Tuesday, 9 October 2012


Behavioural problems are common in dogs from all walks of life. This could be attributed to the fact that more and more dogs are being left at home whilst we are out at work. Or it may be because they are being treated as family members rather than just workers or Pets. In the past a dog with an aggressive problem was more likely to have been destroyed. However in modern times more and more owners are turning to ‘professionals’ to seek help and give the dog a chance to work through the problems before turning to rescue centers or worse putting them to sleep.

Problems occur for a variety of different reasons. Each issue can be different because dogs are different, from very simple issues too much more complicated. These problems can manifest themselves for various reasons;

Lack of socialisation
Excess energy
Owner behaviour
Unrealistic owner expectation
Breed specific traits
Inadequate or incorrect training.
Medical conditions or illnesses

The list is not exhaustive.

Generally speaking these behaviours are a symptom that something is not quite right and the behaviour we see is the how the dog is trying to cope with the situation. There is usually some sort of motivation or cause that has the dog acting in this way.
For example:

Motivation   -           Fear of being grabbed, hurt or pulled of the sofa.
Behaviour     -           bite, to protect itself.

Motivation   -           Fear of being left alone
Behaviour     -           Panic, home soiling, destructive behaviour.

The behaviour can also be a learned behaviour. That is, if the dog learns that a particular behaviour removes the threat or danger then it will learn to use that behaviour the next time it finds itself in that situation. So if snapping or biting makes you back off, then the dog will learn that every time it does this you will retreat.
The problem here is that punishment for this behaviour will only exacerbate the problem by increasing the fear in the dog and thus intensifying the behaviour.

The behavioural problems associated with separation anxiety are the second most common reason dogs are euthanized or put into rescue centers.

What is Separation anxiety?  Separation anxiety is the “fear and apprehension caused by separation from familiar surroundings or familiar people”. http://medical-dictionary.thefreedictionary.com/separation+anxiety

In this article I will look at the signs, causes, a possible cure and what could have been done to prevent this behaviour becoming a distressing situation for both dog and owner.
Rosie Barclay BSc (Hons) MPiL CCAB Animal Behaviourist writes in her book Good Dog? Bad Dog?

Dogs are sociable creatures and naturally live in groups, which work together to secure territories in which there are important resources such as food, shelter and water. Intruder dogs are chased away and there are plenty of dogs to warn others against predators. Dogs, therefore, are likely to feel safe within their group and will probably not feel so secure when left on their own. It is not natural for a dog to be ‘home alone’ and it is no wonder that some domestic dogs show anxiety behaviours when left.

Rosie Barclay goes on however to suggest that in most cases dogs seem to cope very well when left alone and can settle down quite happily. The reason she suggests is that “all dogs are different”.

*    They have all had different upbringings
*    They have all had different experiences
*    They all have different genetic characters
*    They all have different owners

Just the same as some humans are more insecure than others so are some dogs.
Some of the reasons why a dog might show anxiety are as follows;

*    It may have suffered a traumatic event, a huge thunderstorm, building works next door.
*    There may be a change in its routine. Owner working longer.
*    There may be a major life change, new home, new baby.
*    There may be an underlying medical condition.
*    They may just be easily bored

What are the possible signs of separation anxiety?

*    The dog follows the handler
*    Pacing up and down
*    Excessive salivating
*    Destructive chewing
*    Excessive barking and whining
*    Home soiling
*    Self harm
*    Digging and scratching at the door to be with the owner.

Ok so what can we do about it? One method that is suggested is that owners should reprimand their dogs once they come back to the house. Show them the damage and give the dog a telling off. Traditional trainers would often say that you should rub your dogs nose in any mess that it has done upon your return. However modern thought is that punishing the dog upon your return will only serve to teach it to expect to be punished every time you come home making the dog even more anxious as it anticipates your arrival making the problem worse. Dogs have no concept that making a mess on the floor or digging up the shag pile carpet is what causes the owner to be angry. Al they know is that when you come home they will be punished. They have learned this. It is also known now that most of the destructive behaviour is usually carried out in the first 20 – 30 minutes of the owner leaving. They settle down after that because their exhausted with all their hard work. J. Other things that owners do to ‘cure’ the problem may see them taking the dog everywhere they go. Which is great if you have a very understanding boss. I wish I could bring my dogs to work. Or they could hire a dog sitter, arrange a dog walker or put them into day boarding kennels. None of these are particularly bad suggestions but they can prove to be expensive. However you may decide that the alternative is costing you more in replacing the Persian carpets.
There are however some things an owner can do. Firstly we have to make sure that what we are seeing is separation anxiety and not some other reason for the behaviour. For example a dog might chew your favourite slippers because he’s just bored. He may be urinating in the house at the point your are walking up the path or at the sound of the key going in the door. This may be because he is over excited to see you back and just wee’s the floor. Before any behaviour plan is put into action the first thing that should be done is the dog be taken to the Vet for a proper examination to rule out any medical reason for the behaviour. There may be some underlying illness or pain that the dog is suffering from, that the owner has not picked up on. Once the Vet is satisfied that the dog is ok then the owner can look to working on modifying the dogs behaviour.

