Tuesday, 30 April 2013

Separation anxiety in dogs. Back to basics.

This actually depends on the base reason for the destruction. For example, is the dog young and bored and being destructive? Is the dog older and simply under exercised? Or and most importantly is the dog anxious about being left alone (separation anxiety) and being destructive as a means of displacement behaviour?

Video and audio evidence usually allows the owner to establish which of the above is true and then to decide a way forward. The first options are relatively easy to address, whereas the separation anxiety requires delicate handling to ensure that the right measures are being offered to swiftly overcome the problem for the dog.

I'd like to add that dogs that suffer from separation anxiety are not just destructive. The behaviour I have found is dealt with in different ways with different dogs. Some are destructive to the home eating their way through doors and walls given enough time, some are very vocal by barking, whining or a full on howl. Some may mess in their environment and some may self harm by licking or chewing the coat or paws and so on.

What can be done to keep stress at a minimum?

In an ideal world we would start to proof the dog to cope to be alone when it is young by the early introduction and use of a crate and to then build up time alone in the home which should be seen as a positive event with an opportunity to sleep after exercise, eating and toileting.

We don't have this luxury with a rescue or older dog for example and so then a programme to overcome the stress needs to be put together to move the dog gradually into a calmer mind set when left alone. 

There are probably two main factors to consider when addressing separation anxiety cases . One is the relationship that the owner maintains with the dog and the other is finding a way to gradually increase the time the dog can cope when left alone so that it resembles an acceptable period that the owner is likely to require when going shopping or out for an evening and so on.

Over bonding is possible with a dog and this can result from an owner that is unable to disengage from the dog at times and is constantly looking at, touching and talking to the dog either to please the owner or in response to the dog's efforts and wishes. To address this aspect effectively the owner often needs guidance from me to learn some simple fresh rules to follow to engage with the dog. We are likely to also look at other areas where overbonding can occur and this would involve making an assessment on where the dog sleeps at night and where it is able to rest during the day.

To increase time alone I usually involve a feeding system via a stuffed Kong and combine this with various other techniques that are called 'Rapid Returns' and also to place the dog on an 'Attention Diet'. The rapid returns begin at a matter of seconds depending on the severity of the condition whereby the owner goes in and out of a room and notes the behaviour both sides of a closed door, increasing the time away from the dog as it improves in the process. The attention diet is a set programme whereby I guide the owner through how to ignore at first and to then reintroduce attention (on the owner's terms) as the dog improves. I find the above combination (along with numerous other well balanced measures) a highly effective approach, although it should be said that some cases of separation anxiety require weeks if not months of work on the owner's part, so a determined and consistent approach is often needed.

What sort of toys do you recommend to keep your dog’s mind active?

Interestingly, provided the dog is being left for a reasonable period of time (up to four hours for an adult dog) I would like to think the dog is quiet and resting or asleep even. This is said in the view that the dog will have been exercised, fed and watered and given toilet breaks before leaving the dog for that period. Having said that, I am in favour of dogs working for their food and the gradual release of the dog's food via a Kong or similar device can be invaluable.

How would you advise introducing a crate to a dog?

This should be done when the dog is young and it will see the crate as a calm, secure place to be. With older dogs, a slightly longer approach will be required whereby feeding in the crate is helpful and to only close the door for short periods during the day and to seek to increase these periods as the dog progresses. Covering the crate with a sheet can help some to create a greater sense of security and quiet.

If your dog is left at home and destroys something, sometimes it can look ‘guilty’- is this possible? Is it worth shouting at your dog after the event has already happened?

Although I understand the owner's frustration at damage when they return home, to berate the dog will only serve to cause concern towards the owner and the way they can behave in an unpredictable and at times frighteneing manner. A dog is unable to understand the values a human places of 'things' and has no idea what an iPhone or remote control does or costs to give an example. Young dogs need supervision and containing for sensible periods of time, hence the use of a crate. The same goes for soiling in the home. This will not be improved by becoming angry with the dog. The dog is likely to conclude that it just should not have done its business 'there' but 'over-there' instead. Taking time to reward and mark the behaviour we do want to see is the best way forward in this respect. An interruption sound such as a clap-clap can work should you find your dog doing something unwanted in the home and then a calm redirection to a suitable area is quite acceptable. The trick is to stay calm and collected and to try to 'think dog' and hopefully my above notes will help this thinking.

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