Training and Behavior – Separation Anxiety

The following is a reprint of an article that was published in our Hound Happenings newsletter (December 2006 issue).  We focus so much on separation anxiety when we place a greyhound in a home, that we have not had any greyhounds returned for separation anxiety in over six years.  We know that education and training in the beginning makes all the difference in how well a dog does in a new home.  All potential adopters get training in separation anxiety and how to avoid it:

There’s an old expression that goes, “Knowledge is bouncing all over the place; it’s just not hitting many targets.” With all of the books, television programs, and internet resources available, it is amazing that most dogs are returned to dog rescue groups and humane societies these days because they are suffering from separation anxiety.

People have little tolerance for a dog that tears up the furniture, soils the rugs, and chews up the window frames. But it is not because the dog is angry or resentful that it owners have left it behind. This type of thinking is referred to as “mind theory” where the human projects his or her own emotions onto a dog that is incapable of those emotions. Dogs are not resentful, angry, nor do they want to “get back” at their owners for going away. What is going on in the dog’s mind is plain old anxiety. A dog has to be taught that when you leave, you will be coming back.

Some dog experts believe that separation anxiety occurs in dogs that are not given enough human attention and interaction during their period of learning. Others also think that to some extent genetics plays a factor. It actually may be a combination of those factors.

Because greyhounds have lived structured lives and some have had limited amounts of interaction with their trainers and handlers when they are young, when they get into a home with lots of attention, they bond tightly to their adopters. When your dog spends too much time with you and then is suddenly left alone, it may act out. A dog has no way of knowing that you will be coming back. You must make the effort to help your dog adjust to life without you as well as with you.

Separation anxiety may develop in a greyhound that has been in a home for long time without any problems. In most of these cases, when research is conducted to determine why, there has been a change of routine, a stressful family situation, relationship change, illness, or other cause that places stress on the dog. It can even be caused by behaviors in the owner that foster dependency.

Greyhounds are very sensitive and they detect changes in the lives of the people they love. If you are home all of the time with your greyhound and then get a job and go off to work, your greyhound will be suddenly left alone without your company for hours. Some greyhounds may just go to sleep and be fine while others will try to climb out windows to get to their owners.

If you have an older dog that has been fine for years and suddenly behaves negatively when you leave, you should have your dog checked for medical problems. Dogs search out their owners when they are not feeling well and sometimes the behavior may be mistaken for separation anxiety.

Signs of separation anxiety include:

Barking or howling at the door when you leave;

Escape behavior such as chewing door frames, window blinds, breaking windows;

Urinating and defecating in the house (The dog is besides itself with anxiety);

Excessive licking (lick granuloma) and self-mutilation (extreme cases).

If you can remember that your dog is literally stressed out at your absence, you can help avoid or overcome separation anxiety if it starts. We as humans want to be wanted, liked and needed. Imagine that your dog loves you so much that he/she cannot bear to be without you. Then you can take the right steps to help your dog.

First, be patient. Very patient. Start slow. Use lots of praise and positive reinforcement to reduce the panic level of your dog. You must be consistent. Start off by not looking at or talking to your dog prior to leaving the house and when coming back in.  You can start off by leaving for five to ten minutes at a time. Do not make any effort to play with your dog, talk to him/her, or give him/her any reason to become anxious over your actions. When you are home, pick up your car keys and jangle them. Pick up your umbrella, jacket, etc. then put them all back down and walk way or sit down (not looking at the dog). Do this often and for many days. You will be desensitizing your dog to the cues that makes it anxious. Soon your dog will no longer associate those activities as signs that you are leaving.

You can open and close your door often during the day. That is another way of teaching the dog that an open door doesn’t mean that you are going away. You can extend this training by stepping outside once in awhile for a few minutes and walking back in. Keep extending the time from a few minutes to an hour, etc. Go away for short periods of time first and when you see that your dog has dealt with your absence well, extend the times that you are away. When you do leave, ignore your dog. When you come home, ignore your dog. If your dog jumps around and barks, just ignore him/her and go about your business for a while. Only after things have settled down should you speak to your dog.

You can also use positive reinforcement to make your coming and going more pleasurable and rewarding. Use knucklebones, a peanut-butter filled Kong, bully sticks, etc. to distract your dog when you leave. If you have a dog that likes those kinds of food-oriented items you have the advantage. Keep lots of these treats around for when you go away. Keeping your dog busy while you are gone is a good thing!!

Some vets recommend that dogs that suffer from separation anxiety should be fed a low-protein dog food. There is no need for a high-energy dog food if your dog is going to be restricted in a crate or house for longer periods of time. Remember to check with your vet before changing your dog’s food.

Don’t rule out exercise. A tired dog is not going to get into as much trouble as a wired dog. A long walk can benefit you as well as your dog and some time in the back yard playing can be a great way to give your dog the attention he/she needs. If you are not using a crate, try using one. Some dogs actually feel safe and secure in a crate. If you have some objection to a crate, at least set it up and give the dog the option of using it. Leave the door open. Remember, the ancestors of the dogs dug dens for shelter. Greyhounds have lived in crates at the track and most are very comfortable in them.

If all else fails and your hound is not making any progress in spite of all you’ve tried to do, there are medications that you can give your dog (from your vet), but they should be used only as a last resort. Medications just take care of the symptoms and do nothing to help the dog in the long run. The money may be better spent to consult an animal behavior specialist.

If you want to learn more about separation anxiety, The Dog Listener by Jan Fennell, is a book that guides you through peaceful methods of training and relating to your dog. The techniques described have been very helpful for many dogs suffering from separation anxiety.

Another book called Leader of the Pack by Nancy Baer and Steve Duno emphasizes the understanding of why dogs behave the way they do and what behaviors WE do that send the wrong signals to our pets resulting in dominance issues, separation anxiety, barking, etc. Both books can be found on line.

The most important thing for you to remember is that you CAN help your dog. Your dog loves you and wants to please you and you can start from that knowledge. But it takes time and patience. If a dog is sent back to the rescue group, the people who foster or care for the dog will have to train an animal that misses its owner and is in a strange and foreign environment. This is not good for the dog.

Some dogs have a hard time trusting and forming bonds again. Some dogs have been returned over and over for the same problem of separation anxiety but even the most difficult cases can be resolved with enough patience and understanding.

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