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Separation Anxiety by Frank Utchen, DVM

Dr. Utchen, my dog chews up everything in the house when we are gone. He has chew toys but doesn’t always chew on them. Is he angry at us for leaving him alone? 

Answer: Anxious is probably the more accurate term. Separation anxiety in dogs is often manifest by destructive behavior like you describe, or excessive barking when left alone. Some dogs urinate and defecate in the house when left alone, but not when their owners are home. All of these are indications that your dog is probably unable to cope with being left alone, and uses these behaviors as ways of diffusing his anxious energy. 

Separation anxiety can be treated with diligent work by a dog owner. Strange as it may sound, it is important not to pay extra attention to your dog prior to leaving the house or upon returning home. Treat your exit and re-entry as though you were only gone for a moment, even though you may be gone all day. This helps reduce the contrast between how wonderful it is when you are home and how lonesome it is when you are away. No more kisses and hugs and lavishing attention on him when leaving or returning—at least not for 5 minutes after coming home. 

It will also help if you can change your routine prior to leaving the house, in order to “fake him out” about you leaving. For example, don’t pick up the house or rush around in typical fashion if that is your normal pattern. Ahead of time, put your shoes outside in the garage along with your purse or other things you typically take with you. Leave your coat in the garage this time of year. When you calmly walk out into the garage in your socks, without a jacket, and without saying good-bye to your dog, he will not begin the typical panic-type emotional wind-up that normally begins when he sees you are ready to leave him.

Additionally, if there are special treats or toys your dog likes, it will help if he is only given those when you are away. The basic idea is to make it more attractive for your dog when you are gone, so that even though he’s alone, this is the time when he gets all his best toys and treats. 

Do not reprimand him if you come home to find a mess. This will only increase his anxiety. Unless you can reprimand him at the instant he is being destructive, after-the-fact punishment will do no good and will predictably increase your dog’s anxiety level. 

If possible increase your dog’s opportunities to run and play each day. Exercise is a great stress reliever for dogs and humans. 

Finally, prescription anti-anxiety medications like Prozac or Clomipramine are often quite helpful in dogs with separation anxiety. It may take a few weeks for these medications to take effect, and they must be given daily to maintain their effect. Over time, as your dog becomes accustomed to reacting in a less anxious way to being left alone, the dosage on these medications can often be reduced or discontinued completely. 

The prudent use of anti-anxiety medications combined with diligent behavior modification techniques like those mentioned here, can be the solution to relieve the anxiety that results in your dog’s undesirable behavior when you are gone.

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