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Bad Dog or Anxious Dog - Dealing with Separation Anxiety

There are two parts to resolving separation anxiety in your dog. The first part is to accurately identify the problem and the second is to find the right training to solve the issue. About fifteen years ago, before I learned how to solve separation anxiety in dogs, I didn’t always recognize the problem. Granted, our Jack Russell, Alexis, was easy to identify because her symptoms were classic. We’d sometimes come home to a small hole chewed in the couch. Another Jack Russell, Lestat, also had separation anxiety. The first time I witness the problem I thought I was dealing with a house training issue. We’d only had the seven-month-old dog about six weeks when the incident happened. I was standing in the rec room and my daughter had just gone outside to get something from her car. Lestat rushed to the glass patio door and pushed up on his front paws to see where she’d gone. When my daughter opened her car door and vanished from his sight, he went to the center of the rec room and took a dump. All the while I was standing in the room.

Separation anxiety is the term we use to describe a dog who shows distress or may even panic about being left alone. The term “alone” is defined by the dog as was illustrated by the episode with Lestat. He didn’t care that I was still in the same room, his separation issues was with my daughter. Some dogs will become anxious if all the people in the household are gone, some will react to one person like Lestat did, and some may react to the removal of a companion dog.

Dogs who have separation anxiety may bark excessively when their owners leave the house. Some like Lestat may eliminate in the house. Owners have come home to discover their dog chewed a personal possession, and may think their dog is acting vengefully. None of these actions are the result of the dog being bad. The issue is the dog has become stressed and anxious about your departure and is reacting to a heightened state of anxiety. A really anxious dog won’t take the time to grab something you own, but will try and escape by pawing and biting at exit areas such as doors and windows. Some become so frantic they end up hurting themselves. Most of the stress related damage happens within the first fifteen minutes of departure.

Sometimes we unintentionally encourage separation anxiety in a dog. Dogs often pick up on our moods. If we rush around or become “up tight” before we leave, like we may if we are running late, those emotions can generate anxiousness in our dogs. Adding to the problem is that we exit the house, abandoning the dog at the very time our dog needs our comfort. If this happens too often, the dog will learn to pick up on leaving cues, and become anxious even on those days we are making a calmer departure. Cues such as us putting on a jacket or picking up keys leaves the dog primed for a separation anxiety event. If the dog owner comes home and punishes the dog for any destruction done while the owner was away, this will add to the dog’s stress, and become a catalyst for more anxiety.

Working Alexis out of her separation anxiety was relatively easy. She was a very insecure dog, and by doing positive training and later agility, she became more confident. That coupled with us reforming how we departed the house and returned seemed to be enough to solve her issues. We quickly resolved Lestat’s pooping in the house, but he also would pee after my daughter left. Resolving his peeing took almost a year. By the time I had to deal with yet another Jack Russell, Cookie, who had occasional issues similar to Alexis, I realized I needed to come up with a reliable training technique.

I developed the “I’ll be Back” technique to teach Cookie to calmly accept staying alone in the house. I was delighted to see how well it worked. I soon began to work with other people’s dogs who had separation anxiety using this technique, and was pleased that they found it helped their dog’s separation anxiety. About three years ago, I posted a video on Youtube showing a parts of the technique. As time went on and more people used this technique with success, I realized that some parts of the technique needed some tweaking for more problematic dogs. I also realized that the refinements I’d added since my original Youtube posting was enough to be contained in a DVD and set about the task of producing one.

While videoing my comprehensive DVD on separation anxiety, I came across a separation anxiety problem in a seven-year-old German Shepherd mill dog rescue I was fostering. The puppy mill that Jewel came from had turned over several breeding dogs, and some of the other fosters reported the dogs escaped their pens. When Jewel first escaped, I thought I was dealing with an escape artist. However, after my husband escaped proofed the pen she was in, Jewel resorted to tearing down a barrier to get out. I realized that the real problem was separation anxiety. But Jewel’s separation anxiety wasn’t over a human leaving. Jewel became upset when her companion dog, Abby, was removed.

I have always claimed that my “I’ll be Back” technique was geared towards dogs with mild to moderate separation anxiety. Jewel had severe separation anxiety. Although I suspect that some people who have dogs with severe separation anxiety may find success if they use the I’ll be Back” technique, especially if they do some confidence building in the dog, I felt Jewel needed a different approach.

To say that my first encounter with separation anxiety was with dogs would not be accurate. Horses can suffer from separation anxiety issues. Equine people call it “herd bound.” I’ve worked with a lot of problematic horses over the years and had dealt with the equine version of separation anxiety ranging from mild to severe in level. My years of experience paid off when working out a training technique to help Jewel’s severe separation anxiety. I was able to document the steps used and included footage in my separation anxiety DVD in a segment labeled “Case Study.” The video includes narration explaining what you are seeing in the dog’s body language, and details about the technique used and why the technique worked.

No matter what technique you use to resolve separation anxiety, you will find that habits take time to change. The key to securing success is to practice the reform training you’ve done with the dog for several weeks. I followed my own advice and practiced Jewel with her training to secure a change in behavior. Whether you are dealing with a dog who has mild, moderate, or severe separation anxiety, the first step is to recognize the problem as anxiety and not as “bad dog” behavior. To find a solution, you will need to apply training, not punishment, to solve your dog’s issue.

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