Dear Doctor: Separation Anxiety is Ruining the House
Q Our six-year-old Portuguese water dog has started to become very destructive when we go out, especially at night. He empties trash cans, goes into closets and tears up shoe boxes, walks over to my bedside cabinet and swipes things off, and so on. I think it is separation anxiety; I know he is not doing it out of any negative feelings towards me or my husband. I think I read in a long-ago issue of Your Dog that when you come home, you should make a fuss over your dog because it makes his endorphin levels go up and contributes to his feeling happy. We have been doing that for a long while. But our trainer has now said it is absolutely the wrong thing to do in our situation and that we should ignore him until he settles down and then give him affection. I’m confused. We want to do the right thing, but which approach is the way to go? Thanks for any guidance you can provide. By the way, other than this behavior, he is a wonderful, sweet dog and, in fact, is a therapy dog at Children’s Hospital where he is calm and loving.
Dear Ms. Betson,
A It is never wrong to greet your dog when you come home, says the Head of the Tufts Animal Behavior Clinic, Stephanie Borns-Weil, DVM. Greeting at reunions is a normal canine behavior, and it would be cruel not to let your pet know you are glad to see him. Indeed, completely ignoring your dog can serve to increase his anxiety rather than help him calm down — or teach him a lesson, Dr. Borns-Weil says.
That said, excessively enthusiastic greetings can be unhelpful for dogs with separation anxiety because it contributes to the message that life starts when you are home and ends when you are away.
For dogs in general, Dr. Borns-Weil prefers to give a cue like “Sit” in a calm voice upon returning home and then pet the dog in a quiet and calm way before letting him out to relieve himself. “Low-key greetings — and departures — are also what I recommend for dogs with separation anxiety,” she says. “It eases the transition between your presence and your absence.”
Speaking of absence, for a dog with separation anxiety, Dr. Borns-Weil and behaviorists in general recommend leaving the pet home alone with very high-value treats — perhaps in food puzzles that he has to apply himself to — so that he can learn to enjoy himself while you’re out. Some dogs with separation anxiety also feel a little calmer and safer with the television or soft classical music on. Think, “what would I appreciate if I were my dog left home alone,” and you’ll be able to come up with ideas — a bird feeder right outside his favorite window, a visit from a neighbor who slips a biscuit through a slot in the door. Such distractions will keep him from going into your closet out of anxiety and tearing through the box that contains your Jimmy Choos. There are some wonderful products on the market, such as the Furbo, that allow you to reward your dog with treats remotely with a touch of a button on your smartphone.
By the way, we want to commend you for saying how sweet-natured and loving your dog is. Too many people get caught up in their frustration, which hinders their getting at the best solutions.