Dog Behavior Questions Answered, Including Separation Anxiety

Dog Behavior Questions Answered, Including Separation Anxiety

Recently, Merrick Pet Foods conducted a contest via Facebook, asking readers to ask me: "Why does my dog...?" The first 20 responders received a copy of  "Decoding Your Dog: The Ultimate Experts Explain Common Dog Behaviors and Reveal How to Prevent or Change Unwanted Ones" (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, New York, NY, 2014; $27) authored by members of the American College of Veterinary Behaviorists, co-edited by myself, and veterinary behaviorists Dr. Debra Horwitz and Dr. John Ciribassi.

Here are my replies:

Q: Why is my puppy so anxious when we put her in her crate, then leave (when we leave) the house? -- S.G., via cyberspace

Q: Why does my dog piddle on the rug when I'm gone? We had him checked out and  there's no medical explanation. -- N.D., via cyberspace

A: In "Decoding Your Dog" there's an entire chapter on separation anxiety written by veterinary behaviorists Dr. E'Lise Christensen, of New York City, and Dr. Karen Overall, of Philadelphia, PA.

First things first: Always get a diagnosis from a veterinarian. Sometimes, separation anxiety is mistaken for lack of house-training. A dog who piddles when its owners leave the house may simply not be properly house-trained, or the dog may never have learned how to behave when people depart, and isn't anxious so much as having a good old time chewing on pillows. There may also be a medical explanation, such as a urinary tract infection or diabetes.

Often, dogs with separation anxiety drool excessively (so much so that owners find a puddle when they return home), destroy furniture and/or chew on inedible objects, bark, yelp, whine and/or forget house-training, and won't eat even yummy treats while their people are away. Videotaping your dog shortly after you depart is the best way to show your veterinarian exactly what's going on.

Another sign of separation anxiety is that a dog begins to get "stressed out," picking up cues as you prepare to leave the house.

While, overall, I'm a proponent of crate training, putting an anxious or panicked dog in a crate is not always a good idea. Dogs can hurt themselves attempting to break out of the crate. Many of these also get anxious about the crate since they’ve associated the crate with people departing, and their emotional freak out.

While some dogs with separation anxiety do tolerate confinement, the solution is to deal with the separation anxiety itself. What you do depends on how panicked the dog is, as well as on the individual pet; what works for one dog may not work for another.

For dogs who go into total panic mode when left alone, an anti-anxiety drug is the most humane answer (not a sedative to make a dog sleepy but the pup is still panicked).

The good news is, with patience, you can help your dog. For details on behavior medication, talk with your veterinarian or a certified animal behavior consultant. Additional products may help, ranging from Adaptil (pheromone products), Anxitane (L-Theanine) and the Thundershirt (which fits tightly around the dog) are among them.

 

Q: Why does my dog lick at the sheets before we go to bed? -- A.B., via cyberspace

A: It could be that your dog senses your smell and/or his own smell, and likes it. Sadly, for your ego, it not be about you, but instead be all about the smell of fabric softener on the sheets.

If the licking is excessive, try to distract your dog by calling the pet to you and offering something to chew on.

 

Q: Why does my 1-year-old male Doberman constantly yelp during leash walks? It's annoying. I have to wait until late in the morning to walk him so he doesn't wake up the whole neighborhood. -- D.P., via cyberspace

A: Without seeing exactly what's going on, this problem is tough to pinpoint. I hope your pooch is not in pain, perhaps from a "choke collar" used incorrectly, another piece of equipment, or due to leg or back problems. Far more likely, though, your pup is merely overjoyed about the walk and can't contain himself.

It's possible the yelping became a habit when you (or another family member) reinforced the behavior when the dog was small; after all, it was likely cute then. It's also quite possible that your pet is anxious.

For some dogs, the solution can be teaching the pet to carry a toy or a ball indoors, then doing the same thing outdoors. The hope is that a dog won't make as much noise with something in his mouth.

If that doesn't work, feed him as you walk. He likely can't chew and yelp at the same time. When he's not yelping, along with the food reward, say "good quiet," so in time he's only rewarded for the sounds of silence.

