Separation anxiety and the holidays

Ahhh it’s that time of year of again. We embark on multitudes of shopping trips and get up at insane hours on Black Friday to procure the best deals possible; we attend holiday parties and work parties. But your dog doesn’t have any concept of what that means or what time of year it is. And he may be very confused or upset by the sudden increase in being left alone. In other words, separation anxiety.

Separation anxiety can be seen by obvious evidence such as destructive behaviors when you come home. You may see scratch marks on the doors or windows (or blinds or curtains may be disturbed), furniture or objects (pillows, accessible food) may be chewed, or in severe cases urination or defecation in the house. Crating your dog isn’t a good idea during this time if they are distressed when you leave as they can claw at the crate, chew the bars, or otherwise feel isolated and cause themselves more harm.

Expressing anger, frustration, or displeasure at any destructive behaviors you may see when you come home is not an appropriate response. One, your dog did nothing wrong.  Your dog is exhibiting behaviors as a panic response to being separated from you. Think of the human anxiety attacks- you can’t control the irrational fear or panic that comes over you, nor the physical responses of rapid shallow breathing and heart palpitations (among others). How would you feel if someone chastised you for the way you felt, even punished you? The dog brain only understands that you came home and you are upset; therefore, you are upset with him because you came home. That is not the association you want to cement with your dog.

So what is the solution? The first and most important thing is to establish positive reactions, rewards with the routine of leaving the house. Don’t just rush out the door, but calm your dog, reward her with each step. Meaning, when you get your keys stop and calm your dog, assure her that everything is ok and don’t make a big deal out of what you are doing. Then get your coat and repeat the same thing.

If the anxiety is severe, there are activity toys that can keep your dog occupied, or leaving an article of clothing with your scent on it can comfort some dogs. A prescription from your veterinarian can also help.

Remember that this is not an obedience problem or a training problem. Your dog should not be punished for this, and getting another dog as a companion will not solve it either.

There are several resources with additional tips to help you and your pup with this issue. Please check out the Humane Society’s page as well as WebMD’s pet page. And of course, share your sources, ideas, and tips for solving your pet anxieties.

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