Get your dog ready for school!

After months of games and day-long summertime fun, how’s your dog going to react when the kids are back at school? If he’s going to be left alone for the first time in September, your pooch needs a crash course in handling solitude. Don’t wait for the first day of school.

Many dogs are affected by separation anxiety to varying degrees. They crave the company of their human families and get distressed when left alone. Obviously this is a particular problem for puppies who have never been by themselves, but even older dogs can be affected if routines change suddenly.

The internet abounds with tales of dazed canines found surrounded by the debris of ruined furniture and chewed cages, after the dogs went berserk because their people left. A client once showed me photos of her brand new SUV after she left her dog alone in it for 10 minutes. He had destroyed the interior along with several teeth.

Property damage and self-injury are only side-effects of the problem. It’s heart-breaking to see these dogs lose their minds, barking and drooling for hours from the stress of being left alone.

If the condition takes root, you may need professional help from a veterinarian or behaviourist. The worst cases need medication, sometimes for life. Prevention can be a lot easier to manage.

With several weeks left until school starts up, there’s at least some time to practice short absences. Don’t make a big fuss about leaving, but give your dog a favourite chew toy or treat before going out. Gradually increase the time away. Don’t make a fuss when you return either. Try to ignore the dog, especially if he’s worked up. Greet him only when he is calm.
If you haven’t already done so, crate-train your dog. Properly managed, crates are not prisons. They are not inherently cruel or evil no matter what your dog-whispering neighbour says, but training is vital. There’s all kinds of information out there on how to teach your dog to love a crate. One of my pooches seeks his out when he’s scared or just tired and he’s the one with separation problems.

Signs of separation anxiety include property destruction, house-soiling, excessive drooling and barking. Frantic greetings when you return should raise alarms even if all else seems fine. Sometimes you’ll need to make a video recording to know for sure if there’s a problem. It is not humane to ignore this condition or just try to confine the damage to a cage. Dogs with separation anxiety suffer every time you leave them alone.

A little time spent now to help your dog adjust to next month’s schedule could prevent a sad and expensive problem.
For more information, go to Veterinary Partner and search for “separation anxiety”.

Dr. Fiona Gilchrist
Hillcrest Animal Hospital — August 2012