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How to Treat Dog Separation Anxiety

Does your dog go crazy when you leave the house? Whether that manifests itself in destructive behavior or just general anxiety, the solution remains the same. Here, Wes Siler goes over how to modify their (and your) behavior with Joe Spoo, the Gun Dog Doc

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Video Transcript

WES SILER: So one of the problems I have with my dogs that I'm hoping you as a veterinarian can help me address is separation anxiety. I literally cannot leave my dogs alone because I think they're going to miss out on all the fun. 

JOE SPOO: Right. 

WES SILER: You know, and I think that I just have never really known how to build that in because I'm not there. 

JOE SPOO: Right, and I would say it's a very common problem. 

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WES SILER: So a dog is literally a symbiote. They exist to live with us. How do you create a situation where that dog's happy and confident if you're not there? 

JOE SPOO: Yeah, I think-- so probably the most common problem we deal with in veterinary medicine from a behavior standpoint is this separation anxiety issue, and it's for that very reason, right? So much of these issues are created because we have these dogs in our life because we want them in our life, and it seems like the more active we are with them, the tighter that relationship gets, right? 

So I take my dogs to work every day, your dogs are out doing the things you love to do outside, and they're never away from us. And so then we create this they don't know how to live independently. And so it becomes both, with a young dog and then if we have an older dog, that we can't leave them in the vehicle because they're going to tear it apart. What do we do to kind of unwind some of that and give that dog some confidence? 

And I think the big thing-- so many of us, when we go to leave a dog, what do we do? We tell them goodbye and how much we love them and make a big deal of it. 

WES SILER: Yeah, we fuss over them. 

JOE SPOO: Yes, and then in that dog's mind, they don't rationalize that you're going to come back. They just know you're worked up about something, and now you're no longer there, and so we basically set the stage for that dog to be anxious. And then when we come home, what do we do? Oh, I'm so happy to see you, buddy, and do the exact same thing, and so those departures and returns are hugely emotional events for these dogs. 

And so the big thing-- and I ran into this problem with my own dogs years ago. I had two dogs that had never been apart, and I did that. I loved my dog when I left her, loved her when I came home. And one day, one of the dogs was sick. I took that dog to the vet clinic, and I came home, and my house was destroyed. And I thought, I do exactly what I tell clients not to do. And so I had to step back. 

WES SILER: So you literally just walk out the door and go do whatever you do. It's not, goodbye, goodbye, love you, big hug. 

JOE SPOO: It used to be that. 

WES SILER: Dramatic walk away. 

JOE SPOO: Yeah, or we give them a special treat, right? 

WES SILER: Yeah. 

JOE SPOO: Here's your special treat because I'm leaving you, and we treat this anxious situation because now the center of their life was super worked up, and then you leave. And so it sounds cold. And most of the behavior problems, we create out of love, right? It's not a malicious act. It's not that we're ignoring the dog. It's that we think we're giving them so much love and attention, and it creates an anxious situation. 

WES SILER: We're sort of projecting our own needs and our own emotions. 

JOE SPOO: Exactly. 

WES SILER: Well, I missed my dog, so I want to fuss over him when I get home. But you're literally saying, just come home, walk in the door, put your bag down, open a beer, sit down, and when the dog eventually calms down, sits down next to you and is calm, then you reward the good behavior. 

JOE SPOO: Exactly, exactly. 

WES SILER: Yeah, yeah. And it's just a system you repeat every time. 

JOE SPOO: Correct. 

WES SILER: And it gets a little bit better every time. 

JOE SPOO: And that's the hope. 

WES SILER: OK. 

JOE SPOO: And the other mistake people make-- I'm big on crates. So with puppies, I use crates and things like that. 

WES SILER: Yeah. 

JOE SPOO: The one thing I would caution is that sometimes a dog that's anxious and we haven't been using a crate is that we can actually create a problem by then putting them in a crate. So we take a dog where we're trying to deal with anxiety issues, decreasing destruction in our house, and then we throw them in a box, and that's-- 

WES SILER: An unfamiliar environment. 

JOE SPOO: Unfamiliar, exactly-- versus if we would have used that crate from the beginning, we can then use that crate in these situations. But don't take a dog-- because you came home and your couch was destroyed, don't, the next time you leave, think putting that dog in the crate is going to solve your problems because now you have a highly anxious situation that you're leaving, and you're punishing the dog. And so the big thing I say is, how much damage have I inadvertently caused, and how am I going to unwind that, versus am I going to add to it and create more problems for that dog? 

WES SILER: Right. What's the timeline to see change? Is this something that if I do this every day for a week and don't fuss over my dogs, are they going to be better in a week or a month or a year? Like, how-- 

JOE SPOO: It's really variable between the dog. And so there's some dogs, if you catch it early, that I think you can, within a week or two-week period, start seeing some change. The big thing I'd caution is that there's probably going to be some setbacks too, and so the delivery man came and worked him up, and you don't know that because you were gone. And so then you have to unwind, why was there this setback? 

And then you have other neurotic dogs or a dog that you rescued that you don't know what its background is. That dog may take some significant time investment in trying to get to the base of the problem. 

The big thing, too, in the society we live in, we all want a quick fix or drugs to fix problems, and there are medications that do help with anxiety issues. But really, at the end of the day, I won't even prescribe them unless I have an owner that's willing to invest the training side of it and doing some of these uncoupling things, because without that part of it, all the drugs in the world aren't going to fix those problems. 

WES SILER: Right. Well, I'm going to try to be less loving of you, Wiley, wherever you've gone. Yeah. He doesn't mind leaving me. I just mind leaving him. 

JOE SPOO: Exactly. 

WES SILER: Yeah. 

JOE SPOO: Exactly. 

WES SILER: Cool. Thank you. 

JOE SPOO: You bet. Thank you. 

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