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Separate Peace: Easing Separation Anxiety in Pets

Posted Feb 18 2013 5:07pm

One of our dogs’ most endearing qualities is their earnest devotion to us, and their unending desire to be by our sides. While having a four-legged fan club is flattering, pets left to their own devices at home can sometimes melt down without us. Separation anxiety isn’t just an inconvenience; a pet experiencing the condition is actually suffering from chronic stress, which can be downright dangerous for a desperate dog.

To manage the condition, it is helpful to understand the driving force behind the anxiety about being left alone. If a dog was separated from his mother too early as a puppy, has experienced abuse or has ever been abandoned to a shelter, he might not have developed the confidence necessary to tolerate being on his own, or he may fear that you are never coming back once you walk out the door. Because the condition manifests itself as “bad behavior,” it is tempting to want to punish a pet for his indiscretions, but you should work to address the cause of the behavior, and not the acting out itself.

It is estimated that 10-15 percent of the canine population experiences some degree of separation anxiety. Left unchecked, the disorder can cause destructive behavior, inappropriate elimination, excessive barking, attempts to escape and obsessive behavior, among other problems – some of which can pose physical dangers to your dog. You can avoid destroyed furniture and trips to the emergency vet by trying some tricks at home to put your pup at ease and ensure he feels secure.

Treat ‘em with Kid Gloves

When you begin to gather your keys, put your coat on or pack up your things to head out, watch your pet for signs of stress like pacing, whimpering or drooling. A good way to alleviate your dog’s stress is to make his time home alone as comfortable and enjoyable as possible. One simple way to do this is to give him a very special treat, like a puzzle toy stuffed with food he loves. Make sure it will take him about 20-30 minutes to eat (peanut butter, bananas and yogurt can be frozen), and only give him this special treat when you are leaving.  When you return, take it away immediately; that way he associates you leaving with a yummy treat and not with spending hours by himself.

Practice Your Exit Strategy

You can get your pet a little more comfortable with the cues you are about to leave by repeating routines like picking up your keys and putting your coat on, but sitting at the kitchen table instead of going out. It is also a good idea to teach your dog to sit and stay while you go into a different room and close the door. Gradually work your way up to about 40 minute intervals, where you leave through the front door. When you do leave and come home, be aware that hellos and goodbyes should be as calm, simple and brief as possible; you want to help your dog to learn that coming and going is just a normal part of the day.

Establish Crate Expectations

Crating your dog can help him, but you have to do it right; the crate should NOT be used as a punishment, but as a safe haven for your friend. Because dogs are den animals by nature, putting his favorite toys and things that smell like you in his space can help make him feel safe and secure when you’re not there. Try keeping the crate open but in a room closed off by a baby gate. This way your furry companion can curl up in his den or walk around for a bit and play with different toys, but he doesn’t have the entire house to wander. It may take some time to acclimate him to crate training, but the investment pays dividends down the road.

Do Sweat It

Getting into the habit of exercising your pet for 30 minutes before you leave is a great way to relieve stress, spend time with him and tire him out, which will lessen the chances he will freak out and become destructive in your absence. The importance of regular exercise cannot be overstated, and many behavioral problems lessen or go away entirely with routine sweat sessions.

All of these methods can help a dog with a mild to moderate case of separation anxiety learn to live with being left behind, but it is important to note that during the desensitization period, you should not leave your dog alone for long periods of time. Extended absences while you’re training your dog will interrupt the process, create confusion and possibly cause more stress. You do not necessarily have to be the one home, just as long as someone is home. Working with a pet sitter is a great solution for a dog who hates having the house to himself. Fill your sitter in on the methods you are using to help manage the condition and ask him or her to be consistent with your efforts. A sitter may even offer some helpful suggestions of their own!

For the dog who just can’t deal with ruling the roost, a trip to the vet to talk about options is in order. He or she may recommend you begin a behavior modification program with a professional trainer, or may introduce the idea of trying anti-anxiety medication. Separation anxiety is too stressful on your pet to ignore; take advantage of every resource available to help keep your little love safe and secure when you walk out the door.

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Natasha Ashton is the Co-Founder and Chief Marketing Officer for Petplan, one of the most innovative pet insurance companies in the United States. Natasha has been recognized by the Philadelphia Business Journal in its annual and highly prestigious “40 Under 40” awards for her commitment to professional excellence and community involvement, and in 2012, she was included on Smart CEO magazine’s “Future 50″ list in recognition of Petplan’s explosive growth. Natasha writes regularly about pet health news in The Huffington Post, and pens a bimonthly column on business management for Smart Business magazine.

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