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What is Separation/Isolation Anxiety?

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Separation anxiety is a common pet problem that can significantly change the dynamic of the human/animal bond in a short period of time. Whether these behavioural hurdles affect this relationship in a negative or positive way is entirely dependent on how well you can work with your pooch.

This presents a frustrating and stressful environment for both pets and owners who may be inexperienced in working with anxiety-prone dogs. Even the simple act of researching anxiety issues in dogs online may potentially intensify confusion for pet owners since there exists a seemingly endless variation of both personal and professional opinions.

There are actually two main types of anxiety in dogs: separation anxiety, and isolation anxiety.

Lets break it all down...

What is Separation Anxiety?

This form of anxiety exists when a pet develops a strong dependency towards a certain person, or people. Separation from these individuals may spur any number of anxiety induced reactions, regardless of whether others are around at the time.

What is Isolation Anxiety?

Dogs suffering from isolation anxiety will generally react negatively when left completely alone as it is the stress from isolation that manifests itself in undesirable behaviour.

What Does Separation/Isolation Anxiety Look Like?

- Excessive salivation

- Barking, howling or whining

- Destructive behaviour to the home. Oftentimes, dogs will 'attack' the exit used by their owner; chewing and clawing at doors and windows.

- It is not uncommon for dogs to injure themselves trying to escape their area in a fit of panic.

- Stress induced defecation. Many dogs will also consume their own feces immediately after.

Every Dog is Different

Pet owners need to realize that every dog has a different composition. Dogs have been bred for thousands upon thousands of years for different reasons, so many breeds may have a predilection to anxiety issues.

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My best friend, Marino. A 130lb dog with anxiety is a big problem.

Herding breeds and animal guardian breeds (like my Polish Mountain Dog, Marino) have been bred over many generations to work in a one-one-one atmosphere with their shepherd and livestock. These working dogs spend 24 hours a day with their pack, so taking these breeds out of their natural working environment and isolating them goes against their whole genetic makeup.

Points of Importance Surrounding Anxiety

- The symptoms conducive to anxiety are not necessarily unique to anxiety alone. Make sure your dog does not have any underlying health problems by having him checked out by your veterinarian first.

- No matter whose advice you take, there is nothing better than working with a professional obedience trainer who specializes in positive behavioural modification. A small investment in an industry professional will significantly improve the odds you can treat your pooch.

- Since every dog is different, the effectiveness of anxiety treatments may vary considerably from one dog to another - you need to find which approach works best for yours.

- Be patient! Anxiety is not something that can be cured overnight. For many dogs, treating anxiety is a lifelong process.

- Stay positive. I know what it's like to feel frustration when an anxiety-ridden dog destroys your home, believe me. Punishing your dog will only perpetuate this behaviour - he is not acting out because he chooses to, he is scared and panic-ridden.

How to Treat Separation & Isolation Anxiety

There are many approaches to treating anxiety, so here are a few of the most common methods. Finding out which methods give you the best results is subject to experimentation and positive reinforcement.

1. Exercise

Exercise is the most valuable facet in treating a dog with anxiety. Just like active lifestyles can benefit human health, the same benefits can be had for Fido.
As a general rule, the more exercise your pooch receives, the lower his anxiety will become. Walking is not the exercise I'm talking about. If you want your pooch to be genuinely tired, you have to get his heart rate up.

2. Body Language

Dogs are impressively perceptive animals. Many dogs may display anxiety induced behaviours before you even leave the house - all by reading your body language.

Try mixing up your routines so your dog doesn't connect the anxiety dots so easily. Pick up your keys for no reason. Put on your work clothes on a Sunday morning. Don't be so predictable.

3. Emotional Redirection

It is smart to introduce a special treat that Fido only gets when he is to be left alone. To be an effective means of emotional redirection, this treat must peak his interest more than anything else in the world. Many pet owners will stuff a Kong with peanut butter, for example.

The purpose of emotional redirection is to encourage your pooch to show interest in a constructive outlet, like a peanut butter stuffed toy. This way, he will fixate less on the fact that he is alone, and instead will show excitement for the amazing reward given to him.

Emotional redirection may take some time for certain dogs to adjust to. Anxiety can induce "tunnel vision", meaning an affected dog is in such a heightened state of stress, he cannot focus on anything else except the overwhelming sensation of panic.

4. Start with Baby Steps

It is unrealistic to expect an anxiety afflicted dog to seamlessly adjust to isolation just because he has more exercise, or has a delicious treat.

Your dog has to understand that being left alone is not a negative situation. To achieve this, begin training him with small intervals of isolation. Without making a big deal about it, give Fido his special treat and step outside for a small period of time - 5 seconds? 5 minutes? You know your dog best, so use your best judgment when deciding how long he can wait before his state of mind turns to panic.

You may have to do this several times over the course of his training. Hundreds of times, perhaps. Be patient, and be consistent. Gradually work your way up to longer intervals.

Dogs suffering from anxiety will rejoice in your return, so encourage Fido to maintain a calm state of mind. It is best to devalue this celebration by not acknowledging him until he settles into calm, submissive behaviour.

Brandon Forder is a Pet Health Professional and co-owner of Canadian Pet Connection, specializing in pet nutrition, behaviour and lifestyle. Based in Oakville, Ontario, CPC is committed to providing their clients with the best advice, information and products the pet industry has to offer.
Photo Credit: photos.ibibo.com