THE SEPARATION BLUES... OR "HE ONLY DOES IT WHEN I'M GONE"
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THE SEPARATION BLUES... OR "HE ONLY DOES IT WHEN I'M GONE"

Micky Niego

"He's such an ingrate and to think I rescued him from certain death at the shelter . He's got a great life. Is this the thanks I get?!"

"He's so spiteful. He only does it when I leave him alone."

"He's so mad at me for leaving him alone all day. We have such great weekends. He's perfect. Then, on Monday. . . but I have to go to work."

Sound familiar? Ever thought it or said it? And it's not even true. Dogs can't be ingrates; they don't share our value system. As for spite and revenge. . . yes, if this were a person, they might come to a similar conclusion. But we are talking about a dog. The family dog is not capable of premeditated crimes against the family.

Confused by what you're living through? Understandably so. But if you're going to live with a dog, it is important to understand dog behavior. Don't assume that a dog "works" the same way a person does. Dogs come into this world with their own set of genetically pre-programmed behaviors; that's what makes them dogs. When incorporating a dog into the household, it is essential to accept and work within the framework of the dog's comparative "limitations". Projecting human characteristics onto dogs and translating their actions into human terms just doesn't work. Misinterpretation leads to miscommunication; that leads to confusion. You can end up adversaries, not companions. He plots, he plans; he punishes you. You become angry, resentful. You become an emotional hostage. . . "When he was good, he was very, very good, but when he was bad he was horrid!"

Dogs are very social creatures. Left on their own, they will form packs rather than become solitary hunters. These packs are structured; there are leaders and followers. The family dog belongs to a pack, too -- the family. Even if the family consists of one person and a dog, it's a pack. People lead, dogs follow; it's up to human members of the pack to provide structure and guidance for the canine pack members.

When a dog is left alone, he may become uncomfortable, stressed-out or confused. Members of dog packs don't usually get left behind; it's not a good sign. When a dog becomes anxious, he doesn't light up a cigarette, begin to knit a scarf or turn up the stereo and put the headphones on to blot out the world! He barks, paces, grooms himself endlessly, chews, gnaws, marks territory and/or digs furiously - in other words, he acts like a dog. These behaviors are not directed toward you.

The dog is not going to gaze lovingly at your photo while you're gone. For a dog, the next best thing to you is your scent. If given the run of the house, many a dog will pace back and forth from the door to the window and back to the door again or explore frantically. The more he darts about, the more excited he gets. He finds a heavily scented object; it smells just like you. A sock, a shoe, some underwear, a sofa cushion or bedding; the remote control you hold all night, the book you've been reading, your tennis racquet, your hairbrush. He sniffs, he paws, he rolls around on it; he licks it and takes a nibble. No, it's not you, but it's something. But is it enough? Maybe he'll carry it off, climb on the sofa or bed with it, curl up and relax. But what if he doesn't?

You're still not back; the tension increases. Sustained anxiety produces metabolic waste; the dog has to "go" more frequently. The urine is pale; the stool is soft or runny. These are not housebreaking accidents; the stressed-out dog can't "hold it". The terrier's nibbling escalates into chewing, tearing and/or trashing. The hound's soft whine becomes a soulful howl. The dog that lacks confidence launches a volley of barks at any and every passing sound. Trespassers! The guard dog mix paces back and forth and marks his "territory". Nowhere in this scenario does the dog plot against you. His display is not aimed at you; he is relieving his own tension and fears. It is not spite or revenge. Once again, it's a dog acting like a dog.

Before you can begin to deal with the separation blues, you should be certain that being apart from you is the root of the problem. Owner absent behaviors can be the result of a poorly trained dog, or a dog that is smart enough to figure out that "when the cat's away, the mice will play".

Most dogs that house soil just aren't housebroken yet. Dogs that have accidents, as well as those who destroy, should be confined when left alone or unsupervised. Unneutered male dogs mark territory; so do insecure dogs. Having a puppy neutered at 6 months of age will prevent sexually motivated behaviors from developing. Neutering an adult dog will facilitate retraining.

Many dogs that trash and chew have not received adequate daily exercise. They're stir crazy and bored to tears, not stressed out because you're gone! Sporting (retrievers, spaniels, pointers and setters), hound and herding (shepherds and collies) types are high energy dogs and must receive a minimum of two hours of vigorous exercise daily. A dog that has had a good night's rest cannot be expected to sit around all day and do nothing! Tearing, pulling, pushing, digging, barking and pacing release all the pent-up energy; the dog feels better for it. Periodic escape behavior, trashing and ransacking can also be the doings of an unneutered male that is sexually frustrated by the scent of a bitch in season somewhere in the neighborhood.

True separation anxiety is typically seen in dogs that have been passed around from home to home or rescued from the shelter or street. Dogs that have not been routinely walked and socialized, that were permanently paper trained or relegated to the back yard are candidates for separation anxiety. The dog that follows you everywhere may have a difficult time when you go on vacation or a business trip. The dog that always had someone at home, except now this person has gone back to work or school or died may have a difficult time adjusting to a new routine or a new household. A seemingly well-adjusted dog can exhibit separation problems if you've just moved to a new house, gotten married or switched to the night shift. A shy or timid dog can be sent into a tailspin by a change in routine or an overnight stay at the vet clinic. Family fighting, separation, divorce or weekend custody of a child all affect the dog's day to day existence and contribute to his anxiety.

