With the kids heading back to school for another year jam-packed with learning opportunities, your lonely dog may appreciate learning some new tricks as well. For dogs with separation anxiety, learning new coping behaviors can have a positive impact on stress levels.
When left alone, anxious dogs can display a wide range of behaviors, including:
- Whining, howling, or barking
- Destroying furniture or belongings
- Pacing or restlessness
- Inappropriate elimination
- Following owners from room to room
Some signs of separation anxiety (and other behavioral changes) can actually be caused by an underlying medical condition. Call our office if you notice any changes in your pet’s behavior so we can rule out a potential medical problem before attempting to treat the behavioral problem.
If your pet is truly suffering from a more severe case of separation anxiety, we can prescribe mood-altering medications and develop a behavioral modification plan to help her relax and learn how to stay calm.
Behavioral modification plan
Anti-anxiety medications can go a long way toward helping your pet relax, but the biggest component of a separation anxiety treatment plan is behavioral modification. With this, you and your pet will learn new skills to cope with separation anxiety. In addition to basic obedience training, a behavioral modification plan includes predeparture cues and graduated absences.
Predeparture cues are behaviors performed by you that let your pet know that you’re preparing to leave. These cues can include:
- Putting on shoes
- Putting on a coat
- Picking up your purse or wallet
- Finding your keys
A sensitive pet can be in-tune with you and your actions, easily learning what will happen when you perform certain activities. To help change the mindset that car keys equal departure, you’ll have to change your routine. Try picking up your keys, and then sitting on the couch and watching TV. Or, put on your shoes, and then go start a load of laundry. Find the triggers that alert your pet that you’re leaving, and prevent pairing them with a departure. Eventually, seeing you get your coat out of the closet won’t throw your furry friend into a panic.
Once your pet has learned that your predeparture cues don’t always mean you’re leaving, you can move onto the next step. Graduated absences are performed with the goal of being gone for less time than it takes your pet to become upset.
Before you begin, your dog must understand the “stay” command.
Try these steps for graduated absences:
- Tell your dog to stay while you go to the other side of a bedroom door.
- If your dog manages to stay for a brief second, return and reward her with a treat. Do not get overly excited with your praise, because this will only increase your dog’s stress.
- Slowly increase the length of time that your dog can hold an out-of-sight stay while you are still inside the house.
- Once your pet is doing well inside the house, progress to moving outside. If you have an alternative exit door, use that door instead of the main door. Your pet has already associated the main door with anxiety, so a back or side door will work best for this step.
- If your pet stays calm while you’re on the other side of the back door and she is in the house, make the absences slightly longer. Once they are long enough to allow her time for a snack, give her a special treat right before leaving. This special treat, such as a peanut-butter stuffed Kong or treat puzzle, should only be used when you are leaving the house.
- Eventually, you can build up to longer absences. Do not allow your pet to panic or overcome her threshold during this training. Doggy daycare, a pet sitter, or even bringing your pet to work with you may be necessary to prevent all your hard work from being undone.
Tip: Stay calm during greetings and goodbyes
The way you act when coming and going might be exacerbating your pet’s anxiety. When you arrive home, don’t greet your pet with an overly exuberant hello. Instead, completely ignore her until things have settled down.
When leaving, keep your goodbye boring, or don’t say goodbye at all. Don’t make a big fuss as you’re walking out the door, promising the furry love of your life that you won’t forget her and will be back soon. Instead, give her a favorite treat and calmly walk out the door.
Treating separation anxiety can be challenging and time-consuming. If your pet’s anxiety seems to be unmanageable, call us at 757-564-9815 for help.