Separation Anxiety in Shelties
Separation anxiety is an anxiety disorder that tends to affect Shetland Sheepdogs more than the average dog breed. Here's how to deal with it.
Separation anxiety is one of the most common problems that dogs develop. It's an anxiety disorder, defined as a state of intense panic brought on by the dog's separation from her owner.
In other words: when you leave for work in the morning, your dog is plunged into a state of nervous anxiety which intensifies rapidly.
All dogs are social animals. They need plenty of company and social interaction to keep them happy. No dog likes to be left alone for long stretches of time, but some dogs suffer a lot more than others.
Shelties are particularly prone to developing this problem because they are highly sensitive companion animals, and can become very nervous when they are away from their human counterparts.
What Causes Separation Anxiety?
There are a number of contributing causes to this condition:
- Some dog breeds are genetically predisposed towards anxiety and insecurity, which is something you should consider before buying a puppy, particularly if you're going to be absent for long stretches of time. The most susceptible breeds include Shetland Sheepdogs, Weimaraners, Springer Spaniels and German Shepherds.
- A large proportion of dogs from rescue shelters develop separation anxiety. Most of them have undergone significant trauma in their lives - at the very least they've been abandoned by their previous owners. And so they naturally have little faith that their new-found owner isn't going to pull the same trick.
- Dogs that are separated too early from their mothers and siblings are especially prone to separation anxiety. Puppies from pet stores are a prime example: they're usually taken from their mothers well before the earliest possible age (which is 7 weeks) and confined to a small glass box in the pet store for anywhere between a few weeks to two whole months. This early weaning, coupled with the lack of exercise and affection while in the pet store, is psychologically traumatic for a dog.
- Sadly, neglect is the number one cause of separation anxiety for dogs. If you're absent much more than you're present in your dog's life, then separation anxiety is pretty much inevitable. Your dog needs your companionship, affection, and attention in order to be happy and content.
Symptoms of Separation Anxiety
The symptoms of separation anxiety are pretty distinctive: your dog will usually learn to tell when you're about to leave (she'll hear keys jingling, or will see you putting on your outdoor clothes) and will become anxious. She may follow you from room to room, whining, trembling, and crying. Some dogs even become aggressive, in an attempt to stop their owners from leaving.
When you've left, the anxious behavior will rapidly worsen and usually peaks within half an hour. She may bark incessantly, scratch and dig at windows and doors (an attempt to escape from confinement and reunite herself with you), chew inappropriate items, even urinate and defecate inside the house. In extreme cases, she might self-mutilate by licking or chewing her skin until it's raw, pull out her fur, or engage in obsessive-compulsive behaviors like spinning and tail-chasing.
Upon your return, she'll be excessively excited, and will leap around you in a frenzy of delight for a protracted period of time (way more than the 30-60 seconds of a happy, well-balanced dog.) This extended greeting is a source of some misunderstanding: without realizing that it signifies separation anxiety, some owners actually encourage their dog to get more and more worked up upon their return. They do this by fueling the dog's excitement, encouraging her to leap around, and paying her protracted attention.
While this is very fun for you, it's doing even more damage to a dog suffering from separation anxiety. You're just validating her belief that your return is the high point of the day. So she's as happy as Larry when you return - but when it's time for you to leave again, her even greater happiness is under threat, and so she gets even more anxious when you walk out the door.
How to Deal with Separation Anxiety
Fortunately, there are things you can do to minimize your dog's separation anxiety.
- Exercise the heck out of her. Really wear her out: the longer you expect to be away, the more exercise she should get before you leave. For example, if you're leaving for work in the morning, she'll probably be by herself for at least four hours; and, if you've got a dog-walker to take her out mid-day instead of coming back yourself, she won't see you - the person she really cares about - for at least nine hours. So she needs a good, vigorous walk (20 minutes is the absolute minimum) before you walk out that door. More is obviously better.
- Distract her from her boredom, loneliness and anxiety by giving her an attractive alternative to pining, pacing and whining. All dogs love to chew - so get a couple of marrowbones from the butcher, bake them in the oven for 20 minutes (so they go nice and hard and crunchy and she can't smear marrow all over your furniture), slice them up into chunks of a few inches long, and give her one about 15 minutes before you leave. It'll keep her happy and occupied, and distract her from your departure.
- When you leave, put the radio on to a soothing station: classical music is ideal, but any station featuring lots of talk shows is also ideal. Keep the volume quite low, and it'll calm her down a bit and give her the feeling that she's got company.
- If at all possible, supply her with a view: if she can see the world going by, that's the next best thing to being out and about in it.
- Acclimatize her to your leaving. Taking things nice and slowly, practice getting ready to go: jingle your keys about, put on your coat, and open the door. Then - without leaving - sit back down and don't go anywhere. Do this until she's not reacting any more. When there's no reaction, give her a treat and lavish praise for being so brave. Next, practice actually walking out the door (and returning immediately), again doing this until there's no reaction. Gradually work up until you're able to leave the house with no signs of stress from her at all.
- Act overtly sympathetic when she's crying. Although it sounds very cold-hearted, trying to soothe and comfort your dog by patting her and cooing over her is actually one of the worst things you can do: it's essentially validating her concern. Make sure she can't tell that you feel sorry for her: never say, "good girl" when she's upset!
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