Dachshund with separation anxiety

One of the best things about cutting-edge pet care in recent years has been the growth in the number of veterinary behaviorists. These specialists save lives by helping animals change behaviors that stretch the human-animal bond to the breaking point.

In cats, that behavior is often inappropriate elimination; in dogs, it's often separation anxiety. In both cases, a combination of environmental management and behavior modification, and in some cases, medication, has saved many a pet from losing a home. But while avoiding the litterbox often has a medical condition (or a couple of them) as a root cause, separation anxiety is in many ways the result of our asking a pack animal to do something for which he was never designed: to spend time alone.

How a Behaviorist Can Help

Dogs who act out when left alone may cause significant damage, to themselves or their surroundings, or may bark themselves into a froth-mouthed exhaustion. If your dog has a hard time staying alone, you'll need patience, a plan, and quite possibly the help of a veterinary behaviorist.

If your dog’s anxiety is minor, you may be able to deal with the problem on your own, simply by managing his environment and upping his exercise. Otherwise, I strongly suggest working with a veterinary behaviorist from the start for the best chance at overcoming this distressing problem.

Make Separation Easy

The goal is to help your dog understand and accept that comings and goings are normal. Here are some of the elements that go into reaching that place.

Increase his exercise. Let’s face it — today’s dog’s are “born retired.” That often leads to such obvious health problems as obesity, but pet owners less commonly realize that the sedentary lives many dogs lead is at the root of many behavior problems. Every dog needs exercise every day, and dogs with behavior problems may need more. A tired dog is more likely to be a good dog, so make sure your dog gets at least 30 minutes of heart-pumping activity every day. Of course, before heading out, check with your veterinarian to make sure your dog is free of any medical conditions that would make him unfit to exercise.

Limit his environment. While you’re away, limit your dog’s environment to a small area that’s as dog-proofed as you can make it. If your dog is comfortable in a crate, that’s an ideal place to leave him for short periods of time. If your dog has never been crated, you can slowly work up to making him feel more comfortable there by feeding him in his crate with the door open, or giving him treats in his crate. Then you can do the same with the door closed and build up his crate time while you’re home. If crating isn’t an option, perhaps a mud room or laundry room will do, with a baby gate across the doorway. Leave a radio or white noise generator on to muffle sounds from outside that may arouse your dog.

Downplay departures. Some people unwittingly make matters worse by overdoing hellos and goodbyes. When you leave, calmly tell your dog, "Guard the house," and give him his special chewy. When you return, ignore him while you go through the mail, check the answering machine and so on. Then, tell him to "sit," and then praise him a little. The message you want him to get is that all this in-and-out is no big deal, so relax.

Offer a special treat. Have a really good chewy that's just for his alone time, and hand it to him as you leave, or stuff a Kong toy with a little peanut butter and broken biscuit bits. Digging out the good stuff will keep your dog busy, relieve him of some of that excess energy and help him over the worst part of his separation from you: the beginning. This special treat should be really special, and it should only be offered when you leave. Use a special word or phrase when giving this treat, to help your dog put the pieces together.

Don't Punish Your Pet

"But he knows he did something wrong," you say when you find your dog has chewed a hole in the wall — or worse. "He's acting guilty!" Not true. What he knows, from past experience, is that you're angry about something and he's going to get punished. He doesn't know why, and punishing a dog who doesn't understand what his "crime" was only serves to make him more anxious, not less. Limit his ability to inflict damage while you're gone, and you won't have to worry about punishing him when you get home — which will make you both less anxious during a separation.

These steps should help your dog learn to accept that he has to be on his own sometimes. But again, let me stress that asking your veterinarian for a referral to a veterinary behaviorist helps smooth the process. And if you balk at the cost, consider this: Getting the help of a veterinary expert is cheaper than replacing all the things a dog with severe separation anxiety may destroy.