Some dogs, in particular some breeds, are prone to anxiety and stress problems especially when it comes to being separated from their owners. This is more than just an annoying habit the dog needs to learn to correct, this is actually a very serious emotional and behavioral problem that dogs can develop that may lead to the dog needing to be put down if it cannot be managed. Typically dogs that are well-trained and socialized from puppies will not develop anxiety or separation disorders, however if a traumatic event happens in the dog's life it can develop even in previously well-adjusted dogs. Often a dramatic change in the family such as a new baby, a death of a close family member to the dog, a child moving away to college and especially a rehoming experience can often bring out anxiety and stress related behaviors in some dogs and breeds.
Dogs that bond very closely to one or two people are most likely to develop anxiety and separation issues. These are often the toy breeds as well as breeds such as the Shar Pei, Schnauzer, Dogue de Bordeaux, German Shepherd, Mastiffs, Akita, Greyhound, Great Dane, Anatolian Shepherd, Bulldogs as well as many of the hunting and working breeds. The key element for these breeds is to ensure that they feel bonded with the owner and do not feel isolated or detached from the owner at any time. They should also have lots of socialization with other people. Early socialization with the litter and mother is very important with these breeds and they should never intentionally be removed from the litter until they are at least eight weeks old and ideally left with the litter until twelve weeks. Puppies of these breeds that are removed from the litter prior to the eight week minimum are far more likely to develop separation anxiety and stress related behaviors when they mature. In addition these dogs should be moved between families as infrequently as possible, with an ideal situation being the puppy goes from the breeder to the owner, where he or she lives for the rest of their life. The more moves or owners these breeds have the less likely the dog is to actually bond and the more likelihood there will be of real and serious behavioral problems.
Anxiety and Stress Related Behaviors
Different dogs will exhibit anxiety and stress in different types of behaviors. Some dogs will engage in a lot of what may be perceived as boredom behaviors such as chewing or barking. However, these will be different from boredom behaviors in that the dog will be noticeably agitated and seem to derive no pleasure or fun from the activity. A dog that is stressed or anxious will often be panting excessively, have a very startled or frightened expression and be obviously agitated when the owner arrives back to the house. A dog that is engaging in the destructive behavior just for boredom will often try to hide and avoid the mess or will simply pretend they don't see anything wrong with the stuffing from the couch pillows all over the rug.
Anxious and stressed dogs typically will engage in some self-harming type behaviors such as excessive licking or even biting at their legs, chest or their tail. Tail chasing is common in bored dogs as well, but it takes on an obsessive type behavior in stressed and anxious dogs. The licking and biting is serious because it can lead to possible infections and serious problems for the dog's overall health.
Sometimes a change in environment can cause stress and anxiety in dogs. This is usually a short term condition that will stop when the dog realizes that this is their new home or yard. Often once the house and yard begins to smell familiar to the dog and the family stays constant the dog will show decreasing amounts of anxious behavior that disappear within a few days.
Behavioral and Medical Interventions
For dogs that are anxious and stressed when left alone, or are exhibiting even mild separation anxiety, gradual desensitization is usually the key. Start by just having the dog sit and step away, then step back and give a reward and lots of praise. Gradually increase the length of time and distance away from the dog. When the dog is comfortable with this, and this may take weeks of training in very short intervals, gradually start stepping outside of the house, initially just for a minute. As this progresses slowly increase the time away until the dog is comfortable. A professional trainer or animal behavioral specialist can help in establishing the intervals and helping you work with your dog. Many trainers will come to your house to help the dog learn the behavior in the environment he or she will be using it in.
Medications for those dogs that are high level anxiety or stress dogs are available through your vet. Some dogs may require several different trials on medications to find the one that works best. Since this is a very serious issue all the meds and changes in meds should be carefully monitored by the vet. There is currently only one FDA approved anti-anxiety medication for dogs and that is Clomipramine, although vets may prescribe other medications as well. This medication is not a cure-all pill, owners must still work on the desensitization and obedience training for the dog as well as looking for ways to allow the dog to accept being alone and relaxing when the owner is not present. Some dogs may have to be separated from the owner in a kennel or other house to allow the dog to come to the understanding that it can be away from the owner. Again, this is an extreme training method and is usually only done as last resort and under the monitoring of a behavioral specialist or professional trainer that is experienced in helping with anxiety problems in dogs.
Sometimes another pet in the house will help an anxious dog respond to being left alone in a more positive fashion. This is not always the case and it is very important to discuss this option with a vet or trainer before leaving an anxious dog in the company of another dog unsupervised. Sometimes the anxious dog can become hyper-aggressive in his or her anxious state and may turn on the companion dog leading to injury and further complications for the owner.
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