Beyond Separation Anxiety: Part 1, Boredom

     In the United States approximately 20% of dogs suffer from separation anxiety. This is a behavior problem in which dogs shows signs of stress when the owner or favorite person is NOT present. Signs of stress can include panting, pacing, salivating, destruction (especially of the door the owner exited through), urination/defecation, vocalization (barking, whining), and sometimes even escape in which they may injure themselves.
     The one key diagnostic tool to make a diagnosis of separation anxiety is videotaping the dog home alone, as long as it is safe to do so. With the development of technology videotaping is easier than ever and if you do not have a phone/camera that records video or a video camera chances are you know someone that does. You can even set up a live webcam so that you can video tape and return before the dog destroys anything or injures themselves.
    Usually the behaviors associated with separation anxiety begin within the first 10 minutes of the owner leaving the house, so only 15 minutes or so of videotaping is usually necessary. During this series of blogs we will discuss different causes of behaviors associated with the signs of separation anxiety. Many of the root causes of these behaviors are not at all associated with anxiety and require very different treatment plans from that of anxiety. That is why correct diagnosis is essential.
    One cause for this already discussed in a previous blog is aggression. Dogs with territorial aggression vocalize in response to their triggers (people, dogs) passing by and approaching the house. They may even become destructive, chewing and scratching door frames or window sills during the aggressive episodes. Please see blog on my aggression for more detail.

    We will start in this article by discussing boredom or play/exploratory behavior as a cause of destruction when home alone. I commonly think of these causes when dogs younger than 1 year of age present to me for separation anxiety. On video tape these dogs are calm, but destructive (usually not to the door the owner exited through). These dogs should be left in “dog-proofed” areas where they cannot get to items to destroy. In these cases we also need to increase enrichment, and mental stimulation is just as important as physical stimulation. Ways to accomplish this when the owners are gone include taking the dog to doggie daycare (I recommend interviewing first before enrolling your dog), hiring a dog walker, and leaving the dog home with long lasting treats that he/she can safely eat (bully sticks, food dispensing toys, frozen peanut butter Kongs, everlasting treat balls). Long lasting treats and toys can be rotated so that they retain the dog’s interest. Make sure to try the treats/ toys when you are home initially to make sure your dog consumes them in a safe manner. For recipes to make the Kong more enticing visit the website: http://www.kongcompany.com/recipes/. When the owner is home engaging the dog in positive reinforcement training, agility or other fun class (see the website: http://www.clickertraining.com/), walks, and using a bike springer to attach the dog’s leash to your bike (see the website: http://www.springeramerica.com/) should help to tire the dog out so that destructive behaviors are less likely to be performed when left alone.

How do you enrich your dog’s life? Leave me a comment with your great ideas!

Meredith Stepita, DVM, DACVB (Veterinary Behaviorist)