Fall is a time for changing routines, as children go back to school and the long, lovely days of summer start to disappear. For some dogs, household changes may be particularly distressing, triggering bouts of destructiveness when suddenly left alone. The experts call this problem "separation anxiety."
Separation anxiety is the classic problem of a dog adopted as an adult. He has had his heart broken once and his hopes rekindled, by you. And then you leave him and he copes with his anxiety (will you ever return?) by going nuts -- chewing, most typically.
If yours is one of these dogs, you'll need patience and a plan to help him. You need to build his confidence by teaching him that comings and goings aren't forever; they're a normal part of his life with you. You need to relieve some of that excess energy by exercising him regularly -- most dogs, like most people, don't get enough exercise. And you need to minimize the damage potential while his confidence builds by confining him to a small area and giving him something else to concentrate on while you're gone besides how much he misses you.
Here are some strategies to help your pet cope with his time alone:
-- Feed your dog his biggest meal before he's about to spend his biggest chunk of time alone. What dogs do after they eat is sleep, and if you're lucky, he'll sleep most of your stay away. If you work days, feed the biggest meal in the morning. If you work nights, switch to the evening.
-- Don't encourage your dog to be your shadow when you're home. All that devotion is wonderful and it feeds our human egos, but it's making matters worse when you leave. If you have a dog who isn't happy unless some part of him is touching some part of you, encourage his confidence and independence by practicing long down-stays on the other side of the room every night. Build up to 30 minutes and do this routine as you watch TV -- you on one side of the room, him on the other. Don't forget to praise him for staying.
-- Give him something special to chew. Have a really good chewy that's just for his alone time, and hand it to him as you leave. Stuff a marrow bone or Kong toy with a little peanut butter. Digging out the good stuff will keep your dog busy, relieve him of some of that excess energy and help him over the worst part of his separation from you -- the beginning.
-- Practice no-fuss comings and goings. Some people unwittingly make matters worse by staging hellos and good-byes that look like that "Gone With the Wind" scene where Ashley comes home to Melanie after the war. Emotional stuff, and your dog doesn't need it. New rule: no pats. When you leave, calmly tell your dog "guard the house" and give him his special chewy. When you return, tell him to "sit," and then praise just the tiniest bit and ignore him completely for the next 10 minutes. Then you can sit down and tell him how your day went. The message here is that all this in-and-out is no big deal, so relax.
-- Don't punish your dog for destroying things. "But he knows he did something wrong," you say. "He's acting guilty." Not true. What he knows, from past experience, is that you're angry about something and he's going to get punished. He doesn't know why, and punishing a dog who doesn't understand what his "crime" was only serves to make him more anxious, not less.
Curing separation anxiety will take some time, because the fix is something that works from the inside out. It will help you to talk to your veterinarian about a referral to a trainer or behaviorist, as well as some medications that may be of use to your pet. Veterinary behaviorists are increasingly using anti-anxiety medications to help retrain dogs with behavior problems -- and yours may be one who could use the extra help.
PETS ON THE WEB: The National Disaster Search Dog Foundation's site (http://www.west.net/(tilde)rescue) is dedicated to the inspiring partnership of human and dog that is a search and rescue team. These teams, largely volunteer, are ready to go anywhere on 10 minutes' notice to try to save the lives of people caught in disasters ranging from an avalanche to an earthquake, and to acts of terrorism such as the bombing in Oklahoma City. The site is solid and informative proof of the good dogs do in our society.
Gina Spadafori is the award-winning author of "Dogs for Dummies" and "Cats for Dummies," and is the editorial director of the Veterinary Information Network Inc., an international online service for veterinary professionals. Write to her in care of this newspaper, or e-mail to Giori(at)aol.com.
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