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Helping Fido Enjoy His Time Alone

Dogs are social creatures. They thrive on attention, affection, and proper social structure. So it only makes sense that when you bring that furry friend into your family that it will miss you when you are away from home.

But sometimes that longing turns to destructive, obsessive behavior. So if you come home to shredded clothes, scratched up doors or furniture, there is a chance your pooch is suffering from separation anxiety. It may sound odd, but for scores of pets and pet owners, it's real, and it is frustrating.

On Thursday, The Early Show resident veterinary Debbye Turner has tips on how to ease your pup's separation anxiety.

The first thing to understand is that, in most cases, the destruction wrought at the paws of your pooch is not out of malice but panic. Scolding can make behavior worse. So it is important to take steps to educate yourself, train your pet, and practice until your pet can be left home without incident, Turner says.

It can take 20-45 minutes for your dog to start demonstrating signs of separation anxiety after you leave it alone. And article on the American Animal Hospital Association (AAHA) Web site estimates that 10-15 percent of the canine population experiences some type of separation anxiety.

Signs of separation anxiety:

  • Destructive behavior (chewing clothing/furniture, scratching door/furniture, digging)
  • Excessive barking/howling
  • House soiling
  • Loss of appetite
  • Inactivity or lethargy
  • Urination and defecation
  • Diarrhea, vomiting (in extreme cases)
  • Excessive licking/grooming

It is important to distinguish between separation anxiety and boredom.

Here are some other ways to tell if your dog has separation anxiety:

  • Destructive behaviors occur primarily when pet is left alone
  • Pet follows you from room to room
  • Dog displays exaggerated, frantic greeting behaviors
  • Dog displays excitement or anxiety as you prepare to leave
  • Dog dislikes being left outside alone

There are many reasons that some dogs suffer from separation anxiety (and others do not) which might include poor socialization as a puppy; dog is accustomed to constant human interaction; abusive or neglected history; frequent owner changes; a change in the family lifestyle/dynamic (i.e. mom goes back to work, kid leaves for college, move to a new home etc.), or a traumatic event (like a stay in a shelter or boarding kennel).

Separation anxiety requires time and great patience to address. There are many steps that pet owners can take to try to diminish or eliminate the signs of separation anxiety in their dog.

The following are Turner's suggestions:

Teach "sit and stay" commands. Then practice leaving the dog's presence for increasingly longer periods of time. Just step into the next room. Be sure to reward the dogs for waiting patiently. Then you will want to "practice leaving" by stepping outside the front door for a minute or two. Then return. When you come back, do not make a big deal of your return with an excited voice and lots of pats on the head. Just come in and go about your business. If you increase your time away to a point where your dogs starts "acting out" again, then reduce the time and work your way back up again.

This is tedious and requires your patience. But it can be effective if you stick with it. In this process, it is a good idea to develop a "safety cue" that lets the dog know that you will return, like saying, "I'll be back," or turning on a radio/T.V., or giving the dog a treat or toy.

Change your "preparing to leave" routine. If you normally grab your keys, fix your lipstick in the mirror by the door, and grab a juice box before you leave, these are all cues to your pet that you are about to leave. And this could trigger their destructive behavior. So you want to vary how you get ready to leave the house. You can try doing all these things (cues), but not leaving. This may teach you dog to not always associate these behaviors with your absence

Take the dog on an extended walk just before you leave. This is a good way to spend quality time together. And perhaps the walk will tire out the pooch and it will nap while you are away.

Give your dog a "distraction toy" like a Kong filled with food. They will spend hours trying to get the food out. Or providing a chew toy made from Nylabone-like material may be a good distraction.

Leave an old article of clothing (that you've worn before) out for your dog. Make sure that you really don't need to use this garment again. There is a good chance it will get chewed, shredded, or drenched in saliva!

Be very low-key when you first arrive home. Don't make a big deal when you first see your dog. Don't talk to her or pet her. Ignore her for a few minutes until she (the dog) calms down, then calmly pet her.

The last resort is using prescription drugs to help reduce the anxiety your dogs feels when you leave. A drug called Clomicalm has been formulated just for this issue. It is the only drug that has been approved specifically for dogs with severe separation anxiety. Other medications that are antidepressants that have also been effective are Prozac, Elavil, and Xanax.

Getting another pet doesn't always rid your dog of its anxieties. The problem is being separated from you. Another animal with which to compete for territory, food, and most importantly, your attention will not help.

Do not scold your pet when you return home. First, the animal doesn't really associate their behavior from hours ago with the scolding that you give them now. Never put your dog's nose in their "accident" and spank them. This only hurts and confuses them. Not to mention, increases their already high anxiety level.

"Crating" your pet will not cure the problem either. It might keep her from eating the draperies, but she will just may urinate, defecate, or even injure herself trying to escape the crate.

Cats do not normally exhibit signs of separation anxiety. They are nocturnal (most active at night) and solitary by nature. They generally are not bothered by being left alone all day. However, cats do need attention too, so it is not a good idea to leave your kitty for extended periods of time (more than 24 hours). You just may return home to a few unwanted "gifts" (i.e. inappropriate urination, scratched furniture, eaten plants, etc.)

Again, there are ways to help a dog who show signs of separation anxiety. It is a part of your family, so with some time and patience, you both can relax and enjoy the human-animal bond.