Dealing with Dog Separation Anxiety
Separation anxiety is among the most common reasons dogs wind up in shelters. But if your pit bull exhibits signs of separation anxiety, there's no reason for him to suffer such a cruelly ironic fate. While breeds that bond most closely with humans, such as the American Pit Bull Terrier, may have a slightly higher predilection for developing separation anxiety, nearly all of these cases are treatable. You just have to find the solution, or combination of solutions, that work for your dog.
Possible Causes of Separation Anxiety
In some cases, separation anxiety is precipitated by a particular event, such as the death of a beloved pack member, someone moving away on a permanent basis, being left at a shelter, or getting lost. But there are many instances where no one will ever know why a particular case of separation anxiety developed.
Solutions for Separation Anxiety
Regardless of the cause, here are a few methods you can start using right away to treat separation anxiety.
- Practice Leaving (progressive desensitization)
- Crate Training
- Increased Exercise
- Calming Remedies
- Get a second dog
Practice Leaving: Progressive DesensitizationStart by entering the room where you plan to leave your pit bull, tell her to stay, and walk out. Close the door behind you. Then immediately come back in. Don't make a big production out of coming and going, treat everything as matter of fact. Continue practicing this routine, never leaving the room for more than a few seconds at a time, until your dog no longer acts anxious when you leave or return.
Gradually increase the length of time you leave your dog alone, and how far away you go. At first, stay in the house. The next step is to try going outside into the yard. Soon, you'll have worked your way up to getting in the car and driving around the block.
Once you get past an hour or two hours, and your dog is no longer anxious, there's a good chance she'll be fine for a whole day. Before you leave your dog alone for this length of time, however, you might want to hire a pet sitter or pretend to leave while actually staying in another part of the house. This way you'll be sure of her safety before you leave her on her own for an extended period of time.
There are two important techniques you should employ as you make your absences longer.
Varying your timing is important because you don't want your dog to think each new absence will always be longer. That could cause anxiety all by itself if she starts doing the math. The more extended her time alone becomes, the more often you want to surprise her by coming back early.
- Vary your timing.
- Use cues.
Cues provide an important tool to relax your dog. You might always turn on the radio, or give him a stuffed Kong or a favorite snuggle toy, when you leave for your brief absences. In your pit bull's mind, this cue will soon become associated with the assurance of your prompt return.
At the same time, desensitize your pit bull to other cues that he associates with long isolation. Make a habit of picking up your keys or putting on your coat, and then not leaving. That will de-emphasize the stress factor associated with those behaviors.
Crate TrainingThere are four obvious advantages to crate training.
The best kind of crate to get for separation anxiety purposes is the plastic, airline approved Vari-Kennel type. A panicky pit bull might be able to dismantle a wire crate from the inside, either releasing himself or hurting himself in the process, and possibly increasing the panic factor. Plastic crates, on the other hand, are the safest place to be even during an earthquake. Your pit bull won't get out and is less likely to hurt himself in the crate than whole roaming the house in a panic.
- Your pit bull can't tear up the house in the crate.
- Your dog can't accidentally get into anything toxic in the crate.
- Dogs feel more secure in den-like environments such as crates.
- The first three benefits manifest immediately, without extended practice time.
While eliminating property damage and the risk of getting into the cleaning products are obvious short-term benefits, crates can also be great for your pit bull's long-term psychological health.
Dogs feel more secure in caves and dens, and they feel more secure in crates. Anyone who leaves their dogs' crates open can tell you that dogs voluntarily curl up in crates throughout the day and night, even when they have the run of the house. The same is sometimes true of closets, but who knows what your dog can get up to in the closet? And really, leaving your dog in the closet just seems tacky. Go with the crate. Ideally, leave your dog with a stuffed Kong toy or something similarly safe for unsupervised chewing to help pass the time while you're gone.
Obviously, being in a crate won't directly prevent barking or self-mutilation activities. However, the lowered anxiety levels in a crate may also reduce the likelihood of these behaviors. To really be confident of eliminating them, combine crate training with progressive desensitization.
Increased ExerciseAnxiety takes a lot of energy. And bored dogs are more likely to be anxious. Reduce both boredom and energy levels by greatly increasing your dog's exercise levels, and you might lessen her separation anxiety. This is especially true when the tiring, fun exercise takes place right before you leave.
It's also worth mentioning that many dog owners think their pet has separation anxiety, when in fact the dog is just restless and bored. In these instances, the symptoms of separation anxiety may be completely cured by increasing exercise levels.
Even in cases of genuine high-grade separation phobias, exercise provides an excellent, and in some cases a necessary, complement to other methods of reducing anxiety. Plus, it's good for your dog's physical health, and yours.
Calming RemediesSome dog owners have had good results adding natural calming remedies to the behavioral suggestions for combatting separation anxiety. Some things you can try:
- Homeopathic Remedies (try a combination remedy formulated to soothe the nervous system such as PetCalm or have a homeopath prepare a constitutional remedy specifically for your dog)
- Flower Essences (Bach's Rescue Remedy is the best-known flower essence for anxiety, but there are others as well)
- Herbs (try kava kava, passion flower, valerian root, skullcap, and/or chamomile)
- Essential Oils (try using a blend of German chamomile, lavender, and other calming essential oils in an aromatherapy diffuser while you're gone)
Get a Second DogMany dogs feel more comfortable as long as anyone is there with them, including another dog. If the other dog is an accepted and trusted pack member, all the better.
Do keep in mind that with pit bulls, you need to be sure you crate the dogs separately when you leave. This goes triply when introducing a new dog into a high stress situation like separation anxiety.
Also, make sure your pit bull is okay with the presence of another dog before you formally adopt. The same rules apply as with any other time you add a new dog to the household.
Extremely Severe Cases
If your dog is destroying your house and engages in self-mutilating behavior while crated, you can't wait for therapeutic techniques to kick in. Assuming you have to depart the house during this period, and exercise and calming remedies fail to curb the behavior, you may have to leave your dog with a competent and caring friend, family member, or pet sitter while you're away. You can also try a boarding kennel. But keep practicing progressive desensitization and crate training. Eventually, your dog will almost certainly come around.
What NOT to Do
Finally, here are a couple of things to avoid doing.
Never punish your dog for exhibiting signs of separation anxiety! Punishing your pit bull for being distressed when you leave is wrongheaded for many reasons, but the one that should get through to everyone is that it doesn't work. Punishment exacerbates the problem. Fear of being punished when you return gives your dog one more reason to panic when you leave.
And second, if your pit bull has a tendency to destroy property while you're away, don't point out the items you especially wish to keep safe before you leave. Your dog could misinterpret you and think these items need special attention during the chewing frenzy.
Or, because dogs, like people, tend not to be entirely rational when they are panicking, your pit bull might think something along the lines of "Aaaaaaaahhhhhhhh! They left me theyleftmetheyleftme! What do I do what do I do whatdoIdo SOFA! I remember they pointed out the sofa MUST POUNCE NOW sofasofasofa -- Wait. Where did the sofa go? What happened? What is this mess all over the floor where the sofa used to be? Oh no whatdoIdo Garbage! They pointed at the garage before they left!" And so forth.
While separation anxiety can result in injury to your dog, massive property damage and furious neighbors, even the most severe cases can usually be cured with proper training/treatment. Crate training can stop the property damage right away, and a variety of effective techniques exist that you can use to reduce your pit bull's anxiety, leaving both of you happier and (at least relatively) stress-free.