Vets and trainers are often consulted about dogs, who when left alone, cry, howl, bark, urinate, defecate, or simply destroy everything in their paths. Whatever destructive or inappropriate behavior your dog engages in when you leave him alone, he is not doing it to “punish” you for leaving him alone. Rather, his behavior is generally the result of stress, fear and/or boredom.
Depending on your dog’s behavior when you are gone you can sometimes differentiate between stress-related behavior and boredom. For example, assuming you are giving your dog appropriate opportunities to relieve himself during the day, urinating and defecating in your absence is more likely to be a sign of stress than of housetraining problems. If upon returning home, your dog is panting and sticks to your side like glue, it is likely he is suffering from separation anxiety.
Many dog behavior experts sub-divide separation anxiety into “true” separation anxiety and “isolation distress.” With “true” separation anxiety your dog’s fears are focused on a particular person (“Oh no! Jane’s gone!”). With isolation distress, simply being alone is the problem for your dog. Thus, isolation distress can sometimes be alleviated by the company of other dogs or people – letting your dog stay with a friend when you are out or taking your dog to doggy daycare. Separation anxiety can be more challenging to address because your dog’s stress is triggered by being away from a particular person.
There are several steps you can take to make your time away from your dog less stressful, boring, and/or anxiety-provoking for your four-legged friend. In general, however, one of the most important things you can do is to start getting your dog or puppy used to brief periods of being alone as soon as you bring him home. Don’t get your dog used to be with you 24/7, and then expect him to feel okay when you suddenly start leaving him alone for a bunch of hours as you go back to work.
First, to help alleviate stress, boredom and inappropriate behavior in your absence, make sure to give your dog enough daily exercise, especially right before you leave the house. A tired dog is not only less likely to engage in boredom-generated destructive behavior, but also may end up simply crashing rather than working up his anxiety.
Second, make coming and going low-key events. Rather than showering your dog with kisses, affection and praise before you leave and immediately when you return home, make your departures and arrivals calm and relaxed. You’re leaving your dog warm, well fed, and in a comfortable place – no need to feel guilty about having to go out!
Third, if your dog begins to get anxious when you start preparing to leave the house – he starts to pace, drool and whine when he sees you putting on your coat, picking up keys, or walking to the door – you should work on desensitizing him to these triggers. If, for example, your dog begins to freak out when you put on your coat, practice putting on your coat, walking around the house a bit, and then taking off your coat and putting it back in its place. Don’t pay attention to your dog when you do this. Wait a couple of minutes, and repeat the putting on and taking off of the coat. Repeat the coat process five or ten times, and at least twice daily. The idea here is that you are desensitizing your dog to the initial trigger that provokes his anxiety. If you can desensitize him, you are causing a breakdown in his anxiety cycle. Once your dog has begun to accept the first step in your departure ritual – here putting on your coat – you should repeat the de-sensitizing exercise with each successive step of your departure ritual (grabbing your keys, going to the door, etc).
Fourth, practice leaving your dog for short periods of time. After you have desensitized your dog to your usual leaving-the-house rituals, walk out the door, wait a minute, and then come back in. Remember to stay cool and relaxed as you leave and when you come back. Practice leaving and returning in this relaxed manner as often as you can. As your dog becomes used to your calmly leaving and returning as a usual and repeated occurrence, your absences will likely be less anxiety-producing.
Fifth, you may also want to try to use “safety cues” to help your dog tolerate your leaving. Safety cues are items, actions, or words you use just before your departure to signal that you will return and that the upcoming departure will be one your dog can handle without distress. When you are ready to leave, you give a cue to your dog such as a specific toy or even a specific phrase like “I will be back soon.” Start out using the safety cue during practice sessions. However, to establish the cue as an effective tool, do not use it when you're leaving for longer durations than your dog has learned to tolerate.
Sixth, give your dog something to keep him occupied while you are away. Some dogs seem to be comforted by a radio or television left on. Or, you can leave your dog with a non-destructible chew toy, even a hollow chew toy that you can fill with tasty treats. The toy can provide a safe outlet to keep your dog busy in your absence. In fact, the television, the radio, or the toy can fulfill multiple duties: they can be used to comfort and occupy your dog and as well as employed as a safety cue as described above. However, if you leave your dog with a toy, remember to take your dog’s “chew level” into account. Many toys are safe only for supervised play. Never leave your dog with any item that he can swallow or break apart.
Seventh, there are many over the counter products designed to ease to your dog’s anxiety in your absence. A plug-in diffuser under the brand name Comfort Zone® dispenses a scent that mimics the pheromone secreted by nursing dogs, and has been shown to reduce anxious behavior in a significant percentage of dogs. Also widely used is Bach’s Rescue Remedy®, a flower-based calming product available in liquid or spray that can be fed directly to your dog, rubbed on his nose or paws, or added to his food or water. Both of these products can be found under the Calming Aids section of DoggedHealth's store.
Before you use any of these products, however, you need to consult with
your veterinarian to learn if they are appropriate for your dog.
Finally, you may want to consider asking your vet if anti-anxiety or anti-depressant medications are appropriate for your dog. These medications can alleviate your dog’s suffering and speed behavior modification. The less anxious your dog is, the easier it is for him to learn to tolerate previously stress-inducing situations. Almost always, your dog can be eventually weaned off the medications.
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