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Separation Anxiety

I want to start with a quote by J. Allen Boone from his book *Kinship with All Life* as he reveals a vital secret:


“If you would understand this secret, you must first understand the distinction between training an animal and educating one. Trained animals are relatively easy to turn out. All that is required is a book of instructions, a certain amount of bluff and bluster, something to use for threatening and punishing purposes, and of course the animal. Educating an animal, on the other hand, demands keen intelligence, integrity, imagination, and the gentle touch, mentally, vocally, and physically.”


So curing dog separation anxiety and related nervous disorders must be approached in a spirit of reverence, compassion, getting inside your best friend’s psyche and understanding the world through primal senses.



How do I know if my dog has separation anxiety?


The signs are painfully clear. Ask yourself if most, or all, of the following questions are true about your dog:


     • When left alone, does my dog scratch, dig and chew at doors or windows in an effort to escape and find me?


    • When I leave home, does my dog howl, bark and cry as if trying to get me to return? 


     • Do I sometimes return home to find my dog has defecated and/or urinated in the house even though he’s house trained?


     • Does my dog follow me from room to room when I’m home?


     • Does my dog give me a frantic, uncontrollable greeting when I return home?


     • When I get ready to leave (put on my coat and pick up the car keys) does my dog          

        react with excitement, depression, or general anxiety?


     • Does my dog resist spending time outdoors by himself?


If you answered 'Yes' to most or all of these questions, you most likely have a case of dog separation anxiety on your hands. The next question is…




Why does my dog suffer from dog separation anxiety?


First, understand that your dog is not trying to get back at you for leaving him alone.


The destructive actions, house soiling and neurotic behavior that accompany dog separation anxiety are manifestations of a panic response.


Fortunately, the panic response is a behavior that is successfully modified with corrective and positive reinforcement (which can sometimes be assisted by a select blend of natural herbs to calm jittery nerves and promote your dog’s confidence and well being).


We don’t fully understand why some dogs suffer anxieties more than others, and some not at all. We do know that dog separation anxiety sometimes occurs:


    • When a dog is left alone after becoming accustomed to constant human                                               companionship


    • After experiencing a traumatic event such as an injury or being left in a boarding kennel


     • Following a significant change in routine, structure or surroundings such as the absence of an important companion, moving into a new home, a change in feeding schedule, or a new pet or person in the family


But before we get into the step-by-step process of what to do about dog separation anxiety and related nervous disorders, let’s spend a moment going over what NOT to do.


What won’t help


First and foremost, don’t punish your dog. Punishment of any kind is not an effective way to treat dog separation anxiety or any unwanted behavior. Such a reaction on the part of the pack leader (you) only serves to reinforce the behavior you’re trying to correct.


Getting another pet as a companion for your dog doesn’t help either. Dog separation anxiety stems from your dog being separated from you (again, the pack leader), not from being by himself, being unable to play with another animal, or being bored (there is a difference between boredom and loneliness, which I’ll talk about later).


Crating your dog (canine incarceration) is not the answer. A dog’s essential nature is to be free. A nervous dog locked in a crate is still a nervous dog but now with a heightened panic response compounded by paranoia and desperation. The added risk of your dog injuring himself in an attempt to escape from the crate is also heightened.


Obedience training by itself does not address this psychological problem. There is no question that obedience training is a satisfying and worthwhile experience for both dog and keeper. Remember though, dog separation anxiety is an uncorrected panic response and has nothing to do with obedience or disobedience.



A word about praise


Praising your dog is absolutely necessary to good mental and physical health for both dog and keeper.


Sadly, dog-keeper’s inhibitions often prevent the wholehearted expression of genuine praise that fully connects at the primal level. The best thing you can possibly do right now is forget your inhibitions, let go of the mouse and go praise your dog. 


Praise liberally, often, physically and verbally. Dogs thrive on body contact but dislike slapping, pounding or pulling.


Do not use praise as a bribe to elicit good behavior from your dog. Instead, use praise to set your dog’s world in order, to instill confidence, and to reassure him that his pack and his world are safe and happy places.



What about treats?


