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Helping Your Pet Overcome Separation Anxiety

Tampa Bay Animal Hospitals | Tampa, FL

Helping your pet overcome separation anxiety, means that you work towards reducing your dog’s dependence on you. This greater sense of independence can be accomplished with a variety of behavior modification activities often in conjunction with anti-anxiety medications.

How to address attention-seeking behavior:
You should not respond, in any way, to your pet’s attempts to get attention from you by such behaviors as barking, whining, jumping up and pawing. You should not look at, talk to or touch your dog at times when it is exhibiting these attention-seeking behaviors. You should expect that your dog’s behavior to initially get worse and more physical.

Establish a departure routine:
Work to ignore your dog for 30 minutes before leaving the house. This is meant to prevent inadvertent reinforcement of anxious behavior as you prepare to leave. About five to 10 minutes before departure, you can give a toy stuffed with a treat to distract your dog away from the act of departing from the home.

Establish an arrival routine:
The underlying directive here is for you to ignore your dog upon arrival until he or she is relaxed. You shouldn’t interact with or even acknowledge your dog until relaxation occurs.

Use of punishment:
You should never use physical or verbal punishment in response to destructive behavior or elimination. These behaviors are clinical signs of anxiety, so punishment, especially after the fact, will increase your dog’s anxiety level and work to unravel your bond.

Uncoupling departure cues:
This process is essentially habituation, or consistent exposure to a stimulus, such that it no longer elicits the response. You should make a list of activities you perform before leaving home that signal you are leaving and result in your dog getting more and more anxious. Perform these activities when you have no intention of leaving home so there is less of an association with the impending departure.

Try these indoor relaxation exercises:
Train your dog to assume a calm, relaxed behavior during gradually increasing periods of separation. This exercise is commonly done when moving casually from room to room. It often helps to have a dog bed or mat that your dog is comfortable lying on.

Begin by moving a short distance from your dog and then returning and rewarding him or her with attention or a treat. You should repeat this distance until it is clear that your dog is very relaxed and then gradually increase the distance until you are near the exit of the room. Again, each step should be repeated until you dog is clearly comfortable with each level of departure.

Finally, once you can go out of sight of your dog, you can gradually increase the time that you are not in sight of your dog in the same way you were increasing distance. You should never force your dog to remain behind when you leave the room, if you have not worked up to that level of departure.

Graduated departure exercises:
Again, try to train your dog to assume calm, relaxed behavior during gradually increasing periods of separation as you leave your home. Because this can be a very slow process, and because you will likely need to leave your home for longer periods before your dog is ready (thus disrupting the desensitization process), you may need a “bridge” cue to signal “safe” departures. This involves using a signal, cue or marker so that you dog realizes that these practice departures are just that—only practice and not the real thing.

So each time you are doing practice departures, you can use an associated cue or marker to signal this fact and then, once you have worked up practice departures to a time frame of around one to two hours (during which most dogs with separation anxiety typically have issues), you can use the cue during actual departures to function to “bridge” from practice to actual departures. Typical bridge markers can be olfactory (a unique scent such as a new air freshener that can be sprayed at the outset of each training session), auditory (e.g. the sound of a clicker) or visual (a certain light used only during training).

Do not underestimate the power of exercise:
Consistent exercise in the form of walks and play can reduce anxiety by decreasing your dog’s focus on your departure from the home.

If you have any questions, please do not hesitate to contact us.

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