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If your dog howls, barks, soils the house or destroys your furniture when left alone then he may suffer from separation anxiety. A third of pet dogs in the UK experience separation anxiety but before treating your dog for this serious behavioural condition it is important to first rule out other separation related behaviours.
Separation related behaviours are those that only occur in the owner's absence and can include vocalising, toileting in the house, escape behaviour, destruction, and pacing. Although anxiety at being left alone is a very common reason for this type of behaviour it is not the only one. Other reasons include lack of toileting opportunities, lack of stimulation, and responding to external stimuli. Dogs that are left for long periods may not be able to hold their bladder and are forced to toilet in the house. Dogs that are not exercised before being left, or have not been left with toys or other stimulation might simply get bored and create their own entertainment by chewing the furniture. Some dogs may hear a noise outside, such as another dog barking and bark in response. These dogs may not bark at these noises in the owner's presence but may still show other signs of arousal. Therefore, owners should think carefully about whether their dog had an opportunity to go to the toilet before being left alone and how long they were left for. Has the dog got enough to do? Older dogs may be happy to sleep but a younger dog may need to be left with toys and puzzle feeders to keep them occupied. A long walk or obedience training before leaving them might help tire them out. Think about how your dog does respond to external stimuli, he might not bark in your presence but you may notice that he becomes alert on hearing them. It can sometimes be difficult to make the distinction between these behavioural motivations, and separation anxiety is one of the more difficult behavioural problems to treat. It is also extremely detrimental to your dog's wellbeing. Therefore, you should consider asking a suitably qualified behaviourist for help.
Several factors can lead to the development of separation anxiety. The ‘socialisation period’, which occurs between about 4 and 12 weeks, is when dogs learn about all the sights, sounds and experiences that form a part of normal life. Things that are not encountered during that period will be more likely to be scary to a dog when it encounters them later in life. If a puppy does not experience being left alone during this period it may find this difficult to cope with when it is left at a later stage. However, some dogs that do experience being left alone in their socialisation period can still go on to develop separation anxiety. This may be because the dog is genetically timid and therefore predisposed to developing fears and anxieties. Such a dog may more easily develop separation anxiety if something unpleasant happens when he is left alone and forms a negative association as a result.
It is very important that owners do not just suppress their dog's behaviour - they must prevent their dog from becoming anxious in the first place. Simply stopping a dog from performing these coping behaviours will only make his anxiety worse and this anxiety may then be expressed in another way. Owners must also avoid using punishment. By punishing your dog, not only will he be worried about being left but he will also be worried about how you will react when you come home. Some owners think that their dog looks guilty when they come home to find their dog has destroyed the house. However, dogs are not capable of feeling guilt, they are simply reacting to their owner's body language and showing appeasement signals. Some dogs learn over time that if there is a mess on the floor when the owner walks into the room they will be punished. Consequently, when the owner comes home and there is a mess on the floor the dog immediately starts to show appeasement behaviours to reduce the threat of punishment, even if the owner has not yet seen the mess and changed their body language by becoming angry. Change your interaction with your dog to make him more independent of you. Ignore any attempts your dog makes to seek attention from you, such as gazing at you, pawing you or barking, but reward your dog when he is displaying relaxed, independent behaviours, such as lying down or playing with his own toys. This change in interaction creates an intermediate between you being there, and your attention being available whenever your dog wants it, and you being out. This way of interacting with your dog also applies when you leave or enter the house. For example, if your dog is very excited when you come home ignore him and only call him over for a fuss once he has calmed down and is no longer trying to get your attention. This will even out the emotional highs and lows associated with your presence and absence. Although you are going to desensitise your dog to being left alone, you will inevitably have to leave the house before finishing the programme. To minimise your dog's anxiety on these occasions you need to mix up the cues that tell him he is going to be left. Start breaking down your dog's association between your preparations to leave and anxiety. Do this by picking up coats, keys and bags at various times throughout the day, then sitting down and having a coffee, or watching T.V. This will stop your dog anticipating your departure. You must also teach your dog that being left alone is ok. You can do this by following a desensitisation and counter-conditioning programme. Desensitisation programmes expose the dog to the thing that is frightening at such a small intensity that it does not frighten them and then increases it so gradually that the dog never perceives it as scary. In this case the scary thing is being left alone. Ideally it is best to avoid leaving your dog alone unless this is part of the programme. If you have to go out then try to take your dog with you. If this is not possible use a different context to do the training, for example by carrying out the training in a different room to where you would normally leave your dog or leave a cue that the dog associates with the training, such as a unique object in your dog's environment. Ask your dog to lie down wherever you want him to stay and give him something nice to chew and ask him to “relax”, wait for a few seconds then reward him. Repeat this but take a step back after asking for the “relax”. Wait for a variable time, and then reward. Build this up over time until you reach your doorway. Go to the door before going back and rewarding. Again gradually build this up so that you break down the act of leaving your house into tiny rewarded stages. Remember to only reward your dog for calm behaviour, do not reward him if he gets up to follow you. If you have to leave your dog before completing the desensitisation programme give him something that smells of you when you leave him and also a special toy or bone. Make sure that this is different to the object that you leave when you do the desensitisation and is only available to him when you go out.
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