Reasons for Canine Separation Anxiety
Hi John: My sister’s dog is a 50 pound, 11 year old mix Doberman/shepherd. Molly has always suffered from separation anxiety but in recent months has become destructive. She has totally chewed up sofa cushions and more dangerously, wires! She seems to be having trouble adjusting to my sisters new work schedule. Molly was crate trained as a pup but the vet said don’t crate her now because she is older. She is going back in the cage as we don’t see an alternative. She gets a minimum of 2 walks a day of approximately 1 hour each, which includes park/play time.
This is an all too common problem, but still I’m surprised that we don’t have more of it. It has only been the last 50 years of the 1,000’s we’ve co-existed with dogs that we’ve separated them from social contact as much as we now do. Social species aren’t wired well for that sort of thing and being left behind and/or changes in routine gets to some dogs.
Another factor is that people buy a working breed and essentially lay them off on their first day on the job. Not surprisingly left to twiddle their doggy thumbs day after day seems to make their idle minds more susceptible to anxiety.
A pup’s early – ‘home alone’ – experience can really impact future separation anxiety as well. Part of puppy socialization should include a ‘home alone’ strategy. Incrementally increasing the amount of time pups from 8 weeks to 16 weeks of age are left alone with the goal being no less than 4 hours a day goes along way towards what their future definition of a normal day will be.
I wouldn’t write off the crate due to her age. For all we know the crate might be a welcome sanctuary. It will depend on how the crate was introduced and used in the past. Even if it was a positive experience, in this dog’s state of mind reintroduction will have to be gently tested. Bring a crate out for a few days. Then see if the dog will go in for a treat, toy or its dinner. If all goes well set up some trial staged separations. Don’t just head out hoping for the best. I’ve seen crates trashed and dogs hurt when the process is rushed.
We need to remember as well that solving our problem – destructive behaviour is not the same as solving the dog’s problem – separation anxiety. Imagine your worst day ever. Dogs with separation anxiety feel that way every time their owners go to work.
One of the best, if not the best medication for a dog like this is exercise and mental activity that is in keeping with the dog’s genetics. Often impossible when the person that bought the dog should have brought home the breed equivalent of an electric scooter but instead brought home a Ferrari. It’s easy to more spectacurlarly wreck the latter if it’s not kept in tune.
I’d cut down on the walk part of the outings and replace them with all-out running. Equally important is to find ways to really task the dog’s mind. If it isn’t already, make obedience matter and increasingly challenging. Give the dog puzzles to do. If anyone needs suggestions I have a “Brain Drain” article I just updated that now includes a way to turn each meal time into “challenge of the hunt” time. Visit my website if you want a copy.