Separation Anxiety, Canine-Style

FRIDAY Sept. 18, 2009 -- The house is empty, the kids have gone back to school. Call it a sort of empty-nest syndrome, except that the remaining occupant of the home is busy chewing the remote control and the couch.

It's not an uncommon scenario as canines across the country are "abandoned" by their best human friends come fall and back-to-school season.

"You've got to think of it from the dog's point of view. One day everybody's there, and then the next, everybody's gone and it happens that fast," said Judi Halliburton, a companion animal behaviorist in Albuquerque, N.M., and author of the book Raising Rover: Breed-By-Breed Training from Afghans to Yorkies. "Then people start coming home from school, from work and finding the living room all torn up."

Your first thought will probably be that the dog is angry. But, according to Halliburton, your pet's not mad -- it's a case of separation anxiety.

"For all they know, these humans got sucked up into a black hole," she said. "They have no idea what happened to them."

"Back to school can cause separation anxiety in some dogs," agreed Adam Goldfarb, director of the Pets at Risk program for the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS). "They're used to playing all day with their best friend, then they're alone for six to eight hours a day. It can be hard for some dogs."

"It can manifest as barking, whining, scratching at the door, chewing inappropriate items, or more medical symptoms such as lethargy or not eating well," he added. "And it can happen to any breed."

But there is hope.

"You can get them through it. You just need to set the stage," Halliburton said.

For instance, back-to-school or not, every time you leave the house you need to say good-bye to your dog, Halliburton said. It doesn't literally have to be "good-bye," it can be "May the force be with you!" or any other phrase. The point is to condition your dog to know that when he hears this phrase, he will also see you again later, she said.

"You have to provide a security base where their world is maintained," she said.

Here are some other tips:

  • Leave clothes with your scent on them around the house. "That's security," Halliburton said.
  • Make sure your dog can keep busy while you're gone. "If you can get a dog beyond the first 45 minutes after you've left, you've got it made," Halliburton said. Try giving your dog an empty milk container without the lid, but with some of the milk residue still inside it. "Dogs will be attracted by the smell, then they find out it makes a really neat noise and then they're king of the mountain," Halliburton said. "They can super-entertain themselves."
  • If your dog is outside, hang an old bike tire, a bunch of dish rags knotted together or a shoe from a tree so the dog can play with them, Halliburton said.
  • Have a pet sitter come over once in a while to spend time with the dog, or try doggie daycare two or three times a week. "That can be really enjoyable," Goldfarb said.
  • Put the radio on a talk station and leave it on while you're gone. "That noise muffles any other kinds of sounds the dog might worry about and it's just background," Halliburton said. "It's comforting. Those are the sounds they hear when humans are home."

More information

The Humane Society of the United States has more on separation anxiety in dogs.

Posted: September 2009


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