Does this scenario sound familiar? You leave your home and return several hours later
to find it destroyed by your pet. Furniture is knocked over, contents of closets are pulled out onto the floor, wood-work and linoleum are chewed, doors bear scratch marks, garbage cans are knocked over – their contents strewn throughout the house. To add insult to injury, carpets, floors, bedding and upholstery are soiled by your usually perfectly housebroken pet. What’s worse is that upon your return your pet greets you with wagging tail and yelps of happiness celebrating your arrival – as if nothing happened in your absence. You’re convinced that you’re living with Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde! Why would a pet so happy to see you be so spiteful in your absence?
What owners fail to understand is that Fido’ s bad behavior is not intentional, he simply cannot help himself. A pet’s phobia of being left alone, of seeing his owners leave, is psychologically overwhelming. What owners perceive as spite work, getting even with them every time they leave him alone, is really a behavioral disorder – a fear so great that it takes over his body, mind and actions. Dogs can be overcome by a fear for which they have no means of coping, other than to be filled with terror. The resulting damage is only an offshoot of their terror and not the problem itself. No matter how much correction such afflicted pets receive for the damage they cause, they will behave in the identical manner each time they are left alone because you’re not getting to the real root of the problem, a disorder I term “separation anxiety. ”
Separation anxiety is the inability to cope when loved ones leave and most often occurs when the pet realizes it is alone. Since the pet’s frantic search for its human companions often results in some damage, or the stress to its bodily functions often creates house soiling accidents, owners almost invariably attribute the effects of separation anxiety to spite work. But I assure you that they really do not stay up late at night thinking of ways to get even with you! Although most trouble a pet gets into occurs when it is left alone, it usually has a lot more to do with boredom, loneliness, and in many cases separation anxiety.
Separation anxiety can occur anytime with any pet, but there are red flags that come with certain situations. Pets that have had more than one home are often afraid that when their owners leave they may never return. After all, this already happened to them before. This situation is hard enough on the average pet that is transferred from one loving home to another, but is further aggravated when the pet was uprooted
from a home, brought to an animal shelter where he spent time in a cage, then adopted and brought into yet another home. Of course, this pet would suffer from insecurity, no matter where he gets settled, no matter to whom he grows attached.
No wonder he’s so terrified of not seeing his owners again!
Separation anxiety may also strike at the end of summer vacations when the kids aren’t home anymore and owners with teaching jobs, or other jobs with summers off, go back to work. Pets that have become accustomed to having the family around suddenly find themselves alone. Pets that live in homes where some member of
the family is generally around also find it difficult to adjust when these same family members decide to return to the work force or the kids go off to college. The effect is the same, loved ones are gone and a certain sense of loss sets in.
There are still other cases in which a once well adjusted pet suddenly suffers great difficulty when left alone. In these cases, separation anxiety may have been caused by reasons never to be determined. It could be something as irritating as the constant ringing of an unanswered phone or some negative experience that took place when the pet was alone. For instance, a pet who is already fearful of
thunderstorms may suffer through a really bad storm alone. As a result, he may associate the negative experience of the storm with the idea of being alone, thereby creating a fear of being by himself.
Symptoms of separation anxiety may range dramatically in the way in which they’re
expressed by the pet. He may run frantically from room to room, damage his owner’s personal belongings and lose control of his elimination functions. In his desperation to get out and find his loved ones, he may chew through venetian blinds, dig holes through walls or leap through glass windows. Other pets exhibit their stress more quietly, not eating or drinking, and may be found cowering in the corner or hiding
under the bed. Some pets will even go so far as self mutilation, because of their nervousness they lick and chew on themselves until their skin is raw and bloodied.
Whether the symptoms are severe, merely create a nuisance for you, or simply create
nervous anxiety for the pet, it’s important to understand that the real problem stems from insecurities and lack of confidence. Once you understand that this is not spite, the best approach to dealing with separation anxiety is prevention – never letting it begin in the first place. However, in most cases this is a pre-existing phobia. Take heart – separation anxiety attacks can always be helped and the symptoms alleviated if you embark on a gradual program of desensitization.
As both a preventative and corrective step, every new pet or pet already suffering from separation stress, should receive a lot of ex-posure to new and different environments and large amounts of time socializing with strangers. In today’s busy society, many pet owners do not make the time to develop their pets’ confidence
by exposing them to the sights and sounds of the real world. Pets that live out their lives in the same house and yard, never having the op- portunity to adjust to the stress of different environments and acquire the social skills of meeting new people, tend to be the very same pets that develop a wide range of psychological problems, including separation anxiety. These pets are only secure in their protected world and
have difficulty coping with anything that upsets that balance, including being left alone. Coddled and isolated, they have never developed any sense of independence. Pets should be taken on walks to different neighborhoods, visits to friends and relatives, to shopping areas allowing pets, and to busy intersections where they have the opportunity to adjust to the sounds of the real world.
Create a very pleasant home environment, with a special emphasis on wonderful things that occur only when your pet is left alone. Leave a radio on a talk station to help comfort the pet and to help drown out disturbing noises from the outside world. In some severe cases owners may even tape record their own conversations and
play them back for the pet when they leave the house. For some pets, this is just the extra soothing factor they may need, but other pets may become more frantic in their search for their beloved human family. (You’ll need to gauge your pet’s reaction.) Very special items should be left for him when it’s time to leave the house. Favorite toys and treats should be placed around your home. The idea is to have your pet begin to associate pleasant things with your departure.
An exercise program is extremely important in assisting your pet in dealing with stress. Exercise is a known stress reducer and, as with human beings, pets may fare remarkably better when exercise is included in their daily routine, particularly when done an hour or two before you leave your home. Remember, a tired pet is
more likely to sleep and is less likely to be destructive.
When all of the above steps are in place, begin a gradual weaning program. Go from
room to room, standing outside a closed door and talking to your pet through the door. Begin the procedure for a few seconds only, then open the door and lavish great praise on him. Continue the procedure and slowly increase the period of time he is in the other room and the distance away from the door, until he is in the opposite end of the home. As he adjusts to this step, expand the desensitization program by standing outside the front or back door, again talking to him the entire time. Again, gradually increase the time and the distance from the door as he adjusts. Then it’s time to leave your home entirely, for a minute only, returning with plenty of hugs and kisses and praise. Expand this program a few minutes at a time until he is secure in being left behind.
Working families may not have the luxury of embarking on such a gradual training program since it may be necessary to leave their pet for eight and ten hour work days. They can, however, implement the remainder of this desensitization program and should begin leaving the house and returning a half dozen times before leaving for work in the morning. It may mean setting the alarm earlier than usual for awhile but the results will be well worth it.
As with any family member, our pets are subject to developing psychological problems.
They deserve to be treated with respect and every effort should be made to help them through their troubled times. We brought them into our human environment and must stand by them when their inability to cope surfaces. By carefully following the steps above with patience and understanding, you’ll ease their suffering and be able to come home to your home intact.