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Preventing and Treating Separation Anxiety

One of the benefits of these “unprecedented times” (ah, how we miss precedent!) is that many of us are able to spend more time at home with our pets. We at SPS have noticed a boom in folks making the best of a bad situation and welcoming new dogs into the family. We love this! We bet the dogs do, too. Of course, eventually, some of us will return to working outside of the home. When that time comes, our new furry friends will have to adjust to their “new normal”. Some will put on a brave face and get in some good naps. Others may have a little more trouble with the sudden change in routine and develop what’s called separation anxiety.

Separation anxiety is exactly what it sounds like—your pet is separated from you and that makes them anxious! It’s normal for dogs to be happy to see their owners after a long day’s work, or to seem less than enthusiastic when we leave. But separation anxiety is different. It’s very stressful for dogs to experience and its manifestations can be stressful for humans, too.

Dogs suffering from this affliction might serenade your neighbors with endless howling or barking, remodel the couch with their teeth, treat the house as their personal bathroom, or even try to escape and hurt themselves in the process. It may also present as trembling, drooling, depression, or panting as you’re trying to leave (that is, abandon them forever).

Shelter dogs and dogs that have experienced a major change in routine—like their owner returning to work after months at home—are more likely to experience separation anxiety. It’s also important to distinguish separation anxiety from medical issues such as incontinence or other behavioral issues. For example, some breeds are vocal by nature (we love you, Beagles!) or may destroy things due to a high need for stimulation (you too, Huskies). A bored dog or a young dog might chew up household items regardless of who is home, but a dog that only goes on a bender when you’re away and displays other signs of anxiety likely has other reasons.

Fortunately, there are solutions. The ASPCA recommends a treatment called counter-conditioning, which aims to pair an anxiety-producing situation or thing with something positive for the dog. This in turn positively affects the dog’s behavior. Puzzle toys, for example, group mental and physical stimulation with food, which for many dogs hits on at least one true love.

Leaving a puzzle toy out when you’re about to leave the house (and removing it when you return) switches the narrative from “they’re leaving—this is awful” to “they’re leaving—I get my reward!” (Note: If the reward is grouped with a specific set of behaviors, just be prepared for those big puppy eyes anytime you pick up your purse or stand by the door!)When left in the dog’s crate, a puzzle toy or other reward can also help to cement the crate as a place of refuge and pleasant things, which has the added bonus for you of keeping the rest of the house safe. There are many great choices on here.

Crates in themselves are not a fix-all solution and not all dogs will take to them—but for reasonable periods of time and with positive associations, they can provide a sanctuary in the midst of separation anxiety. Crates should never be used as punishments or paired with yelling and force—decreased anxiety is the goal here! If positive associations aren’t enough, the AKC suggests pairing the signs of you leaving with neutral associations: “for example, pick up your keys or put on your coat then go make dinner rather than heading to the car.” This will have to happen more than once to stick with your dog. Of course, you don’t necessarily have to wait until your dog displays separation anxiety to try these things; training your dog is always good for their health, and what better time than now?

Give us a call at 413-626-5406 or email to set up a initial consult if you want to add more exercize to your dogs routine! A tired dog is a happy and less anxious dog.

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