Q. My dog becomes very anxious every time I leave him alone at home. I think he suffers from separation anxiety. Please give me advice on how to best deal with the situation, as I need to go to work every weekday and cannot take him along.
A. Coming back home after a long day’s work to a house/garden that has been destroyed by your dog is soul destroying and costly, and very often the dog is punished for this behaviour. However, it may be a sign that your dog is unable to cope with the situation.
There are different causes of separation-related problems, but not all of them are anxiety based. A typical sign of a separation problem is when you go out and you come home to find some kind of destruction to your home/garden. For example, if your dog is left outside, you may find that your dog has chewed the sprinkler system, dug huge craters in your garden or pulled the washing off the line. Inside, the house cushions may have been pulled off the couch and destroyed, along with your dog’s bed. The dog may cause damage to cupboards, window frames or doors, trying to get into the house. Your dog might also want to try to escape the property by chewing on a gate or trying to dig his way out of the property. Your neighbour may complain of continual barking. This behaviour may occur every time you go out or it may occur when there is a particular type of incident, for example thunder or the noonday gun going off. It also may occur at a particular time of day, like early in the morning if the dogs have slept outside all night.
Many dogs destroy things if left outside in the garden/in the house for long periods of time with little to occupy themselves. Bored dogs will find doggy things to do, such as digging large holes, pulling the washing off the line, pulling up the sprinkler system and barking. Destructive, bored dogs will require more mental and physical stimulation and you can try to provide this on a daily basis by giving them (at least) a daily walk, and leaving them with interactive dog toys to stimulate them and chew toys to relieve their boredom. When you get back from work, you may need to walk your dog again, especially if he is a particularly busy dog. You may want to consider hiring a dog walker to walk the dogs during the day if you have long working hours.
Dogs usually feels safer when left inside the house and you can try to leave them in a room with plenty of toys to occupy themselves (but where there is little to destroy) to see if they cope better under those circumstances. This may be enough to help them settle.
Many owners feel that their dogs have destroyed stuff out of spite, as they look guilty when their owners come back. The ‘guilty look’ (appeasement gesture) is usually as a result of the owners administering some kind of punishment, and the owners interpret the dog’s appeasement (not wanting to fight with the owner) as guilt. While punishing the dog might make the owner feel better, it may make the separation problem worse.
Gillian Pirow, Canine Behaviour and Training Consultant
Q. The breeder of our new Labrador puppy advised us to make sure he does not run up and down stairs for the first eight months to a year. Is this a valid warning and if so, why? Also, what other kinds of exercise should we limit until he is older?
A. It is believed that episodes of recurring trauma to joints can contribute to the development of joint diseases such as elbow dysplasia and hip dysplasia. It would seem prudent to avoid excessive exercise during development of the skeleton of young, large breed dogs. I especially like to avoid or minimise exercise that may result in high impact concussive forces being placed on the joints. Avoiding flights of stairs or running on artificial surfaces such as tarmac would therefore seem sensible. Other important factors in the development of joint diseases are nutrition and genetics. It is important that these puppies are fed a good quality, correctly balanced diet in the correct quantity, as over nutrition has been shown to increase the risk of joint disease. Also, careful selection of animals in breeding programmes is vital for the long term prevention of these often severely debilitating illnesses.
Dr Tim Hepplestone, Bluehills