I know what you’re thinking: “What do dogs have to be anxious about?” Well, let me tell you that I have been right there with you. Before I adopted my perfect angel, Jovie, from the shelter, I expected that all it would take to make her happy was to feed, exercise, and love her to pieces.
Nope. Wrong, wrong, wrong. Jovie was found as a 2-year-old stray. That’s two years of who-knows-what before I adopted her and got her spayed. Often, adult dogs in shelters have been abandoned, neglected—even abused—and are desperate for consistent companionship. Imagine if you were passed from one guardian to another for years and then ended up in a loud, concrete kennel for weeks. Talk about abandonment issues! 🙁
Adopting a dog is a HUGE responsibility. You’re making a commitment to protect them and take care of ALL their needs until their last breath. The bond is real, and breaking it is just NOT an option. Buying an animal from a pet store or breeder takes a life away from those waiting in shelters—so that’s not an option either.
So you’ve decided you’re ready to adopt a dog and take on his or her emotional baggage. How will you be able to tell if your pal has separation anxiety?
Going #1 and #2 in the house.
Yes, it’s normal to have to housetrain little Fluffy, but if she starts to show signs of distress while you’re getting ready to leave (e.g., barking, panting, agitation), the underlying issue may be anxiety. There could also be a health problem, so a trip to the vet is in order—you’ll want to rule out incontinence, for sure. And be warned: Puppies straight up can’t hold it, so don’t expect them to.
Barking and howling
Your heart will break every time you hear your baby start crying or howling once you’ve closed that door. But don’t worry—tips to come. Read on.
Chewing, digging, and destroying EVERYTHING
If Fido is gnawing on things not safe for consumption only when you’re gone, he might be showing symptoms of separation anxiety. Jovie often chewed at the door in an attempt to escape before I understood that she needed help. </3 There have been dogs with such severe cases of separation anxiety that they’ve chewed through drywall. This kind of anxiety can result in self-injury, so be sure to monitor Fido’s behavior for signs of trouble.
This is super-hard to catch because Champ won’t necessarily pace when you’re around. But often anxiety-sufferers will trace the same path, back and forth or in a circle, over and over, until you come home. My roommate was able to catch Jovie pacing from the door to my bed and back. You could also set up a webcam to spy on your bestie all day long. It’s not creepy, I swear! And you need to know.
Lack of appetite
Sometimes it can be hard to pinpoint the cause of this. Of course, before assuming that your dog is suffering from separation anxiety, a trip to the vet is warranted to check for any physical problems. Once Rover has a clean bill of physical health, you can talk to your vet about his mental health.
So now what? If you suspect that Princess has some mild separation anxiety, you’ll want to counter-condition the way she perceives your absence. When you leave, give her a special treat (try stuffing a Kong toy with something tasty!) and some other chew toys, and leave some classical music on. She’ll be too busy working on her “projects” to miss you (hopefully). If she’s anything like Jovie and goes on a hunger strike when you leave, read on, my friend.
How to Desensitize and Counter-Condition Your Anxious Furry Child
Cardinal Rule: NEVER use fear to train your dog. It’s mean and cruel and just totally useless. You want to use positive reinforcement to make your pup feel more comfortable.
Exercise, Exercise, Exercise!
A tired dog is a well-behaved dog—that’s because tired dogs just want to sleep! A healthy dog (even a little one) needs at least an hour of exercise and three walks per day. Playing fetch is another good way to tire Max out, without tiring yourself out! Give him a solid hour of exercise before you leave so he’ll be too tired to get worked up during your absence.
If Sadie starts following you around and getting worked up while you’re preparing to leave—it’s time to desensitize her to your routine. Try this: Start going through your routine—tie your shoes, put on your coat, pick up your keys, etc., and then just sit down and watch TV for a while. Practice this at times when you don’t need to leave. Do it often enough that Sadie gets bored with it. Soon, she won’t associate your jingling keys with your departure. 🙂 When you do have to leave, make sure your farewells and returns are business-like and brisk without any emotional overtones. (And when you get back home, wait for her to calm down before you start loving on her. This is hard to do but it’s very important for dogs with separation anxiety.)
Itty Bitty Absences
After Sadie no longer gets anxious about your predeparture routine, you can try faking an absence by asking her to “stay” in a room, grabbing your bag and keys, and walking just out of sight. The goal is to plan your fake-out to be shorter than the time it takes for her to get upset. Make sure she’s totally calm before you try another fake-out and increase their length by 30 seconds each time she successfully and calmly gets through an absence. Once she can handle 40 minutes alone in a room (with treats and toys, of course), then she can probably handle several hours without a problem.
Buy a Thundershirt!
These snug garments function as a forever hug, providing dogs with a sense of calm. Do they make these for humans? I wish. But you can easily find them for dogs (and cats!) at your local vet’s office or pet-supply store or online.
Homeopathic or Herbal Calming Remedies
There are many different natural calming supplements for dogs available at any pet supply store. The trick is to find the one that works best on your dog, so it might take a bit of trial and error. The first few days or weeks that Prince is in your care might be stressful for him—a new environment, new food, new everything. These gentle products will naturally calm him down and can be a really helpful adjunct to all your other anti-anxiety efforts. PS: They’re also great to use while traveling with your pup! 🙂
Practicing everything listed above with consistency coupled with some behavioral training will do wonders for your shelter dog! He or she needs to know that being alone isn’t so bad and it isn’t forever.
After two months of training, Jovie is no longer chewing through the door, howling or whimpering, or freaking out upon my return. Things have gotten much better, but she’s still a work in progress—for example, she still tries to block my exit when I need to leave.
(Did I mention that this was going to take some time and effort?)
Here’s the thing, though: I saved her life, and she isn’t going to forget that anytime soon. It’ll take patience, thoughtful behavior training, and consistency to prove to her that I’m in it for the long haul, but she knows that I’ve got her back. I hope someday soon she’ll realize that it’s forever.
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