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Dog Tip: Reducing Separation Anxiety

Separation anxiety, like fear aggression and phobias, is a fear-based behavior. Harsh punishments, yelling, ostracizing and standard obedience training will not work to cure separation anxiety. Punishment will make it worse by raising the dog's overall anxiety and thereby contributing to the problem.

Larry Lachman is a people and pet counselor who has developed the Structured Family Therapy program to rebalance relationship and treat behavior problems. The following separation anxiety guidance comes from his book, "Dogs On The Couch."

Instead, Lachman recommends owners implement a separation anxiety program that includes the following practices.

* Keep arrivals and departures low-key. When arriving home, only give the dog attention after he is calm.

* Do not respond when the dog demands attention. Ignore attention-seeking behaviors.

* Only give attention during times when the dog is not actively seeking attention, such as when lying down calmly.

* Reduce the contrast: most separation-anxious dogs cannot tolerate the either-or conditions of attention when the owner is home vs. no attention when the owner leaves. Reduce the contrast by picking two days out of week when you are home. Ignore the dog for 6 to 8 hours on those days, matching the time you are away at work. Limit attention to only feeding or letting the dog out to potty during this time. The dog will learn: "what's the big deal when my owner is gone; even when he's home, he still sometimes ignores me."

* Practice fire drills -- go out, return, sit, play a game, go out. Vary the time you are gone.

* A half-hour before you leave, take the dog for a vigorous 15 minute leash walk. Have the dog heel at your side and sit every 30 paces. This helps channel pent-up tension.

* Counter-condition the dog to see departures as good. Fifteen minutes before leaving, confine the dog in one area of the home (a safe zone). Provide the dog with super-good, long-lasting treats such as sterilized bones or treat-filled Kongs. Put on a continuous-play tape recording of your voice calmly reading a magazine. Play the tape sometimes when you are home so dog does not associate tape only with your departure.

* Make off-limits chew objects undesirable. To do this, you can use hair spray. First coat a Q-tip and have dog approach it. It will taste bad when he licks it. Then liberally spray the hair spray on couch cushions, wood molding and other places the dog chewed before. The spray's smell and taste will repel the dog.

If the dog barks to express his separation anxiety, add the following to your program:

* Do not give the dog any attention for any type of vocalization, not even eye contact.

* Reduce dog's visual access to things he will bark at.

* Catch him in the act of barking. Say OFF! and use a startle technique (such as a loud clap, spraying water at the dog with a spray bottle, or creating an unpleasant, interruptive noise). After the dog has stopped barking, wait one to five minutes and begin to reward the dog's quiet behavior.

* Randomly, notice when your dog is not vocalizing in any way. Pass near him, toss a treat and say "good quiet." The dog learns that he gets rewarded for quiet behavior and gets startled for noisy behavior. These discipline techniques are not to be used with great frequency, nor should they be relied on as the sole way to stop barking.

* Set up tape recorder or video recorder to chart the time the barking occurs. Come home for lunch. When you give your separation-anxious dog attention, dole it out in one-second increments.

Part of what contributes to a dog's intolerance of being alone or ignored is that the dog is constantly being petted for long periods. Instead, always have your dog sit before giving attention and then only give your dog 10 seconds of petting at a time. If he wants more, wait until he is not actively seeking it, have him sit again, and give another 10 seconds of petting. Have him earn attention by sitting. Ration attention out in small bits so as to not create an overly dependent dog.

In addition, it is recommended to consult a veterinary specialist to rule out any underlying medical disorder contributing to a dog's anxiety. Such conditions could include low thyroid levels, improperly functioning adrenal glands or tumors.

These factors can make a dog prone to separation anxiety:

* The dog was taken away from parents and littermates too early (prior to 8 weeks) or too late (after 14 weeks).

* The dog was not fully integrated into the new home and was then relegated to yard or garage.

* The dog was bred to be on heightened alert.

* The dog was in a "triangled" situation -- used as an emotional replacement or sponge for someone else in the family. Excessive behavior on the part of an owner includes: giving dog constant attention, gving the dog constant petting, always responding to all demands for attention from the dog, spending all free time only with the dog, placing the dog in positions where humans customarily are (in the front seat of car, at the dinner table, on the couch, in the human's bed). The triangle scenario creates an overly dependent dog who will suffer overwhelming anxiety if the owner is absent.

Lachman indicates that it takes roughly 8 weeks of consistent implementation of a separation-anxiety program to see results. In some extreme cases, a dog might require 8 to 20 weeks of anti-anxiety medications to help achieve success.

The information above comes from Larry Lachman's book, "Dogs on the Couch."

Websites about Separation Anxiety:



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Last Updated: April 26, 2018 (LET) PawSupport