Never use treats as a substitute for praise. With that in mind, treats can be an effective means of positive reinforcement and can speed up your dog’s learning process.


As your dog learns to perform the desired response, accept that he does it initially, and primarily, for the reward of a treat. Always remember to treat and praise. Then, as his conditioning progresses, gradually wean him off the treats as you increase the praise.



A word about discipline


Discipline is a touchy subject. Opinions are sharply divided among professional trainers, animal behaviorists, and ordinary dog lovers like you and me.


Shall I discipline or not? If so, how much and what kind of discipline?


Members in a wolf pack learn limits and expectations very quickly when disciplined by the alpha’s penetrating stare, gnash of canines, or calculated nip. The sound of Cesar Millan (The Dog Whisperer**) with his familiar “Ssssssst!” command is a perfect example of confident alpha discipline.


Discipline is not so much a question of yes or no. Certainly, your dog looks to you for guidance, leadership, definitions and boundaries that can help him navigate the world and avoid danger.


So discipline becomes a question of how much, what kind, and on what level. And you, as pack leader wanting to correct undesired behavior, need to respond appropriately to both the situation and your best friend. In the mind of one whose greatest joy in life is to please you, consider the difference between receiving a hurtful slap on the head, and a firm but gentle “No!” along with a wag of the finger.


Okay, let’s get down to the business of curing dog separation anxiety


Lesson number one is that most of the behavioral changes necessary to curing dog separation anxiety need to take place in you, the pack leader, not in your dog.


There are three human behavioral changes, which we will call Lifestyle Changes.


Please approach these Lifestyle Changes in a spirit of reverence and respect for the rare bond we harbor between humans and animals. We dog lovers (and cat lovers too) sometimes forget how fortunate this gift of companionship is, and how nourished we feel for giving and receiving this special kind of love.



Three Lifestyle Changes


The First Lifestyle Change is to calculate, map out, and schedule as many ways as possible to include, not exclude, your dog in as many of your daily activities as possible.


Dog loneliness and the neurotic behavior we know as dog separation anxiety result largely from being excluded from the pack. Dogs are pack animals, not potted plants.

 They crave the social interaction and companionship that only you can give them.


Before dashing out of the house on an errand (automatically leaving poochie behind), THINK about whether you could be taking your dog along. Things that mean so little to you mean so much to your dog.


Consider all the possibilities.


You’ll discover several opportunities each and every day to take your dog along and bring more happiness into his life (and less dog separation anxiety).



Your Second Lifestyle Change is the dreaded “e” word… Exercise.


By domesticating dogs, we have taken a close cousin to the wolf and replaced exercising with loafing around all day long. Is it any wonder our best friends age prematurely, developing weak hearts, arthritis, and diseases brought on by a sedentary lifestyle?


Set a goal for yourself and your dog to spend at least thirty minutes each day exercising vigorously. Take him with you wherever possible, or leash train him to walk around the neighborhood with you. If you live in a city without safe neighborhoods, get a treadmill and take turns on it.


Running daily, or at least fast walking, is by far the best aerobic exercise for dogs and people. With 30 minutes of sustained walking, circulation springs to life, joints and muscles regain their vitality, and the brain gets soaked in a sea of feel-good endorphins.


According to renowned animal behaviorist Dr. Nicholas H. Dodman in his book, ***The Well-Adjusted Dog***, concerning the beneficial effects of exercise:


“The net effect – mood stabilization, peace of mind, serenity – are the Holy Grail of behavioral medicine. Exercise is a natural way of helping us and our dogs deal with the pressures of modern life; in addition to making us happier, it also makes us smarter (by promoting the maturation of new brain cells) and helps us sleep more soundly."



Your Third Lifestyle Change will have you saying, “Egad, you gotta be kidding me, right?”

Not at all.


Once each day, religiously, I want you to get down on all fours and play with your dog! Be an animal. Just let go and get goofy. Embarrass yourself!


The key here is to relate to your dog eye-to-eye on his or her primal level.

Whether or not this makes any sense to you at first, just do it. You’ll be amazed at what an extraordinary bonding experience this can be, to say nothing of the mental purge of pent-up inhibitions, intimacies and anxieties for both you and your canine buddy.


