All of us have seen TV commercials advertising dog foods where a dog is waiting patiently for their human to come home. Sometimes the dogs are sitting by a window looking longingly for any sign of their owners. Sometimes the dogs are lying by the front door with sad, expectant eyes ready to jump up at any sound of footsteps. Still other commercials show dogs running out to their humans, jumping up on them as soon as the car door opens. The message the advertisers are trying to send us is that if we truly love our dogs who wait so patiently for us to come home, we will feed them a certain brand of dog food… their brand.
What the producers of these commercials do know about dogs is that they love to be with us. Staying home by themselves is not something they look forward to doing. For some dogs, staying alone is a little more challenging and painful than it is for others. We call it separation anxiety. There is nothing more disconcerting after a long day at work than opening the front door and seeing the stuffing from your brand new sofa scattered on the kitchen floor and the bottom of your grandmother’s 100-year-old buffet all chewed up. While screaming is the first thing that comes to mind, it might not be the best thing for your panic-stricken dog.
I have been asked to talk to dogs who have a hard time with separation anxiety when left home alone. The first thing I tell the owners of these dogs is that it’s easy to get angry with your dog, especially after picking up the pieces of a day’s destruction. But it’s important to remember that it’s not your dog’s fault… he did not destroy your property on purpose to get back at you for leaving him alone or to show you up. He destroyed your property because he didn’t know what else to do with the scary, worried feelings deeply churning inside his head. His anxieties had to have an outlet; and since dogs don’t usually have trouble with ulcers from holding in all of their emotions, these anxieties have to come out somewhere. Dogs express emotions, and sometimes those expressions take the form of destructive behaviors.
In talking with a dog – I’ll call him “George” – who has a problem with separation anxiety, I first tell George how much his people love him and want him around. It’s important to acknowledge and highlight the bond between George and his owners before we talk about a scary subject like being left home alone. When I do ask George about his being left behind when mom and dad leave the house, I can feel and see what it’s like for him to be all by himself… sheer terror. George runs from window to window, door to door, looking for any sign that his people are still home. When he realizes they’ve really gone, his panic rises and he starts to whine and cry. This soon leads to grabbing the first thing he sees with his mouth – like the sofa cushions – he pulls and shakes them. This sort of behavior helps George to relieve a little of the anxiety he’s feeling but not enough to stop him from continuing his destructive path. And so it goes until George’s people return to find their beautiful possessions in shreds. My job during this conversation is to ask George about his anxieties and to try to find out why it bothers him so much to be left alone. Sometimes the reasons George is the way he is can be very straight-forward. Most of the time the reasons are so intricate and deeply -seeded that trying to untangle them is not really feasible. The bottom line is that George is the way he is because he is… and that’s where we start.
So I talk to George about his scary feelings and try to reassure him that his people will be coming home to him at some point. He just needs to wait. He is safe in the house, nothing will hurt him. It’s also important for George to turn his energies into a positive time alone rather then a destructive one… and that entails having a job. I stress to George that his people are depending on him to keep the house safe while they’re gone. So his very important job is to wait patiently and calmly and watch… if George is working at a job, he won’t be tearing the house apart. He’ll be too busy concentrating on his all-important work.
Will George’s separation anxieties end now that I’ve talked to George about them and given him a job? Will his humans now be able to open up that front door at night without being afraid of what they might find? The answer is “maybe.” My conversation with George was just a beginning. George’s people need to also talk with him and tell him how much they are depending on him to be on guard when he’s home alone. Reinforcement and time is the key here. The more confident and safe George feels, the greater the chance he will actually do as he’s asked. His people can also get some help for him – maybe with a behaviorist or a trainer. If none of this works, George’s humans might do better having George go to a daycare center with other dogs instead of being home by himself while they’re at work. There are any number of things to try with George. The important thing is to start helping him.
While I’d like to believe that all dogs either look out their windows, lie by their doors or sit in their kennels patiently waiting for their humans to come home – just like in those dog food commercials – I know better. Many dogs suffer from agonizing and emotionally-painful separation anxieties. Since we help our dogs with their food and shelter needs and their veterinary care, it just makes sense that we help them with their mental health issues as well. We’ll have happier dogs and fewer surprises when we open the front door at night.