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July 25, 2018

Anxiety is one of the most common root causes of behavioral challenges in dogs. When handling any anxiety-related behaviors, it is essential that owners know that anxiety is the underlying problem; the behaviors are its symptoms. If owners try to correct the behaviors while ignoring the anxiety, all they are doing is reacting to the symptoms. This in turn can cause more anxiety and make the problem worse. It might also result in symptom substitution; trading one set of behaviors for another without being any closer to solving the actual problem.

During my years training dogs, I dealt with hundreds of anxiety-related cases. The most common was separation anxiety. A dog who becomes anxious when left alone will bark excessively for hours, chew holes in furniture, dig up entire yards and/or jump fences. In general, customers dealing with separation anxiety issues should be referred to a professional dog trainer. However, informed retailers can help their customers by providing them with some basic guidelines that can make their lives easier.

Owners should avoid emotional homecomings and departures, such as excited greetings; long, drawn out, emotional farewells; etc. They create more anxiety than they resolve.

Disciplining a dog after the fact also must be avoided. Finding a chewed couch is frustrating; however, yelling at a dog, ignoring her as punishment and/or giving her a “time out” will not help and likely hinder solving the problem.

Owners should start to teach their dogs to associate positive things with the antecedents of departure. Most people go through a sequence of events prior to leaving their homes. Everyone’s routine is different and the first step is for them to write down everything they do during the three to five minutes before departure. For example, I always put on shoes, grab my keys, make sure I have my phone by patting my pocket, check the front door to make sure it is locked, quickly glance in the mirror near the front door, walk to the side door nearest my car, open the door, hit the car unlock button and leave. After doing these actions hundreds of times, my dog learned to recognize these patterns and associate them with my departure.

If a dog has negative associations with its owner’s departure to the point where it creates anxiety, then the first step in eliminating the anxiety is to change them from negative to positive in the dog’s mind. To do this, owners literally go through all the motions of departure right up to opening the door, but they stay instead of leaving. Owners that do this 20 to 30 times a day will notice that after a week or so, their dog doesn’t appear as anxious when they are getting ready to leave. Owners should also begin strengthening appropriate responses in their dogs. A dog who chews when left alone should be given special chew toys 20 minutes or so before the departure time.

A key part of solving anxiety-related problems is through a process called counter-conditioning. Teaching a dog to associate more positive things with the pattern of departure is a good example of this.

A number of years ago I worked with an owner whose dog was in the process of digging up her entire yard. “When does he do this?” I asked. “When I leave him to go to work,” she replied. Looking around and jumping over what had to be a three-foot-wide trench I asked, “Does he ever dig when you are home?” “No” was the response.

As it turned out, the only time the dog was left in the backyard was when his owner went to work. I explained that her dog naturally connected being left in the yard with negativity and his reaction to this anxiety was to dig. She asked if he was doing this because he was “mad” about being left alone. This is a very common question and the answer is always no. Dogs are not vindictive; they are reacting to stress in the moment and not figuring out ways of getting back at their owners.

The solutions in this case were threefold. First, the owner started playing with her dog every day in the backyard. She also started doing obedience exercises with her dog in the yard. The objective was to change the association of the backyard in the dog’s mind from the place he was left alone to one where fun things also happened. Second, her dog also started getting regular exercise in the form of three to five walks of at least two miles every week. And third, the owner gave her dog interactive play toys in the yard, which provided him with other things to do when left alone.

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