Please do not neglect this important Lifestyle Change to help cure dog separation anxiety.



And finally, the four steps to curing dog separation anxiety



Though it may be difficult for you at first, Step One is to stop making such a big deal about your departures and arrivals.


When it comes time for you to leave, just leave. Don’t cry and gush and try to reassure doggy that he’ll be safe and you’ll be home soon.   Just leave.


And when you arrive back home, ignore your dog for the first 5 minutes. Then give him a no-big-deal welcome.


Also, before you leave the house, leave your dog an article of clothing that smells like you (such as a t-shirt you’ve slept in recently).


You can begin dog separation anxiety Step One today. This change in your behavior will quickly reduce your dog’s experience of your leaving and returning to a non-event and something undeserving of anxiety.




Closely related to the previous step, Step Two is to make use of a“Safe Cue” to first get your dog used to short-duration absences.


A “Safe Cue” is a word or action or combination of both, that you use each and every time you leave, that tells your dog you’ll be right back.


For example, when you leave to pick up the newspaper or take out the garbage, your dog doesn’t panic because he knows you’ll be right back. By using a Safe Cue prior to leaving, your dog learns to associate the word and/or action with your brief but bearable absence.


You can say something like, “I’ll be back.” You can give a treat and, if it’s at night, you can turn on a lamp on the end table – always the same light – and remind them to “Stay!” as you go out the door. This word-action routine tells them there’s nothing to worry about.


You may already be using a word-action Safe Cue (such as, “Bye-bye!” combined with playing the radio or TV) without realizing it. The key is to tone it down so it doesn’t violate Step One above, and use it like clockwork whenever you leave for short absences.


Finally, never use your Safe Cue when leaving for a longer time period than your dog can tolerate. This violates trust and de-constructs the progress you’ve made toward curing dog separation anxiety.




Step Three for curing dog separation anxiety contains a series of four sub-steps which must be taken in sequence, one at a time. These steps are desensitization techniques for more severe cases of dog separation anxiety.


(a) Go through your normal departure activities such as getting your car keys, putting on your coat. Then sit back down. Repeat these actions several times throughout the day, for as long as necessary, until your dog shown no sign of distress toward your actions.


(b) Go through the same departure activities as in the previous sub-step, then go to the door and open it, then sit back down. Remember, this exercise is all about conditioning. Repeat several times throughout the day, for as long as necessary, until your dog is comfortable with your actions. Yes, he may look at you like you’re a lunatic, but for now you’ll just have to trust the system. It works.


(c) Go through the same departure activities, but this time step outside the door, leaving the door open, then step back inside and sit down.


(d) Next (you guessed it), go through your departure activities, step outside, close the door, and immediately return.


This process of desensitizing your dog’s separation anxiety is classic animal behavior modification. Remember what J. Allen Boone said about the difference between training an animal and educating one, and about using “…keen intelligence, integrity, imagination, and the gentle touch, mentally, vocally, and physically.”


Proceed oh-so gradually from step to step. If at any time your dog shows an anxiety response toward your actions, you may have gone too far too fast. Go back to the previous step and start over. Easy does it.




Step Four is a natural progression of the previous steps. With time and repetition, your dog will tolerate your being on the outside of the door for several seconds, followed by several minutes then longer and longer absences.


This is the time to make use of the Safe Cue you learned in Step Two prior to your departures. Upon returning, remember to remain low-key by ignoring your dog for several minutes before offering a calm, subdued greeting.


Practice absences of ten minutes or less mixed with longer absences throughout the day. Make sure your dog relaxes sufficiently between departures.


Once your dog is able to handle absences of 30 to 90 minutes without symptoms of dog separation anxiety, his panic response will become more and more desensitized and he will be able to remain comfortably alone for longer intervals.


This process is admittedly difficult for both you and your dog, at least at first.


Remember to take it slow and easy not only at first, but also with every step along the way. Results should be seen in 10 days or less, but if your dog needs a little more time, remember, a happy, well-adjusted dog is well worth the effort.


                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                Natural Wonder Pets, 2007

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