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Separation anxiety – can you handle it?

Separation anxiety is a common occurrence in some dogs. While your dog may never have experienced it in the past, losing sensory perception (hearing and sight) can make him more dependent on you. As a result, he becomes anxious when you leave him - even if it's only leaving to another room in the house! Separation anxiety is also common in dogs with Cognitive Dysfunction Syndrome (CDS), a disease not unlike Alzheimer's in humans.

Signs of separation anxiety

If your dog has suddenly started acting very anxious when he senses you're about to leave, this is a good indication he's going through separation anxiety. You may also notice, after you leave the house, your dog becomes destructive, barks or howls, or urinates/defecates. When you return, your dog is overly excited to see you. When you are home, you may find your dog has become very clingy, never wanting to let you out of his sight.

Helping your dog cope

Here are some tips to help you deal with your dog's separation anxiety:

  • Don't make a big production about leaving or coming home. This will only reinforce the behavior.

  • Review the 'sit' and 'stay' commands. First, practice the 'sit' and 'stay' commands with your dog as you move from one place to another. Reward your dog with a treat if he obeys. If he doesn't obey, try it again for a shorter time and distance. As your dog obeys, slowly increase the time and distance.

  • Alter your habits. Do you have a set routine each day before you leave the house? Perhaps you jingle your keys, put your bag or briefcase near the door or kiss your spouse and kids. Your dog picks up on these cues, and associates them with your leaving. Try to mix up your normal routine by doing your usual activities in a different order.

  • Practice leaving. Using the 'sit' and 'stay' commands you practiced with your dog earlier, do the same exercise again only, this time, go out the door and come back. Stay away for a couple of minutes at first, then increase the amount of time. You may have to take it slow for the first while. If your dog starts to get upset, go back to shorter periods of time. Repeat this exercise until your dog starts to trust that you will always return.

  • Go for a walk. Taking your dog for a long walk before you leave will give your dog a reason to look forward to your departure. It will also help make him too tired to howl or destroy your home after you leave.

Treating minor separation anxiety:

  • Don't make a big deal about your arrivals and departures. Make your comings and goings low-key without a lot of greeting.

  • Give your dog a special toy or treat each time you leave (like a cow ear, rope toy or rope with a treat). Only give them this toy or treat when you're gone and take it away when you get home. Make sure the toy is safe and provide plenty of fresh water.

  • A favorite blanket that has your smell on it or an article of dirty laundry which provides a calming odor.

  • Punishment isn't effective for separation anxiety and can even make the situation worse.

  • Leaving a television or radio on won't help either unless they are used as a safety cue.

  • Anxiety isn't the result of disobedience or lack of training - the anxiety stems from the separation from you not from being alone.

If you're still having problems getting your dog to overcome separation anxiety, talk to your vet. He or she may be able to recommend you to an animal behaviorist or recommend supplements such as “Calming Support”.

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