Separation Anxiety in Dogs
I have firsthand knowledge of dealing with separation anxiety (or SA) as I went through this with Walker. It was quite depressing and discouraging and, as committed as I thought I had been to working through any issues with my adopted fur baby, I came very close to returning him to rescue. I would attempt to contain him in a room with baby gates while I went to work only to come home to find a hurricane had ripped through the room. Everything swept off the counters, paper recycling ripped to shreds and scattered everywhere, tooth holes in the doorknob! Blinds ripped from the wall and torn apart, pillows shredded. Neighbors reported him howling throughout the day. It was horrible. It kept us from bonding and the dog I had looked forward to having so eagerly began to seem like a weight around my neck. Thank goodness I was able to obtain support from friends, my dog walker, my vet, a trainer and complete strangers. At one point, on the advice of a well meaning friend, I tried crating him which was a huge mistake. It intensified his fear as he was now left alone and caged and he had massive diarrhea in his crate. Dogs have been known to injure themselves quite badly trying to escape from crates when they haven't been properly trained to love them. What finally worked for Walker was a combination of medication and gradual desensitization. All of this takes time, patience and enormous emotional energy.
Some of you may have adopted dogs or gotten puppies during the pandemic. Maybe they have never been left alone. That is not a good idea as many of us may be returning to offices or work spaces, schools and classrooms in the near future. You may also want to go on vacation at some point and may not be able to take your dog. We may not have taught our furry friends that when we leave we always come back. They have no frame of reference for knowing that. It can be terrifying for them to think that the only companions they know have gone and who knows when or if they will return. While some dogs become mildly destructive out of boredom when left alone (think: chewing on the remote control or your favorite shoes) dogs w/ SA act like a cyclone tearing through the house. They especially target escape areas (door molding is scratched, doors scratched, door knobs bitten, window shades or curtains ripped down). Walker actually successfully got out of the house once when I left for a hair appointment by grasping the door knob with his teeth and turning it! I got a phone call while on the train on the way to my appointment that a man a few streets down from me had my dog. I thought he must have hurled himself through a window and asked if he was covered in blood and glass. "No", said the man, "he seems fine". I had to get off the train, turn around and come home and gather my dog all while canceling my haircut. More depression. Even worse was
when the crossing guard who had seem me leaving so recently asked why I was back so soon. When I explained he said, "Oh yeah! I saw a dog running down the street stopping traffic. Big beagle looking dog, right"? Right. Walker was a Foxhound. Big beagle looking dog.
So, what should you do to prevent your dog from developing SA and what do you do if they already have it? I'm not going to go into extensive treatment and prevention plans in this blog, but will point you in the direction of some great resources. The ASPCA website has an excellent, point by point article about this which I highly recommend. Patricia McConnell has written a slim booklet called "I'll be Home Soon" which is wonderful. You should definitely discuss with your veterinarian, consider engaging the services of a certified positive reinforcement trainer and even, possibly, a veterinary behavioral specialist. Whatever you do, please do not punish your dog, yell at your dog or "discipline" your dog for acting this way. They are already terrified and these types of aversive methods will not help at all and will only make your dog more fearful. Reach out for help and try not to give up. Your friend needs you!