Nothing is more complicated for a pet behavior consultant and trainer than dogs who exhibit signs of stress when they are left alone. By the time we are consulted, the owner is often ready to give the dog away. I’ve worked with some extreme cases where the dogs had literally torn down their houses. Ripped doorframes, chewed molding, destroyed window screens, holes dug in the drywall, rugs in shreds. Destructiveness is just one symptom of separation anxiety in dogs. Other signs are excessive barking, inappropriate elimination, drooling, and pacing.

We’re not certain why some dogs freak out when left alone but others take it in stride. From my experience, most dogs who have separation anxiety have “parents” who spoil them and allow the dog to be the leader. While some dogs are confident and well-balanced enough to handle the leadership role, other dogs are not so eager to have that responsibility on their furry shoulders. Dogs who are more insecure should not be given the leadership role. It makes them much more anxious. One theory is that when an insecure dog is in charge and his “parents” leave him, he gets nervous because he cannot see them in order to tell them what to do!  Makes sense. So many dogs follow their people around relentlessly in order to keep an eye on them, not because they love us so much. It’s because they are in control.

Separation anxiety involves not just treating the dog but also the relationship of the dog with the family; therefore, there are no quick tips that I can convey here to help resolve the problem. Every relationship is unique. But one easy step to follow applies to our relationship with every dog in our care: The humans must be the leaders. It relieves the dog of the pressure of being in charge and avoids many potential behavior problems.

A good leader is kind and fair – no force is involved. Remember, you will never hear me advise someone to alpha roll (a.k.a., dominance down, restrain or pin the dog down) because that is NOT how to show leadership. A good leader never loses control by using physical means but instead controls the resources for the dog. What’s a resource? Anything that the dog wants:  Food, treats, affection, toys, play, walks, getting on the furniture, going outside, etc. Some trainers call this method “Nothing in Life is Free,” meaning that the dog must “work” for what he wants.  So, for example, when you feed your dog, ask him to “sit” and wait calmly for you to place his bowl on the floor. Or if your dog has a habit of asking you to play by dropping balls at your feet or nudging your hand for petting (see Dog Training Tip – Attention Seeking), just get your dog to sit or give paw or some other action that shows your dog that you are the one calling the shots.

All of my dogs have liked to rush the door when it’s walk time. Instead of me allowing them to push out the door, I ask them to back up several feet and “stay.” They know that cannot go for a walk unless they follow this rule. If they break the stay and rush the door, I simply walk away. They very quickly learned that they do not get what they want unless they follow my rules.  It’s kind and benevolent.

It’s pretty remarkable how quickly dogs respond to their humans taking over as the leaders. I once worked with a client whose black Lab was so obnoxious with following her around, barking for attention and freaking out when in his crate that she was ready to find a new home for him.  Literally within three days of my visit and advising the entire family to consistently be the leaders, the dog’s behavior changed.  He relaxed, stopped barking, no longer felt the need to follow them around and was easier to train to go into his crate.

Some dogs with separation anxiety may require medications to help them. As with human psychological disorders, a combination of drug therapy and behavior modification can work well.

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