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Dog Separation Anxiety

Dog Separation Anxiety:

Separation Anxiety is one of the most common complaints of dog owners, although some don’t even realize it. What they do notice, is that they often come to destroyed objects and neighbors complaining about the howling and barking. Separation Anxiety consists of environmental control, behavior modification and if needed – drug therapy.

Dogs are pack animals, and don’t like to be left alone. Some dogs will simply sigh and wait patiently for you to come back, and others will go into panic mode, crying and barking, trying to get you to come back. Some destroy things, such as plants, books, pillows, anything that was "yours", even to the extent of defecating on the floor.

Severely dependant dogs, a.k.a. "Velcro dogs", and dogs that have either been passed around, or have been abandoned are more likely to have separation anxiety than others. The thought of being abandoned again is terrifying. Most owners unknowingly reinforce this anxiety. Making a production of leaving, and trying to reassure the dog has the opposite effect. Nothing enforces a dog’s belief that he has something to worry about more than somebody trying to keep him calm.

Like all fears, desensitizing your dog to your comings and goings will help him get over his fear of abandonment. It is best to stretch this process out over several weeks, but if you need to you can try to compress it into a couple of days.

Prepare yourself to walk out the door and practice ignoring your dog completely. Do not say good-bye, do not cuddle him, and do not let on that you are leaving at all.

This is a very common mistake people make. By reassuring your dog that you will return in only a little while, showing him affection, hoping he calms down, you are really only reinforcing the fears that your dog had to begin with. Just ignore him completely, and prepare yourself to do this from now on. (However, if he sits nicely and watches you calmly, this is the time to reward him lavishly. This is the behavior you want to reinforce.)

– Do not punish the dog. Punishment will only increase anxiety
– You should avoid playing with the dog prior to departure. (Although a long walk or run with your dog prior to leaving will tire him out and a tired dog is a good dog!)
– You should practice graduated departures. Go through some of the steps associated with departure several times per day, but do not leave.

Practice departure exercises one to two times per day for 10-15 minutes each time. The dog should be taught to sit, using small food rewards, then taught to stay on command.
With success over weeks, the dog should be taught to sit (or lie down) while the owner goes toward the door, steps outside and remains for a short period of time. Progress by increasing the time away should be gradual enough so that the dog does not get up or otherwise express arousal. The goal is to teach the dog that it can be obedient and relaxed in the absence of the owner.

Practice independence training. During day-to-day routines, such as watching television, the owner should ask the dog to stay some distance away instead of allowing the dog to sit in his lap or be touching the owner.

If your dog is an "only" dog it is possible that this exacerbates his separation anxiety.
Although not recommended as a cure-all, you may want to consider getting another dog or puppy for companionship. Another wonderful option is to find a playmate for your dog. A weekly visit to or from a doggie-playmate’s house can be very beneficial to "only" dogs (even those that do not suffer from separation anxiety). Dogs benefit greatly from canine companionship. Schedule a playtime for your dog, with another dog that he likes, once or twice a week.

Some dogs that do not have canine companionship become overly dependent on their humans. Sometimes referred to as "Velcro-dogs" (a dog that seems to stick to you where ever you go), they experience a great amount of stress whenever they are not accompanied by a human.

For dogs with separation anxiety, the most effective approach is generally a combination of environmental control, behavior modification exercises (therapy), and anti-anxiety medication. This can usually alleviate stress in dogs.

The only medication approved for the treatment of separation anxiety in dogs is Clomicalm (clomipramine hydrochloride). This is an anxiety-reducing drug in the family of tricyclic antidepressants. Side effects include lethargy and occasional vomiting.

Other antidepressants may also be used in an extra label fashion, including Elavil (amitciptyline), Prozac (fluoxetine) or Xanax (alprazolam).

The medication is used to help your dog relax so that he can concentrate on performing the behavior modification exercises; the exercises are what actually change the dog’s response to a stressful situation over time. Any anti-anxiety drug prescribed by your veterinarian needs to be given exactly as directed. Dogs with separation anxiety have a higher overall anxiety level, and drugs used as part of a treatment plan for separation anxiety need to be given regularly, not just when the dog seems anxious. Patience is important; it can take weeks to months for certain drugs to become effective. It is often necessary to try several drugs or combinations of drugs, to determine what will work best for an individual dog.

Behavior modification exercises must be done consistently for weeks to months before you’ll see permanent results.

Another component of behavior modification that may help your dog to be less anxious is increased exercise. Exercise has mental as well as physical benefits for dogs. If your dog is a ‘couch potato,’ start out slow and build up the intensity and length of time over several weeks. If your dog has any health problems, be sure to check with your vet before beginning an intense exercise program.

In addition to exercise, mental stimulation (working on commands, playing fetch, practicing agility exercises at home or in a class) is also important. Many types of dogs were originally bred to do a job, and they can become stressed without the mental activity they would normally use if they were "working."

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