed. Terriers are born to dig, retrievers to carry and protection breeds to protect. So in some instances we are holding them back from their instincts and drives, rather than nurturing them. Remember Cesar’s mantra, which is a good start to correcting these problems: Exercise, Discipline, and then Affection. Also – use the “no talk, no eye contact” approach. We need to establish a balance between patience, obedience and confidence in our dogs. With some breeds this is not always easy to achieve. We want to develop a character in our dog that shows the harmonious partnership we share. He should have a confidence in himself and a confidence in your leadership. This way, he can be confident in situations such as being left alone and he knows that when you are present you provide the leadership and guidance when required. He trusts and knows that you will come home.
Vets may prescribe drugs, which tend to calm the senses a little but they are not a cure. Drugs only provide a support mechanism to assist the owner rehabilitate and only act as a temporary band-aid for the underlying problem. You have to treat the root cause.
So how do we help our dogs overcome this problem?
It really starts the moment you get your puppy. All too often a puppy taken from the litter begins to cry when left alone. This is a big change for the pup – they no longer have the pack they were born with. When he cries, we go and pick him up and show sympathy – his crying is rewarded. If he is crying in a crate, and you let him out he is being rewarded for his crying.
From the beginning we need to teach our pup to be quiet and settle down for increasing periods of time. We need to teach patience and calmness and reward that instead. When he is out with us, we should not be attempting to constantly interact with him. Let him learn to entertain himself with toys – his toys. For some reason many dog owners cannot let their dogs relax for a second. Even when relaxed and calm, owners feel that they have to touch them, talk to them and generally disturb them so the dog thinks his job is to entertain the owner all the time. There is no life outside contact with the owner. So teach the pup to accept the crate. Allow him to explore under supervision and to learn the limits and boundaries of his environment; to gain respect for this environment and the people in it. That means consistency in all the things you do, and that includes everyone in the family who interacts with your dog.
I believe much of the cure for separation anxiety comes from obedience and discipline. Self-discipline – where your dog knows what is expected of him and his good behaviour becomes a habit. He feels wrong showing an unwanted behaviour even without you indicating it. Spend time training – not just classes once a week, but really showing your dog what you want from him in and around the house and during daily routines. Two minutes here, five minutes there. Not just going for a walk but training him as you go to sit at curbsides and sit when meeting others, people and dogs. Teach him to sit at the door, lie down and stay while you go out of sight for increasing periods of time (do this in your house), sit and wait to be greeted by guests, move aside when you go to the refrigerator, and go to the bathroom on cue. In general you should be teaching your dog in small steps to “Be a Gentleman” and have confidence in these actions.
Rehabilitation begins by having your dog know what is expected of him. You and other members of your family are the pack leaders, to be recognized as such and not dictated to by him. For example, he comes up to you and nudges your hand or slaps you with his paw. You think this is cute and he is petted. This becomes a habit and now your dog says “I am in control and I can tell you what to do.” Then it becomes a habit which, when he cannot carry it out, creates stress. If, however your dog does this and he does not have anxiety issues, congratulations because you have created that good balance of confidence when left alone. It is imbalance that is the concern.
Even when you are home, have your dog familiar with and accepting of being in the crate. Start with short periods of time and then increase it. Feed him in the crate, let him have his favorite stress reliever in there to gnaw on – a Kong type toy, a sterile bone or a nylon hard bone. Nothing he can pull apart. Do not put water in the crate – that can get very messy! The crate should be your dogs safe haven, a place he feels secure and enjoys being in. It should be big enough for him to stand upright without his head touching the top and he should be able to turn around and lay down easily. If he barks in the crate, look for ways to control that – teaching him “quiet” is good, and interrupting the barking so he learns there is no reward from it, also works. In some cases a good bark collar is excellent when he barks in your absence. No one wants annoyed neighbors and this will device will correct him when you are not there.
When you leave him, do so quietly and don’t provide cues. No “sorry darling, I will be back soon.” Go through your leaving routine quietly, pick up car keys, open garage doors and then start the car. Then come back inside paying no attention to your dog. Not even a “good boy.” Do what you always do when leaving – role-play if it helps. When you come back in your home once more pay no attention to your dog. Walk past him, wave and smile if he is quiet but if he is banging at the crate, ignore it and walk on. Come back and wait until he is quiet and then ask him to wait in the crate while you open the door. He should not come bursting out. If you feel one action such as putting on a certain pair of shoes, picking up your car keys, going to a certain door brings about the beginning of stress then do that action and do not leave. Get him so familiar with the action that he accepts it.
Sometimes however your dog will recognize a series of actions. There you have to be clever. Changing your dog’s habits often means changing your own and that can be difficult – we are creatures of habit. So change your routines – use a different door, put your coat on in a different place, put your briefcase or bag down in a different place. Make changes to create a different picture. If watching TV or working on the computer and your dog is with you, if he gets up every time you get up, simply get up and then sit down again. He does not have to follow you everywhere. Yes he can watch but wait until you request his company. These little changes will help teach him to have the self-confidence he needs to handle being alone.
The little things here can make a big difference too. For example, the type of crate. I prefer a cage-type crate placed in the busiest room in the house. I want him to become accepting of normal every-day movement, noises and happenings within your home and realize it is not necessary for him to be involved in everything. You can always have more than one crate if, for example, you want your pal to sleep in the bedroom next to your bed. Sometimes covering the crate with a sheet when you leave gives the feeling of a den and your dog may like this more. There is the danger however that in his stress he could pull it into the crate and rip it up. So use this initially when you are home and see if it helps. All of my dogs enjoy music and the TV and I will leave it on for them. It provides a familiar background sound and sight for them that gives them a feeling of security.
Some toys today are developed to entertain or occupy your dog when you leave. I prefer to use such interactive toys only when I am present. However these can work because your dog’s mind is stimulated while attempting to remove treats from a toy, which then relaxes his mind and he sleeps.
Separation anxiety can be overcome – with some dogs you can turn them around fairly quickly. With others it takes time and patience. Exercise, obedience, “lifestyle” training, leadership, limits and boundaries, confidence in you and confidence in themselves, security in their environment and consistency within the whole family pack will have you moving forward towards a much happier, balanced, stress-free dog and of course, a stress free you!
About Martin Deeley
Martin Deeley is internationally recognized as one of the leaders in dog training. He co-founded the International Association of Canine Professionals, has authored three books on gundog training, was inducted to the IACP International Hall of Fame and was featured on the Sit and Stay the Cesar Way DVD. For his full biography, click here . Visit his website at www.floridadogtrainer.com