Separation Anxiety Can Be Reduced
Treating an older pet for its separation anxiety involves changing the way you interact with your dog. It must learn that it doesn’t always get your attention when it wants it, for example, when it comes over and asks to be touched. This is difficult because not touching goes against our instincts. Our response is on autopilot and this is hard to stop. If you’re able to control your natural impulses your dog gradually gets accustomed to your absences, short at first and then longer. In older pets this can sometimes only be achieved by using anti-anxiety drugs during the first few weeks of modifying her behaviour. We can discuss their use with you. When you leave and only when you leave, it gets a reward - special chew toys. These are hidden from your dog when you’re at home with it.
- Go back to basics. Teach your dog to relax. If it can learn to relax in a 'stay' for extended periods while you’re there, it’ll be more likely to relax while you’re gone.
- Don’t make a big deal about leaving or coming home. Giving hugs and kind words of affection when you come or go only reinforces the anxiety you want to eliminate. Change your departure cues. Many dogs learn that when you put your coffee cup down you’re about to leave. They start getting anxious as soon as they see you get up from the breakfast table. Change your routine. For instance, pick up the car keys or put on your coat then sit down in the kitchen and have a coffee. On weekends do exactly what you’d do on weekdays when you go to work but then stay home.
- When re-training, start with very short departures. Work out how long you can leave your dog before it gets anxious. It may be only seconds and if that’s the case, shut the door and instantly open it again but avoid even looking at it let alone talking to it. Gradually increase the time you’re gone, always returning before it becomes anxious. Once inside, give a “Sit” command and only reward it when it’s calm. Be patient. This works, as long as your dog still has reasonable brain power, and the great majority of older dogs still do. This takes at least three weeks but can take considerably longer.
- Associate your departure with something good. As you leave, give your dog a hollow toy such as a 'Kong' filled with soft cheese or peanut butter or aromatic pate. (Toys you can fill and refill with food treats are available from the clinic or our on-line shop.) The more powerful the food treat the more likely it will take its mind off of your leaving. Just like with us, anxiety easily escalates so try to prevent it from developing in the first place. Make sure your dog's environment is comfortable, that it has a cosy bed, food and water. For some dogs a sports or natural history channel on television diverts attention. (Some are captivated by seeing moving balls or other animals.) Leaving a TV or radio on also muffles some outdoor sounds and reduces the likelihood of frequent barking. Some dogs are more relaxed if they can see the outside world, others become more anxious. Some older dogs are more anxious when left outdoors, and do much better when they can stay in the house. Work out what’s best for your dog.
- Make your dog's day more stimulating. If you’re gone for extended periods during the day, have someone come in to let your dog out and give it some exercise. (We can put you in touch with such people.) Older pets usually need to go outside more often to urinate and defecate. You know how you feel when you need to go and there’s no toilet around. Give it the opportunity to urinate and defecate when it needs to.
- Get further specific advice from us. We may use anti-anxiety medications initially to help break the cycle of separation anxiety. Medication alone, however, won’t solve the problem. Work with us and one of our recommended dog trainers to develop a plan that will work best for all of you.