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Ask A Vet: Our New Dog Suffers from Separation Anxiety, What Do I Do?

Bad Dog

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: Not too long ago we adopted a dog from a rescue organization. When we leave, he barks and destroys our home. We think he suffers from separation anxiety. He also plays rough with other dogs at the park, especially when he has not been out for a while. We feel trapped in our home and are never able to leave without our dog. We need a vacation!

A: I certainly understand the need for a “vacation.” Being held hostage by the threat of a destroyed house was likely not what you had in mind when you adopted your dog. But there is light at the end of the tunnel. And let me say thank you for reaching out to find a solution rather than giving up on your dog and surrendering him to a shelter. Your patience will pay off.
 
There are a few good trainers in this area who specialize in working with the pet and the owner to improve the dog’s confidence level to the point of being able to leaving him home alone for longer periods of time. Choose a trainer who uses reward-based training and has experience with similar problems. Preferably, you'll want to work with him in your home. A trainer can show you how to set up a safe environment and work on creating the proper confinement area. A crate is not always a good solution, especially when dogs become anxious when confined and alone. A good trainer will also be able to find the right environmental enrichment based on your dog's needs and the situation in your home. The trainer can design specific independence exercises to keep your dog relaxed when you are not present. These are the key exercises to success.
 
If you need references for these behavior-specific trainers, feel free to give us a call at 415-554-3000. We have a large roster of behavior and training experts all over the Bay Area. The SF SPCA offers specialty classes such as “Focus” and “Independence” classes, but it sounds like you could benefit from in-home training. Some cases need additional support and medications from your veterinarian, especially if your dog panics and hurts himself when left alone. You should talk to your veterinarian if this is the case.
 
I want to urge you to be VERY cautious about boot camps for several reasons:
 
1. Separation/isolation related behavior problems and anxiety can only be managed and cured in your home. If you put your dog in a different situation with different people, the behavior problems can be quite different. In addition, it might also add even more stress to his situation. Any change in routine or re-homing situations (your just recently rescued dog will not know he is there for training purposes only, he might think this is yet another home)  are usually reasons for any progress to halt.
 
2. Most of those trainers who offer those type of training solutions use confrontational and punishment based techniques – their emphasis is to ‘fix’ your dog in the time being at the camp. Personally, I would never send my dog away and trust them to solve such problems. Keep in mind that it is not primarily a training problem that you are facing with your dog. He needs to learn how human social interactions work. You will have to be the ones teaching him what you expect from him in your household. Sending your dog away for solving behavior problems – although it sounds terrific, rarely produces the effects clients are hoping for.
 
3. The only reason for considering a “camp” situation would be to allow your dog to have GOOD quality doggy time (appropriate dog play and socialization time) – it might be worth while to find a day care or dog walking situation with a solid dog group, where you can introduce your dog to the group gradually and have a savvy handler supervising him closely. BUT, again, if a punishment-based approach is used, he may become more anxious and possibly more aggressive.
 
Unfortunately, I am not aware of any boot camp that has been able to produce good results for behavior problems like the ones you are facing with your dog, but I’ve seen excellent results from in-home positive reinforcement training work. Give it a try –you and your dog will be glad that you did.