Boredom versus Separation Anxiety

Q: Is my Jack Russell bored or is he suffering from separation anxiety?

A: Separation Anxiety is identifiable by one or more of the following: Excessive vocalization, excessive salivation, shaking, trembling, loss of interest in food if the owner is not present, urinating/defecating in the home, destruction, and in extreme cases... self mutilation

What separates a BORED dog from one who suffers from separation anxiety? The term is used frequently by people who are looking for an explanation for destructive behavior when their dog is left alone. The distinction, however, is that separation anxiety is exactly that. Anxiety. A dog that causes destruction in your home is not necessarily an anxious dog, but could very well be a bored one.

I used to dismiss terrier destruction in my home as separation anxiety until I experienced the problem severely with my Jack, Gritty. Let me tell you, there is a vast difference between what my bored dogs did when left alone in the house as compared to what little Gritty goes through when left at home alone. For example, while a bored dog might lazily chew up a rug, gnawing on it for a half hour, a dog with separation anxiety will rip things apart in a frenzy. The damage little Gritty will do to things could be best compared to what you may expect from the Warner Bros.’ Tasmanian Devil. An object will look "attacked" rather than gnawed on or casually ripped apart and chewed. If Gritty is going to unleash his anxiety on something, I won't just be coming home to an isolated mess. I'll be coming home to a virtual “blizzard” of stuffing and debris that usually encompasses more than one or two rooms.

Anxiety is also characterized by trembling, salivation and even refusal of food. A dog with serious separation anxiety will most likely not even be able to eat when the owner is not present. If I put my Gritty in a crate with food and water before I leave the house, I will return to a dog who has been banging around in his crate nearly the entire time I've been gone, with moistened food smooshed against the walls of the crate and into his fur. He won't consume a morsel of it.

Self destruction is another symptom. A dog can be so intensely stressed that he won't feel the pain he is inflicting on himself. One time I left Gritty in a crate while I went to work for a half day. I was of the mind set that I KNEW he would bang around in the crate and cause it to travel all over the house, so I wedged it between some furniture and was determined to make him work his way through this. I reasoned that in time, he'll realize that I always come home, and he'd get used to our temporary, daily partings. Unbeknownst to me, the wire grate on the side of the crate had a small, sharp edge, bent inward on the inside of the crate. When Gritty banged around in there (which should be painful in and of itself) he kept slamming his head into the bent grate. I returned to an exhausted terrier with a bloody head who was very lame from all that banging. Needless to say I was beside myself. How could I ever handle this dog who had such separation anxiety that he would cause himself such pain while I was away? As you can see, Gritty's problem went much further than boredom.

Boredom can usually be cured with exercise, or leaving a dog in a crate with a nice toy to keep him busy. He may bark at you when you leave, but eventually he'll settle down. Anxiety isn’t that simple, and I strongly recommend that anyone with an anxious dog seek professional help. The severity differs from dog to dog and not all require the same solution, but here are a few suggestions that will help with mild cases of separation anxiety.

Crate your dog safely. It is much less overwhelming and stressful for a dog to be confined to his own, safe den. An empty house can seem enormous and even frightening for a dog suffering from anxiety. Crating is also a great way to keep the dog away from items he can destroy so that when you come home you won't be angry because you have a huge mess to clean up. Plan feeding schedules so the dog won't have to defecate in the crate while you're gone! Some anxious dogs just can't hold it!

Avoid emotional hellos and goodbyes. Believe it or not, people can really worsen anxiety by putting their dog into emotional overload just before they leave and right when they come home. Our Jack Russells are so much more prone to being effected by this than the average low-key dog. Keep arrivals and departures emotionless.

Train your dog in basic obedience. Basic obedience training is so helpful in showing a dog his spot in the "pack" or family. A well trained dog is less likely to be subjected to lots of highs and lows (one minute he's a good boy, and the next minute he's driving you nuts). Those highs and lows really worsen anxiety.

Seek professional advice. Some vets will prescribe psychotropic drugs as well as behavior modification for dogs with separation anxiety. There is an EXCELLENT book by Dr. Nicholas Dodman called Dogs Behaving Badly that identifies all areas of problem behavior in dogs and some behavior modification techniques that are really great! Dr. Dodman also wrote The Dog Who Loved Too Much which is also a great resource for understanding the canine mind.

BE PATIENT AND CONSISTENT! There is nothing more important in having a healthy relationship with your dog than consistency and patience. It will take you a long way in communicating with your dog and building a strong bond of trust. Very often, anxiety is increased by a family where there is a good cop/bad cop mentality (one spouse is easy and the other is tough), so see to it that your whole family follows the same consistent rules pertaining to your dog.

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