Perhaps anxiety is a factor, an Adaptil pheromone collar and a nutritional supplement called Anxitane might help your dog feel more relaxed.

If the problem persists, you might want to seek hands-on help from a dog behavior consultant or trainer who can observe the behavior.

 

Q: Why does my dog, Chloe, get between me and my husband when my husband comes home from work? -- B.M., via cyberspace

A: I'm not sure what the problem is, assuming you both have a similar relationship with Chloe. It might be that she just wants to be sure to be included. If Chloe's behavior bothers you, stand in such a way that she can't get between you. You could use a Gentle Leader leash to control Chloe's movements. Distracting her with a chewy might also help.

Just be thankful Chloe isn’t getting between you in bed.

Q: Why does my dog sit like a goofball? -- C.P., via cyberspace

A: I'm not sure what position you're describing, but it could be your pooch was previously rewarded for the goofy behavior -- even with a giggle -- reinforcing the habit. The oddball way the dog sits might also be comfortable for your dog. Sometimes dogs do imitate us, so maybe your pet is attempting to sit like you!

©Steve Dale PetWorld, LLC; Tribune Contact Agency

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    First things first. Do NOT get a diagnosis from a veterinarian. Rather, get a diagnosis from a veterinary behaviorist or, if you can find one, a qualified behavior consultant. Any reputable vet will tell you that there are many vets who have little training in canine behavior disorders.

    This article is an inadequate explanation of the mechanics of separation anxiety. Anxiety (of any kind) is both a physiological phenomenon and a learned behavior. It is complicated and this is why those who attempt to explain it "simply" - as is required in a blog or other medium with limited word count- typically fail.

    Anxiety - in people and dogs - represents changes in the body in response to a real or perceived threat. Some dogs regard being alone as a type of threat, and so react accordingly. We know they are anxious because dogs do certain things when they are anxious. They drool, their muscles become rigid, they pant excessively, they pace and they whine, just to name a few. You may see them do all of these things or some subset of them.

    The problem begins when a dog who is used to company finds himself alone. He may become slightly anxious because the situation is new. When owners respond in what they feel is a comforting manner, the dog begins to learn that the anxious behavior is the solution to the condition of being alone. Not only does the dog learn that he can "solve" the problem by behaving anxiously, but the dog's body becomes convinced that the way to avoid the threat is to physiologically react to the threat (by shaking, drooling, etc...).

    If you have ever taught your dog to sit on command, you know that every time you practice it he gets better at it. This is because every time, he becomes more convinced that the behavior of sitting will result in getting the treat. Likewise, the conviction that the anxious behavior will "solve" the problem of being alone increases every time the owner responds to the anxious behavior. This is why separation anxiety gets progressively worse over time... unless you do something about it.

    Indeed, there are other behavior problems that look like separation anxiety, but are not separation anxiety. However, separation anxiety is a real problem and should not be dismissed as something else, just because there are other, easier-to-understand problems that share some of the symptoms. You can't get out of addressing the subject of separation anxiety simply by saying "separation anxiety probably isn't what's going on".

    The theoretical solution to separation anxiety (individual solutions MUST be designed by professionals) has several pieces. First, it is necessary to teach the dog to understand being alone is not a threat. This can usually be done through a process called "systematic desensitization" (ask your behavior professional(s) to explain it - if they can't, fire them.)

    Second, the dog needs to learn an alternative way to handle the perceived threat. The dog needs to learn how to relax himself instead. This can be done by teaching him a method called CARE, or Canine Assisted Relaxation Therapy, which I have used successfully with hundreds of pet owners. I am a behavior consultant and trainer of service dogs for people with mental and behavioral health disabilities. If you want to learn more about CARE, e-mail me at elizabeth@aspiredogs.org. and I will be happy to provide the information.

    Finally, I would like to comment on medication. While I am not especially for or against anti-anxiety medication, it is absolutely not the catch-all solution to this issue. In fact without reprogramming the dog to reinterpret the situation, medication won't solve things. Medication can help this learning process go more smoothly in some cases, but medication by itself is an incomplete - and sometimes unnecessary - treatment.

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