One way to do this is to use a process called ‘counterconditioning’. Counterconditioning is a process that changes the dogs fearful, anxious or aggressive reaction to one that is pleasant and relaxed. Basically, countercondition helps the dog associate being left alone with goods things. We have to remove the fear of the dog being left on its own. First thing to do is to try and recognise the triggers that start the process of the dog getting anxious. In her book Good dog Bad Dog, Rosie Barclay writes “Dogs are god at learning triggers that alert them to you leaving”. Things like putting on a certain pair of shoes, or putting on your coat, lifting your car keys is a classic. At this point the pacing might start or the low whining of anticipation. Its important then to stop performing these triggers as soon as possible. As part of the curing process we could use these triggers to desensitise the dog, by picking up the keys and then sitting back down again. Rewarding the dog when it calms back down. Or we the owner might put on our coat and then go and make a cup of tea, come back in and watch some TV. Other things owners maybe guilty of is making a fuss of the dog both when they leave and when they come back. Dogs have little concept of time and saying things like “I’ll only be twenty minutes” does nothing for them. Owners should also begin building up the dogs confidence of being left alone by practising leaving the dog for very short periods of time and then coming back again. Rewarding the dog if it remains calm. For example they might walk out the room and then come straight back in again. If they did this repeatedly over and over again, the dog would eventually become bored. At that point the time out the door may be increased by a few minutes and the process repeated. This process can be repeated over and over and each time the dog shows signs of not being interested the time out can increase. Obviously this is a process that is used for severe cases of separation anxiety. And as such it is important that during this period of practise that the dog is not subjected to a full blown long period of time were it is left alone. The result of that would be to set the dog back again. There are some other simple things that owners can do to help their dog settle quicker and get them past the crucial first 20 – 30 minutes were most of the ‘damage’ is done.

Taking your dog for a long and energetic walk prior to be left alone will help to tire the dog out. Change the feeding time to just prior to you leaving. A dog with a full stomach who has had an hour long walk will be more likely to settle down for a nap once you are gone. Leaving a radio or the TV can mean that the dog is not suddenly left in a house where the silence is deafening once you and the kids have left for work and school. Leaving chew toys can help a dog that is a bit anxious. And it saves the furniture. There are many good quality chew toys on the market that can be filled with your dogs favourite food, which takes them some time to empty. Burning up their energy, making them use their brains and tiring them out. Owners should also start to make less fuss of their going and comings. As stated previously saying to your dog that you wont be long does nothing for them. When leaving your dog to go out an owner should just leave after putting on the TV or radio, filling the toy and just walk out the door without saying goodbye. Similarly when the return they should ignore the obvious greeting they will get for at least five minutes. And only when the dog has again calmed down and appears to be ignoring the owner would they then call the dog over and give them a pat.

As the saying goes prevention is better than a cure. By far the best way to avoid your dog having ‘Independence anxiety’ is to prepare them for the times when they will be left on their own as a puppy. During a puppies first days and weeks in it’s new home it will feel frightened and abandoned and will probably cry a lot. But owners have to be strong and teach the puppy that it is perfectly safe when it is alone. Jan Fennel in her book ‘The Puppy Listener’ writes “This can be hard for owners to do, especially if the dog is new to the home”. She goes on to suggest that independence is something that should be taught to a puppy very gradually. Short periods to begin with, then gradually extending the times.
In her book Jan outlines seven key steps which will ensure the puppy gets the best possible start.

1.     Before you leave the pup for a time, feed and toilet it first, and then play with it for a short while. Chances are it will be ready for a sleep after that.
2.     Put a radio or TV on at low volume so that the room wont be plunged into silence as soon as your gone.
3.     Bring the playtime to a close, close the gate or door to ensure the puppy cant follow you.
4.     Stay away for between 10 and 30 minutes. At first remain in the house, using the time to do a household chore, take a bath or mow the lawn.
5.     When you return the dog will probably be overjoyed to see you but you must not make any fuss or bother. Don’t interact with it for five minutes or so or until it has calmed down. Be careful not to make direct eye contact during this time.
6.     When the five minutes have elapsed, play with the dog for a good ten minutes, cuddling it and generally making a fuss of it.
7.     Repeat this process on a regular basis, slowly extending the period of time that you are separated from the dog.

By adopting this method the puppy will learn two things.
Firstly, it will learn that long periods without its owner are a normal part of life.
Secondly, it will learn that, long periods on its own is nothing to get distressed about and it shouldn’t fear them. Both of these lessons are extremely important in preventing your puppy developing separation anxiety in later life.

See you soon........

P.S......please let me know what you think by dropping me a comment....