One, of many mistakes I made with Beetle was to keep him with me ALL the time. I thought I had done that with my previous Jack Russell as well, so maybe Beetle also had a genetic predisposition for Separation Anxiety. In any case, it doesn’t help dogs with that tendency to avoid training them that being left at times is ok. Once they have symptoms of Separation Anxiety, then leaving them is the worst thing you can do (it makes them more panicky) unless you go through a training process, management techniques and sometimes pharmacological help as well.
I don’t want to try to explain all the ins and outs of Separation Anxiety here (but do recommend two Whole Dog Journal articles by Pat Miller, “Canine Separation Anxiety”, and “Seven Separation Anxiety Myths”). It’s a complicated situation and the Veterinary Behaviorist I consulted was very thorough in her information gathering, including a full vet exam, blood workup, etc, before prescribing medication. She also helped me see some additional behavioral changes I could make.
I have been really pleased with the change I have seen in Beetle in the last several months. Currently, his program includes:
- a DAP diffuser
- a little doggie Prozac
- careful management both when I am home and when I need to leave him for a bit.
The management required some training as well (generally I consider management and training to be two separate options, almost always both required).
At the age of 14 +, Beetle has lost a lot of hearing and so the dog who was usually very aware of everything, now sleeps though just about everything. All the little signs that I was going out- closing the computer, going to the bathroom (yes, that was an indicator), putting on my coat and boots- he can sleep through all of them now. But if I go out without telling him, he panics when he wakes up and I’m not there. So I have to communicate that to him. The other problem with his deafness is that if I touch him while he’s sleeping, he jumps up terrified because he didn’t hear me coming. His little heart just pounds. So I have to gently and lightly jiggle his dog bed until he wakes up. Then he lifts his head and I clap my hands- it’s a visual, not an auditory cue- to tell him I’m going out. Although I didn’t intend for it to become a recall cue, it was highly reinforced by coming with me, and I soon found that any time I want to call him, if I can get in his line of sight and clap, he comes right to me. The important part is to reduce his overall anxiety by not having him worry about where I am.
When I do need to leave him, we have a ritual to let him know I am going- no sudden disappearances on my part. Many dogs react with worry when their people begin to pack a suitcase. Beetle would react the same way if I simply looked like I was going outside. In an effort to condition my parting with good things, I began leaving him with a stuffed kong as I walked out the door. The veterinary behaviorist I worked with pointed out that he was already panicked by that point and that it would be better to give it to him before I began my preparations to leave. So instead, I now hand the kongs out before I put on my coat and collect my things. It is amazing how perceptive dogs are, however. On a day that I am home, I shower at night before bed. If I take a shower during the day, he knows I am going out. Thankfully, the other techniques have worked well enough that he doesn’t need a kong that early or else he’d be a fat dog.
He still likes to keep close tabs on me- but he sleeps deeply when he sleeps, he happily accepts his kong or other treat when I offer it, and there are no signs of panic when I return (we did have a stage of lots of peeing on the floor…not “vengeance” or some other silly human construct- I need to pee a lot when I get nervous too!)
If you have a dog with separation anxiety, I highly recommend you get professional help from a certified trainer and/or a veterinarian (if your own vet does not specialize in behavior, she or he should be able to get you a referral to one who does) so that you are as educated as you can be in getting your dog the help she or he needs to improve quality of life.