Welcome to our weekly 'Ask a Vet from the SF SPCA' feature on 7x7.com. Dr. Jeannine Berger, DVM, DACVB is a board certified veterinary behaviorist who counsels guardians whose pets’ issues are beyond the scope of training. Think of her as a pet shrink…at your service. Ask your own questions in the comments!
Q: My eight-year-old dog is starting to destroy things in my home when left alone. He's urinated a few times inside. He chews on the bed frame and scratches the door frames. I had him checked out, and he is completely healthy. I take him to work with me when I can, but there are some days when I have to leave him alone. What should I do?
A: Older dogs can develop separation related behavior problems for many reasons. Good job for taking your dog to the vet first and checking him out for any medical reasons that could be the cause of this behavior. Next, you want to video tape your dog when left alone. Nanny-cam! Since you can identify that soiling in the house is a behavior triggered by stressful events like the Fourth of July, it would indicate that that's his response to stress. So, it would seem that the constant soiling is related to stress as well – specifically, separation anxiety. But a video will help you understand your dog’s behavior around the time the incidents happen–things like pacing, barking, and body language. A skilled person can help you review the tapes and determine the motivation. He could also be reacting to noises outside, rats in the wall or lack of mental stimulation.
I am glad your dog can go to work with you – it is important to not leave him alone until you can address his problem – otherwise he might get more and more anxious or even hurt himself in the process.
You might want to start working on some exercises to teach your dog to be more independent at home. Make sure he has a safe place like a dog bed or a mat. Teach him to be relaxed when laying on his mat. In addition I would also teach him the benefit of a feed-dispensing chew toy such as a stuffed Kong. Fill it with some really yummy stuff and he can have that on his mat.
In addition I recommend you use the DAP (dog appeasing pheromone) diffuser - a pheromone that allows your dog to relax in the home when left alone. Leave classical music on when you leave to not only help him relax, but to tune out any outside noises. In some cases where the dog is truly panicked when left alone, the dog might need anti-anxiety medications. There are also what we call "event drugs," available for events such as Fourth of July or the storm season.
Good luck and thank you for taking the time and effort to figure out what’s happening to trigger this behavior. Feel free to call us if you want more detailed advice from a behavior specialist.