Back-to-School Separation Anxiety: Restoring and Maintaining Calm for Your PetsAug 01, 2010 03:18AM ● By Mary Wulff
Corky the dog so dislikes being left alone that he has ripped up car upholstery and jumped through windows in an attempt to rejoin his humans when they leave the house for school, work or errands. Shay, on the other hand, watches calmly out the window when her humans leave each day.
Dog lovers with a pet that trembles, whines or rushes to the door in anticipation of being left alone know that the problem can interfere with work, school or travel days and make life difficult for you and your companion. In severe cases, a vet may even prescribe a sedative or antidepressant drug for an animal, a practice that seldom reaches the root causes of separation anxiety, and may lead to serious, long-term health problems.
Order in the Pack
To start, it is important to understand that virtually every domestic dog lives in a confusing world. Improperly socialized or mistreated, abused or abandoned dogs, as well as those that live with a nervous, angry or depressed person, may be more prone to separation anxiety. The breed and physical requirements of your dog may contribute to anxiety, as well.
Dogs are social animals. They need to feel part of a pack, with a sense of rank. In the course of domesticating dogs, humans have become pack leaders in the minds of household canines, so the behavior and habits of the primary caregiver largely influences a dog’s behavior.
While it may seem like a good idea to add another animal to the household to keep your companion company, this can actually make matters worse, by confusing its sense of pack hierarchy and creating a state of continuous competition. It may be a better idea to provide substitute leadership in the form of another human. Dog walkers, friends, neighbors or relatives could come by and spend time with the dog when you’re away, acting as a surrogate, temporary pack mate.
You could consider a good doggie daycare provider, but there is no permanent substitute for the human alpha leader, who must be a strong, controlling presence whenever you are together. From the beginning of your relationship, a dog will gain trust and faith in your leadership, avoiding costly dog-sitting bills later on.
Once puppyhood is past, you can keep a dog from becoming bored and tearing the house apart when you’re out by employing the following tips and tricks.
• Leave the television on a nature show channel. Human voices can provide reassurance that humans still exist during your absence.
• Or leave talk radio on. Soothing music also tames the savage beast, and in many cases it will help a lonely, confused pooch to relax.
• A toy filled with peanut butter or dog treats might keep him busy. Upon returning home, give the dog the treats that were in the toy and take the toy away.
• Ignore the dog for several minutes before leaving the house and when you return. Do not shower him with hugs and kisses as you are leaving, as this may add to his anxiety.
• Begin by leaving for short periods of time, and then increase it over a few weeks. Each time you return, have the dog sit, and praise and reward him with a treat when he is calm.
• When in doubt, work with a recommended animal behaviorist. Also, consider any physical problems that may be causing the anxiety disorder.
Natural Diet and Supplement Aids
Some people may feel they need to resort to drugs when they are at their wit’s end from dealing with a dog that acts out by becoming aggressive around people or outright destructive when no one is home. These are behaviors sometimes seen when an animal is receiving inadequate nutrition or essential brain nutrients.
In the holistic realm, the foundation to treating any animal problem, physical or mental, begins with a good diet. A home-prepared diet is best (how-to books are available), but a high-quality, natural commercial food may also help. Behavior problems can lessen or go away with a simple change in nutrition.
Adequate essential fatty acids, including omega 3, are necessary supplements for dogs, even if they are fed a commercial diet. They help the nervous system function more smoothly and help improve skin and coat condition.
Some animals may need extra help from herbs to get through a particularly stressful time. One miniature schnauzer benefited from ingesting a formula made for dogs that contained valerian, skullcap, oat flower and passionflower before his owners would leave the house. Max became calmer and stopped tearing apart the furniture after just a few weeks of using the herbs.
Other animals become anxious in the vicinity of loud noises, whether or not the caregiver is at home. Many caregivers have found a melatonin supplement helpful in these instances.
Whatever the reason, it’s hard to leave a companion behind when you know they suffer in your absence. With a bit of knowledge and care, you can help make the periods of separation much easier.
Mary Wulff is a veterinary herbalist consultant and co-author with Gregory Tilford of Herbs for Pets. She specializes in home-prepared diets, herbs and homeopathy for companion animals from her office in Hamilton, MT. Connect at [email protected].