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Dog behavior problems: Separation Anxiety in Dogs

Separation anxiety can cause a dog to be destructive, cause problems with the neighbors and is really hard on the dog

MetPet.com Staff Writer

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What is separation anxiety in dogs?
Most dogs sleep, bark occasionally or chew their toys when left alone in the house or in a room without access to you.  In general, they pretty much do what they normally do when you are with them. Dogs with separation anxiety, however, can make leaving the house or even the room an emotional and difficult chore. Separation anxiety can cause them to whine or bark incessantly, pace, chew furniture, destroy blinds, rip up carpeting, eat through drywall, climb bookcases, mutilate plants or scratch at windows and doors.
 

Dogs with severe separation anxiety can destroy thousands of dollars in furnishings, go through plate glass windows, bloody their mouths and paws and defecate and urinate everywhere.  Their howling, barking and whining can also lead to problems with neighbors and landlords. 

Since dogs are pack animals, they naturally wish to be with people all the time.  Most adult dogs (12-16 months and older depending on breed) can be left alone for 8 hours or even longer if they have access to a yard for elimination.  They are unhappy, they are bored but do not become problems. 

A dog with separation anxiety is different.  When you go to the door to leave, he becomes anxious and may try to leave with you.  You manage to get outside and close the door but you can still hear him whining and scratching on the inside.  You are upset, your dog is upset and you do not know what you will find when you return.  When you return to find your house in a shambles, you get upset at your dog (who has been upset since you left) who becomes even more upset.  This cycle repeats and builds upon itself until you are ready to give your dog away. 

Signs of distress that occur only when your dog does not have access to you define separation anxiety.  This anxiety usually begins when he thinks you are getting ready to leave.  It can also be exhibited if you put him in a room and close the door behind you.  If your dog is anxious and distressed all the time, you need to look for another underlying cause. 

Separation anxiety is not affected by whether the owner is loving and attentive or not.  Two dogs of the same breed living with the same owner may exhibit completely different behaviors.  One dog can whine, pace and bark while the other lies down and goes to sleep. 

Some believe that separation anxiety is more common in dogs living with single people or with couples.  A dog that is heavily invested in a relationship with a single individual or two is more likely to be upset by the absence of that person or couple.  If you believe that this may be the case with your dog, having more human company in your home for your dog may help ease the anxiety. 

Like many human behaviors, it could be caused by brain chemistry.  A dog that is genetically predisposed may have the condition triggered by stress.  Some breeds have a greater tendency to suffer from separation anxiety.  It is worth doing some research into your dog's breed(s) to help you localize the problem.  Depending on the individual and the severity of the disorder, the cure could range from simple behavioral modification to a prescription for antidepressants from the vet. 

When it is not separation anxiety!
Sometimes tearing the drywall, eating the baseboard, raiding the cupboards is not separation anxiety, it is simply bad behavior or your dog having a delightful time when you are not home to correct him.  Like teenagers having a secret bash when the parents are away for the weekend, some dogs have learned that they can have a great deal of fun when you are gone. 

In order to find out what is really happening when you are away, set up a video camera and see how your dog behaves.  Does she look happy with an open, relaxed mouth and relaxed body? Does she look anxious, upset, angry or tense?  Dogs with separation anxiety can drool so much that they wind up soaking their surroundings and themselves.  

Dogs with separation anxiety often express their frustration or anxiety at the barrier between you and them.  This is usually the front door, the front windows the carpeting and the floor in the front of the house.  In their distress, they want to get through these barriers and find you. 

If you do not have a video camera, you can leave and then walk back quietly to your house and take a look inside.  You may find out that your dog is simply in need of training and more toys.

Causes of separation anxiety in dogs
Separation anxiety can appear in dogs that are not properly socialized, dogs that have been shuttled from one home to another, dogs that have a more dominant relationship with you and dogs that are naturally nervous:

- One school of thought about separation anxiety is the idea of pack leadership.  She may be aghast that you, her pack member, has gone away without her permission.  She may feel so dominant in the household that she becomes distressed when her underlings leave.  She has a skewed understanding of the social structure in the house and becomes upset when left alone.  She anxiously claws through the door or at the blinds looking for her pack. 

- He may think that he will never see you again and is worried about how he will survive.  A dog that has been through a burglary, earthquake, thunderstorm, fire or other traumatic event may be afraid of being without you just in case it happens again.  

- He may be afraid of being left alone in the house.  This may sound silly but a golden retriever we knew hid behind the potted plants until he got a friend.  

Whatever the cause, here are some techniques for solving separation anxiety.

Check out the dog and the environment
To begin with, make sure that nothing is physically ailing your dog.  A disorder, disease or pain of some kind could be causing your dog to become unusually sensitive to changes in his environment.  For example, dogs on low protein, low fat 'reducing' diets can express their hunger through unexpected ways such as whining excessively. 

If your dog is healthy, it is worth checking out his environment for sources of discomfort.  Is it too hot or too cold?  Are there threatening sounds such as other dogs barking?  Are there strange sounds or smells coming from a nearby house or apartment? 

If you cannot find anything wrong with either your dog or her environment, then it is time to tackle separation anxiety directly.

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