Once upon a time, Greenville resident Harold Moore had two dogs. Their names were Lexi and Super Jack. Both were dachshunds, and both were well-behaved and mild-mannered – until one day Moore went to take Lexi to the vet and Super Jack pitched a fit. Because this had never happened before, Moore naturally wondered what was wrong – especially since Jack went back to his normal self right after.
But when it was time for Lexi’s next visit to the vet, Jack pitched another fit, changing from his normally friendly and retiring nature into a bothered creature.
“The change in Jack only happened on these visits,” Moore said. “Except for them, he was always OK with me leaving him alone for short or even long periods of time.”
Moore’s experience with his dog was a form of what psychologists call separation anxiety, which is usually associated with young children but also found in domestic animals that become vocal, destructive and even house-soiling when they sense they are going to be separated from their owners.
Whether it happens all the time with your dogs or only on occasion as with Harold Moore’s, the sudden fear of being ownerless can affect both your dog’s long-term health and life expectancy.
“Separation anxiety in dogs is similar to a human panic attack,” said Dr. Matthew Patrick, owner of the Patrick Veterinary Clinic in Charleston. “Thankfully, the majority of dogs do not suffer from it. But for those that do, the issue can be a compounding problem that worsens through time if not addressed in some fashion.”
For example, since a dog’s immediate instinct is to reunite with a departed owner, it may resort to a number of emotional actions that include:
- Urinating and defecating – Owners sometimes return to find soilings in bedrooms, kitchens or other parts of the house. If the dog’s anxiety is extreme, it might even eat the excrement.
- Persistent barking and howling – This kind of vocal objection can go on for hours or even an entire day or night.
- Chewing and digging – Similar to human fidgeting, a dog might damage door frames, window sills, household objects and even itself, with resulting injuries such as broken teeth, cut and scraped paws and damaged nails.
- Escaping – As one of the more common instincts, a dog with separation anxiety will often risk its own peril to escape being alone.
“Typically, the suffering dog will seek to escape their location in an attempt to find their guardian,” Dr. Patrick said. “This can lead to the destruction of the enclosure or house or injury to the dog.”
Dr. Joy Bennett, family counselor and licensed independent social worker in Greenville, added that some of the same separation anxiety in dogs is common in people, especially young children.
“Kids begin to realize at 7 to 9 months that they’re really attached to a parent and dependent upon them,” she said. “And sometimes when the parent steps away, the child doesn’t know where they’re going or when they’ll be back.”
Fortunately, there are things you can do to prevent or substantially curtail this kind of anxiety in your dog. VCA Animal Hospitals, a national network of hospitals with 29 pet cancer centers and more than 60 oncologists, recommends the following:
- Establish a predictable daily routine to make your dog calmer.
- Initiate regular interactive sessions so that when each session is over, your dog is prepared to settle down and relax.
- Establish a predictable protocol of training and rewards so the desired behavior you want in your dog can be learned and reinforced.
- Develop an area for relaxation, such as a basket, mat or small enclosed area.
- Work on responses to simple commands.
And, as in the case of Harold Moore, it doesn’t hurt to reinforce as much as possible on your own the idea that your “going away” is only temporary.
“Jack knows I’m not going to walk off and abandon him,” Moore said. “So I guess you could say that he uses that time to be alone in a good way.”
By L. C. Leach III