WHAT TO DO If you are bringing home a new dog, don't make the fatal mistake of immediately giving him the run of the place. This is your home; the dog is a newcomer. He should be closely supervised so appropriate behavior can be praised and unacceptable behavior can be corrected at once. Don't let him follow you everywhere all of the time. Think - if he can't let me out of his sight when I'm just a room away, HOW will he ever adjust to my being out of the house? If you have arranged your schedule to give yourself more time to help the dog settle in, do just that. Don't become a shut in or arrange for coverage for every minute of the day. Give the dog a realistic sample of what life with you will be like. If you come and go frequently, do just that. If you go to business or school and will be gone for extended periods of time, build the dog up incrementally to the length of time that you will be gone. Start with short, frequent outings (to the corner mailbox and back); gradually lengthen your time away over the coming days. Staying home all of the time or taking the dog with you everywhere is certainly a way to bond the dog to you, but it also sets the dog up to take the fall when you suddenly disappear for six to ten hours.

Give him a small area that he can call his own. Let him use it as his "base of operations". He should be kept in the "people" part of the house; this does not include banishing the dog to the basement, a storage closet, laundry room or a shed in the yard. The area should be small enough to prevent pacing and dog-proofed so that the dog cannot injure himself and nothing can be accidentally damaged. Don't assume that because he was a caged shelter dog or a stray that he needs freedom. Too much space too soon causes problems. If you do not have such a spot, then get a kennel crate; that's what they're for. Many dogs prefer a cozy low roofed den to a wide-open space when they are feeling confused, frightened or insecure. You can see it in their behavior when they choose to play with a toy or eat a treat under the bed or table, or lay curled up in the corner or against a piece of furniture.

Start by leaving the dog for longer and longer periods of time; then give him more space an ultimately the run of the house. The length of time gone and the amount of space allowed are separate factors. Each time you increase the amount of space, decrease the length of time. Example: If there have been no problems when he's been left alone for 4 hours in a small room with a tension gate across the doorway, then reset the gate so he has access to the room and the hallway; but only for twenty minutes the first time. Work your way back up to the 4-hour mark. When in doubt, don't proceed to the next level.

For the dog who has gone through a change in routine, don't hesitate to limit his movement and increase supervision if behavior problems "suddenly crop up". True, you've moved and he's all confused, but that doesn't mean it's okay for him to bark his brains out, cling to you like glue or claw at the woodwork in the entry hall. Remember that small spaces are better than large ones. Tighten up on all obedience skills; don't forget to give the dog lots of praise for behaving appropriately.

CHECKLIST: MINIMIZE THE SEPARATION BLUES

1. Keep the dog in his designated area when you are unable to supervise him. Be sure that you have thoroughly exercised the dog if you will be leaving for an extended period of time. An exhausted dog doesn't have much energy left to invest in overbarking, extensive grooming, digging or trashing; he'd rather "sack out".

2. Keep the curtains and/or shades drawn. If you don't have adequate window coverage, hang a dark sheet or blanket across the window. A dimly lit environment has a calming effect on most dogs. Additionally, there are no visual stimuli, via the window, to provoke the territorial barker or marker! Curtains can muffle loud street sounds that set off alarm barkers or startle/frighten dogs that lack confidence.

3. Leave a radio or TV on as "white noise". In many households, the TV and radio are on all the time as long as someone is home. Imagine how 'LOUD' the silence is when everyone leaves for school or work and the sound system is turned off! Beyond masking outside noises, leaving the radio/TV/stereo on gives the aural appearance of your presence.

4. Supply the dog with an "only-when-I'm-gone" chew toy with your scent imparted on it; rub it between your warm palms or keep in your laundry hamper. This item should be something spectacular -- a flavorful, beefbasted knotted rawhide chewy or a commercially sterilized beef marrow bone; stuff it deeply with cheese spread or canned dog food, serve frozen or chilled (great for teething puppies, too). Give it to him as you depart; you will remove it immediately upon your return. Not only is this a diversionary tactic, it actually makes being alone "not so bad", as this is the only time the-most-wonderful-thing-in-the-world appears!

5. NO EMOTIONAL GOODBYES. No smothering, hugging and kissing or begging and pleading to the dog to "ple-e-ease be a good kid". You do not want to emotionally charge an already loaded situation. Leave matter-of-factly. With the dog already in his confinement area, put on your coat, pick up your keys, etc., give the dog his goodbye chewy and leave with a simple "see ya later".

6. If you come home to destruction in one form or another, do not discipline the dog unless you have walked in and caught him in the act of misbehaving. Discipline after the fact does not teach, it punishes. Bringing the dog over to the scene of the crime, pointing at what used to be a chair, and scolding will certainly let the dog know that something is wrong. But are you complaining because he didn't chew all the legs of the chair off or because you wanted to chew the chair legs?! The dog's response, cowering, with ears back and tail tucked or running off to hide under the bed doesn't mean that he knows what he did two hours ago was wrong -- it means that what is going on right now is very intimidating. Returning home like a witch-on-a-broom does nothing for a dog suffering from separation problems except to create another problem: now he's anxious about your return!

7. If the dog makes little or no progress after a week or so, or if the stress is so great that the dog is panting and heaving, salivating, vomiting, trembling uncontrollably or exhibits extreme escape behavior such as tearing at the door, jumping at/through windows, digging up flooring with bloodied paws, a professional dog behavior counselor or veterinarian who is familiar with the specifics of behavior should be contacted. A very sensitive dog may need a customized training program to help him get used to being left alone. Sometimes pharmaceutical anti-anxiety agents are prescribed by veterinarians to be used in a short-term drug therapy program to help the dog relax.

Micky Niego, Companion Animal Services

Courtesy of the ASPCA

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