Dealing with anxiety

When you finally go back to work after settling your new pup in, separation anxiety can rear its ugly head.
Dr Diane van Rooy explains how to avoid it developing and how to deal with it.

Remember when you brought your little puppy home for the first time? You took a week off work so it could settle in; you made sure it was exposed to everything and it was well socialised. You took the time to play games, and would always take it for a walk when you got home from work, no matter how tired you were. You thought it was sweet when it jumped all over you when you walked through the door, or followed you around the house.

Now, a feeling of dread hangs over you as you arrive home each day.

Just what destruction will await you? More scratches on the windows? More chew marks on the doorframe?

Another note from the council telling you that the neighbours have been complaining about your dog barking.
You try to stay calm as your brain calculates just how much the latest episode will cost. You try not to get angry or frustrated when your dog looks at you, guilt written all over his face. But you are only human, after all.

How has it come to this?

Owning a dog is supposed to be a fun, wonderful experience. But, sadly, this scenario does occur and can lead to a permanent break in the bond between owner and dog – often resulting in punishment, putting in a shelter or euthanasia.

Why is my dog doing this?

One likely reason for such behaviour is separation-related distress (also known as separation anxiety).

Common symptoms of separation anxiety are barking, whining, howling, pacing, chewing at doors and windows, self trauma, escape attempts and loss of house training. These behaviours occur when the dog doesn’t have access to family members.


Get a diagnosis

Don't just assume your dog has separation anxiety. All the signs can also be caused by other medical and behavioural conditions. These other conditions must be ruled out by your veterinarian, so gather as much information as you can.

Make the most of technology
Use your computer’s webcam to see what your dog is doing while you’re not there. Set up a video camera and record its behaviour. A dog having the time of its life chewing up its bedding and playing with the pieces is very different to a dog in a state of panic, but the end result can look the same.

Put it on record
If you don’t have access to a webcam or video recorder, and barking is the main symptom, set up a tape recorder. No one knows your dog better than you and you will probably recognise the alert bark (‘someone is daring to walk past my yard’) as opposed to the highpitched bark, howl or whine of distress.

Assess the frequency
Consider how often the problem occurs. Is it every day, only on stormy days or just since the neighbours started renovating? A number of dogs with separation-related distress also have noise phobias or other anxiety disorders.

Is age the cause?
Is your dog showing any sign of senility? While separation-related distress can occur in dogs and cats of any breed and at any age, it is more common in older pets.

On the road to recovery

Once the dog’s condition is diagnosed, the next stage is treatment – and the good news is that separation-related distress can be successfully treated. With severely affected dogs, the best results are achieved with a combination of behaviour modification & medication.

Your veterinary behaviourist can design a plan that suits your situation and your dog. The aim is to teach your dog to be able to relax independently. Some dogs are just too anxious to learn without the help of medication.

Pheromone diffusers and sprays are also an option, while the pheromone collar will soon be available in Australia.
There are other general things you can do to make a difference:

Avoid punishment

There is absolutely no evidence that dogs experience guilt or spite. Your dog is not getting even with you for leavingit; it is not thinking about what will occur in several hours time when you get home. It is not even thinking rationally.

That guilty look is your dog trying its best to appease you. Punishing a dog for something it did six hours ago will onlyadd to its anxiety.You use timing and consistency in training all the time, but it’s hard to keep that in mind when you’re feeling just as stressed as your dog.

Make it feel at home

Leaving the television or radio on during the day may help. If your dog is always better when left inside, consider installing a doggy door and allowing it access to the house.

Keep up the walks

We all know how important exercise is for a dog, both physically and socially. People with depression have seen improvements with regular exercise, and we are seeing similar results with anxious dogs. However, try to avoid the association with you arriving home by delaying the exercise for 30 minutes or so.

Treat it to a massage

Anxious dogs are tense dogs and massage allows them to physically relax.

Change the relationship

Some dogs with separation-related distress are overly attached to one owner. They will shadow you from room to room, and they get distressed if they can’t get access to you, even when you are home. You need to change this relationship. By all means, give your dog as much TLC as you want, but only when you initiate it; don't reward your dog for demanding it.

Should you get another dog?

Only get another dog if you really want to have two dogs, not as a way of treating this problem.
It does help very occasionally, but even a pack of dogs probably wouldn’t make much difference to the dog that is overly attached to a particular person. You may just find you now have another set of problems.

Can it be prevented?

All behaviour is the result of genetics, the environment and the dog’s previous experiences. You can do everything right and still end up with a dog with separation related distress. What we can do is try to give our dogs every chance to become independent and confident about being alone. The key to minimising the likelihood of this type of behaviour is to make exciting things happen when your pup is alone.

Treat your dog

Give a nice meaty bone, toys or a Kong® packed with treats just as you are leaving.

Keep departures and arrivals low key

Acknowledge your dog but don’t go overboard making a fuss. When you arrive, don’t immediately play games or take it for a walk. Wait until you are both settled. We don’t want our dogs thinking that all the fun occurs only when you are present or and that your arrival is the best time in the day.

Time your praise and attention

Give your dog lots of attention and praise when it is relaxed and well behaved, not when it is jumping all over you.

Plan ahead

If you know there will soon be a major upheaval in the family’s routine, try to prepare your dog with gradual changes.

If you will be returning to the workforce after a long stint at home, leave your dog at home for varying times in the days or weeks leading up to your start date. Give it a chance to get adjusted.

You and your dog deserve to have the relationship you’ve always dreamed of. Seek help if needed. It may take some time and effort but things will improve.