TREATING SEPARATION ANXIETY

Understanding a Dog’s Separation Anxiety

Think about this: Animals in the wild seldom display anxiety, unless there’s imminent danger, at which point the fight or flight impulses kick in. But when animals enter our human world the shift brings the potential for miscommunication, resulting in anxiety, often leading to behavioral problems. Because of this it is helpful to consider the instinctive behaviors that dogs are created with. As we begin to see the harmony and logic inherent in those behaviors, we can gain an understanding of how we can help rather than hinder our dogs’ ability to live in harmony within their human “pack” environment.

Let’s consider the causes of separation anxiety (which we’ll label “S/A”) and the practical steps you can take that will, over time, significantly improve your dog’s response to your absences. Reconditioning your dog’s responses takes effort and commitment, but you’ll be rewarded with a happier dog and calmer household – not to mention, less things to repair or replace!

What Causes Separation Anxiety in Dogs

Often it is just the dog’s natural distress at seeing what he perceives as the breaking up of his pack, or separation of its members. Aggravating factors can be fear of abandonment (conditioned possibly by earlier experiences), lack of socialization (resulting in fear or anxiety at the presence his temporary caretakers), a change of environment or a change amongst members of the household – human or animal.
German Shepherds are more prone to S/A than many other breeds. Because they are highly social creatures, any separation from their humans can create high anxiety.

Behaviors Associated With Separation Anxiety

Typically a dog will scratch at doors and windows in an effort to escape confinement and be reunited with his “pack”. In addition he may pace, whine or make any number of pitiful sounds. Overly effusive greetings upon the owner’s return is a common S/A behavior as is chewing up shoes and other objects, particularly things with your scent on them. In addition, some dogs go off food when their owner’s go away.

Anxious, Not Bad; Understanding the Difference

Destructive behaviors in a dog are manifestations of anxiety, not anger or resentment, as is sometimes supposed. It is not uncommon for people to make the mistake of attributing human-type emotions and thought processes to dogs. Anxiety behaviors, however destructive, should not be viewed as bad or naughty behavior. To punish such behaviors is inappropriate and unhelpful. While humans must be trained in a moral code, the animal world functions differently. It has a code, but not a moral one. Indeed, the pack in nature is highly functional – it has structure and its members interact in harmony with one another. So, while we cannot educate our dogs on right and wrong, we can mold their instinctive behaviors by conditioning them to repeat the ones that gain our approval and win rewards.

Conditioning out Separation Anxiety

Now that you have seen some causes and effects of separation anxiety its time to consider some solutions. And the great news is that for those of you willing and able to invest a little time and patience into the process, it is possible to dramatically improve your dog’s responses to your leaving the house or going away.

Start With Short Absences

Expose your dog initially to very short absences, then work up to longer ones. Calibrate your absences to be only as long as can be accomplished without observable anxiety in your dog.

Downplay Your Arrivals and Departures

Demonstrate that your departures and returns are not cause for great emotional display. You’ll have to condition yourself on this one, at the same time as conditioning your dog. When it’s time to go, just quietly depart, refraining from farewell gestures. When you return, resist the temptation to respond to your dog’s ecstatic display. You’ll be going against your natural inclinations, but stick with it, for you will be helping your dog accomplish a calm state of wellbeing. Emotional greetings feed a dog’s anxiety, whereas your restraint demonstrates your genuine care for your GSD.

A Temporary Measure May Be Needed

If you must leave for a longer period before successfully desensitizing your dog to separation anxiety, then put him in a part of the house which is different from where the conditioning has been taking place. This way his training progress will not be hampered, since you’ll not be allowing the positive associations of the training area to be diminished.

Pre-Departure Preparations for House and Dog 

Even well-conditioned dogs, including German Shepherds, will still suffer during your absences although they may no longer manifest destructive behaviors. So here are some steps you can take to make things easier for your special canine:
Work off excess energy. If you must leave your dog for extended times, be sure to give him a nice vigorous walk before you leave. This reduces the likelihood of him finding destructive outlets for his pent-up energy.
A good meal. A full stomach will help your dog be a little more docile in your absence.
Prepping your home. Remove tempting objects, so that there are less available targets of unwanted attention.
Provide distractions. Keeping a dog occupied will help distract him from whatever may be bothering him, in this case, your absence. Another dog in the household often provides the perfect distraction, in addition to the benefit of companionship. A favorite chew toy is helpful, especially if it presents a challenge of some kind; for example, you can get toys that are designed to contain peanut butter or treats of other kinds. The dog has the fun distraction of working to extract the treats a little at a time.

Separation Anxiety & Food

Refusing to eat is another manifestation of separation anxiety. As with other S/A behaviors, this one should not be viewed as a protest, or rebel action. It is just a reflexive behavior, and should be treated using the conditioning method already described. In addition, the following measure, specific to this problem, should help.

Being fed by unfamiliar hands is just another reminder to a dog of his or her “bereavement” during your absence. Changing the feeding pattern in advance, modifies your dog’s mindset that you are his only source for food. Do this by getting others to give him some of his meals. If the person who cares for your dog when you are away, is at hand – as in the case of a live-in family member, or close neighbor – they are the best person for this food conditioning.

Before you leave to go away, let the doggy caretaker give your dog a meal, and if it’s the first time for you to depart after conditioning your dog, let the meal be larger than normal. Then, off you go! When your dog is fed during your absence, he’ll likely be comfortable with his temporary caretaker feeding him, since now he is accustomed to being fed by a couple or more different people.

In the event your dog still skips a few meals, he’ll likely be none the worse for it. A short fast can even be a good thing – in the wild carnivores often go days and on occasion a week or two without food! Under normal conditions, up to three days without food for your dog is no cause for concern. But of course, make sure that fresh water is always in place

 

A Message from the Publisher

We’d enjoy hearing from you!
If you have a moment, let us know what you liked about this article. Plus, share your suggestions – we would value your input. Post comments below, or write, contact@germanshepherdplace.com.

Mark Mulock

 

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6 thoughts on “TREATING SEPARATION ANXIETY

  1. Thank You, Mr. Mulock, for your articles. I have a 1 1/2 year old GS/Border Collie X – Female. She thinks like a Border Collie but acts like a German Shepherd. Being my first GSX, I’m learning more each day how to better help my dog be most functional and happy, your article helped clue me in. I’ve employed the time increased away and the calm and non-challant attitude upon returning home. Both methods are showing a real difference in her S/A. Thank You, Be Well
    Sincerely,
    Willowmina’s Mom

    • Hi Jennie,
      I’m so glad you are having success helping Willowmina overcome separation anxiety! You have two of the best breeds wrapped into one – I’m sure she’s a fine gal!
      Thanks for writing,
      MM

  2. I have a rescue female GSD. I rescued her when she was about 1, she is now 6 ish. Over the past year she has displayed increasing separation anxiety. The problem is when I come home. She does the normal whining and barking. The problem is she jumps all over me. She is 90 lbs and this behavior is painful as her paws scratch. I would like to come home and just be able to pet her calmly. I have always come and go through the years so my routine has not changed.

    • Hi Tami. The best advice I can give based on what you’ve described of your GSD’s over-enthusiastic displays is this: You must be willing to be an actor and conduct yourself in a way that runs contrary to your human nature – especially as a GSD owner. What kind of acting? When you depart, and return it is important just to stay cool, relaxed and nonchalant. Above all, resist any reaction to your dog’s emotional display. Just ignore her! When you return, just calmly walk right into the house – just go about your business! When your pooch settles down, and not until then, you can say hello and show affection! This stuff really works Tami; just be patient and stick with it.

      MM

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