Separation anxiety can cause a constellation of confusing changes in your dog. Excessive vocalization, destructive behaviors, self-mutilation, aggression, extreme attachment to one person, pacing, urinating and defecting inappropriately and attempting to escape can all be seen in dogs with this type of anxiety. It’s important not to mistake medical problems with anxiety issues since the treatments are dramatically different.
Make sure you discuss any behavioral changes with your veterinarian so important medical clues aren’t missed before moving forward with treatment for separation anxiety.
Dogs that are experiencing anxiety can destroy their environments and even become a danger to their own safety. In addition, anxiety and stress compromise the immune system, predisposing these dogs to more health problems. Medications can help significantly, but it’s important to realize a few very important points about their use for behavioral problems.
First, once your dog’s anxiety has progressed to the point that it’s noticeable, it’s highly unlikely that the mild sedation provided by something like Benadryl, an over-the-counter human antihistamine, is going to sufficiently treat it. Secondly, using medications that you may have on hand for your own anxiety is especially dangerous since animals metabolize drugs differently than we do and dosages vary widely.
Anxiety can be a significant threat to your dog’s health, as well as to your relationship with him. Consult your veterinarian, who can advise you on the use of behavioral medications, and prescribe those that will be effective.
Realize that a pill won’t fix everything
Behavioral and anti-anxiety drugs have revolutionized the treatment of anxiety in animals. But they almost never work alone. The pet parent must be committed to a program of behavior modification, as well as making changes to the way the dog is managed.
What types of behavior modifications are effective? The specific answer depends on the specific situation, however one thing to consider is changing the way your dog is confined in your absence. Since many of these dogs have confinement frustration, if your dog has typically been confined to a crate, consider instead confining him to a larger, but still small, area of the house or enrolling him in a doggie day care program.
Use tough love
As mentioned above, the development of serious anxiety issues in many of these dogs is preceded by an excessive attachment to one person. That person should be sure to adopt a policy of aloofness when returning home, and not praise or pet the dog excessively, especially if the dog is going wild with joy. Reserve attention for when he’s calmed down, and he’ll start to get the message that your attention comes once he’s settled, and not before.
Consider using pheromones
Mother dogs secrete a substance that tells their offspring to relax and that everything is going to be fine. This substance has been synthesized and is sold in the form of collars that can be worn and diffusers that can be plugged into outlets in the home. Their effect is subtle, but many people do believe that they provide quite a bit of calming to anxious dogs and are especially effective when used with a program of behavior modification and management. Adaptil makes both collars and diffusers with dog-appeasing pheromones.
Keep him busy
Food toys are a great way to keep your dog busy and focused on something other than the fact that you’re not around when you’re not around. Toys like Kongs can be loaded with a delicious concoction of plain yogurt, a bit of honey and kibble, then frozen to create a treat-sicle that will keep your dog occupied for some time. Toys like Buster Cubes are great for encouraging interactive play and alone time. Some dogs enjoy having the TV or radio on while they’re alone.
Look in the mirror
It’s not that you’ve necessarily done anything to cause your dog’s anxiety issues, but now that he has them, you need to examine what behaviors you do that trigger them. If you notice that your dog becomes anxious when you get your keys out in preparation for leaving the house, hide this from him. Pair your departure with good things, like getting a high-value food reward (boiled chicken) or the presentation of the aforementioned treat-sicle. Make sure to discontinue any punishment you’ve been doling out for his actions, and start rewarding him when he’s relaxed.
Follow up with your veterinarian
Once you’re starting to see improvement, make sure to follow up with your veterinarian on your dog’s medications and progress toward improvement. Many times, medications can be discontinued or significantly decreased, once the behavior modification and management changes have begun to work.