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Separation Anxiety: No Fun For You or Your Dog

The Rohnert Park Animal Shelter has seen an uptick in complaints about dogs with separation anxiety.

We’re hearing more and more about dogs with separation anxiety.  It seems to be an epidemic! Or is it just a popular term being misused to label all hyper, active, young dogs? Just as many children on the high end of the energy curve are being called “ADHD” and given medications to calm them down, the same is happening to dogs. 

How can you tell real separation anxiety from normal exuberance? There is no formal test, but some of the differences are in the degree of anxiousness and the amount of damage done. And to distinguish separation anxiety from other forms of anxieties, the biggest difference is that it doesn’t occur when someone is with the dog, only when he is left alone. All puppies go through a teething period and all “teenage” dogs have lots of energy. Give a new pup too much space for 8-10 hours a day while you go to work and there should be no surprise if you come home to a redecorated house.

That is merely an issue of unrealistic expectations — pups with energy and no outlet cannot be trusted alone with full run of the house. If you exercise the dog, provide some appropriate chew toys, not leave him alone for more than a few hours at a time and there is no problem, then you are not dealing with anxiety.  It is just a young dog issue that needs management. 

We recently had a one-year old American Bulldog surrendered to us because of his separation anxiety. These people had taken the dog from some friends who were struggling with his destructiveness but felt that they would be better able to deal with it since they were home more, had a bigger piece of property, and had another dog so he would never really be alone. Unfortunately his stress was such that he continued to do damage and they were really frustrated.

True separation anxiety occurs even in adult dogs that are perfectly housetrained but cannot be left alone without doing damage. Just as people bite their fingernails when nervous, dogs chew to calm their nerves. Only they are chewing on the furniture! Generalized anxiety occurs even when people are with the pet and may be exhibited as irrational fears; nervousness around strangers, house-soiling, and other unusual behaviors. Both are difficult to deal with — there is no simple cure. Sometimes the best you can do is manage the environment and help the dog cope with desensitizing training and medications. 

Obviously this is not something that you can take on yourself. It takes a committed owner willing to do the work and hire professionals to help. There are behavior consultants and some veterinarians that are trained in dealing with problem behaviors; not every dog trainer knows how to do that. Your vet might also recommend some form of anti-anxiety medication to help calm the dog (yep, they have doggy Prozac! Fortunately it’s not an expensive medication).

Dealing with anxiety issues is not for the faint of heart. But having lived with an anxious dog for many years, I can attest that once you get it under control you’ll consider the work worth it. Usually the dogs are otherwise loving, friendly, intelligent animals. If you are struggling with a dog showing these symptoms please know you are not alone; and there is help available. Happy ending for the American Bulldog — his family missed this big, goofy guy and decided that they would try again. Cross your fingers!

Upcoming event: "Meet the Bunny," held on the second Saturday of each Month (upcoming Feb. 11) from 1-5:30 p.m. Meet our adoptable rabbits, ask care questions of our knowledgeable volunteers and shop our bunny boutique for fresh hay, rabbit toys and accessories. Bring your rabbit for a free nail trim.

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