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Ask a Trainer Question Answered

Author: Andrea Miller | Date: April 24, 2012

Here’s the next round of answers for our Ask a Trainer feature on our new website. It’s your chance to get dog training advice from the pros at AnimalSense. Stay tuned for more questions & answers, and if you have a burning dog training question, just “Ask a Trainer”!

My rescue dog Simon has severe anxiety issues with being left home alone. It is not every day but tends to go in spurts, and we have had him a couple of years. He has chewed his way out of the crate we bought him. The Thundershirt doesn’t help. He has chewed through window screens, eaten rugs and chewed up woodwork. He is about 6 years old and 50 lbs, a mix of some sort. My husband wants him gone, but my son is devastated at the thought. We have tried Kongs, etc. and nothing works. We are now going to try getting a “dummy” to keep him company during the day. Other ideas you can offer?

Anxiety can take on many forms in a dog. Some dogs pace and pant. Some lick their paws. Some bark, seek an unhealthy amount of attention or destroy things in the home. Some dogs can even display aggression when they are feeling anxious. However, most pet owners are only aware of one type of anxiety, Separation Anxiety. The term Separation Anxiety is often misunderstood. True clinical separation anxiety is not common.

Most dogs do undergo stress and anxiety in response to the owner leaving the dog home alone–in other words, when the dog is separated from the pack.

It is more common that dogs will suffer from a general type of anxiety than they will from Separation Anxiety. If your dog does indeed suffer from true Separation Anxiety, there are many things you should know about this specific form.

Since your dog will inevitably need to be left alone, he or she needs to be properly conditioned to strange state of affairs. Without proper conditioning, behaviors such as barking, destructiveness, escape attempts, and even housebreaking accidents may occur. Stress related behaviors can also result from giving a dog too much or the wrong type of attention. Some dogs are predisposed to developing separation anxiety due to genetic and early environmental influences. Humans may make problems worse by rewarding and/or reinforcing behaviors.

Stress Inducing Behaviors Can Include the Following:

  • Petting the dog too much
  • Consistently allowing the dog to sleep in your bed
  • Petting and playing with the dog when he or she demands it
  • Petting to calm the dog down
  • Over-enthusiastically greeting the dog upon arriving home

These actions can make the dog too dependent and create neediness. This neediness cannot be fulfilled when the dog is alone and this may lead to unwanted stress related behaviors.

Additionally, maintain balance in your dog’s life so that he or she will not feel as alone in your absence.

Using the following suggestions can ease your dog’s stress.

  • Structured Playtime: It is imperative that a dog receives positive, quality attention. Dogs are social creatures and need play time. It is important that the owner set the beginning and end time for the game. The dog should not demand that the game be played. Have a specific fetch toy and take it out only when it is time to play. If a dog is good for 6 fetches, stop at 4. Gradually add a repetition on each day until the dog will do 2 dozen back and forth. Put the toy away when the game is over. This will ensure that the dog stays motivated and doesn’t lose or destroy the toy. Have chew toys for the dog when not playing. Do not play fetch with dog’s chew toys as that’ll reinforce the dog demanding play at the wrong times. Controlling when to and what to play with will put you in the role of leader as well as prevent dominance issues.
  • Proper Diet: Feed the dog twice per day. This will satisfy the dog as well as prevent possible mood swings due to low blood sugar. Do not allow your dog to “Free-Feed”. This in and of itself can create a breeding ground for anxiety.
  • Regular Walks and Exercise: Calmly walk the dog twice a day for 20 minutes. On the walks, you can also include some basic obedience training. Take tiny soft treats and lure the dog to sits and downs. This also encourages the dog to keep their focus on you. Also, a good dose of aerobic activity several times per week can aid in managing energy levels and keep your dog physically fit. But remember: Do NOT run your dog right before your planned departure, as you are potentially leaving your dog in a heightened and excitable sate.
  • Controlled Home Environment: When your dog is home alone, be sure to leave the radio on for the dog. It will serve as a buffer for outside noises and make the house seem less empty. Stick to an easy listening station so as not to excite the dog. Also, if it will be getting dark in your absence, don’t forget to leave a light on. Lastly, maintain a calm presence around the dog during the 30 minutes before you leave the house so as not to excite the dog and possibly induce stress.
  • Try a Kong Time, which dispenses a Kong every few hours. The idea is that the dog sits and waits for the Kong to come out and keeps them busy.

These are preventative measures. If you recognize actual signs of separation anxiety in your new dog, contact a pet professional to assist you through behavior modification.


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