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Mar 2011

Separation Anxiety


In most modern day households both parents work and therefore spend a great deal of the day away from home. This is not only very hard on human children living in the home, but extremely stressful for the dog as well.

While the affectionate bond we develop with our canine companions is one of the greatest rewards of the relationship we have with them, if your dog becomes too dependent upon you, it can lead to separation anxiety.

Over the last decade, separation anxiety in dogs has become a major behavioral issue and an estimated 10% of all dogs suffer from this disorder. It is one of chief reasons people surrender their dogs to an animal shelter as it is a very difficult and time consuming problem to fix.

Diet is also a frequently overlooked contributor to anxiety as many processed dog foods contain sugar and high carbohydrates which can lead to an abundance of excess energy. Feeding a balanced home cooked diet with low sugar carbs such as vegetables can help reduce your dog’s excess energy. Be sure that your dog is also receiving an adequate amount of exercise every day as well.

The Dog’s Point of View


To understand separation anxiety you need to first look at a dog’s instinctual behavior. Dogs are social creatures, living in a pack where each member has a position and responsibilities. They are usually born with several litter mates who provide security, comfort and companionship. When you bring that new puppy home he immediately looks for someone to fulfill that same role - you. When you leave, your puppy can experience varying degrees of distress and anxiety which can manifest itself in neurotic or destructive behaviors.

Separation Anxiety Triggers


In many cases, the cause of separation anxiety cannot be pinpointed to a single event. Often it may develop over a period of days or weeks, the initial signs so subtle that they are easily missed. However, there are some factors which can lead directly to the development of separation anxiety.

Some dogs begin to show signs immediately after a major change in routine such as your work schedule changing or a family member leaving home. Dogs are creatures of habit and change is unsettling to them.

Spending an excess amount of time at home with your dog due to an extended vacation, illness or unemployment can cause separation anxiety when you go back to work.

If your dog experiences a traumatic event such as being in an animal shelter, moving to a new home, or being alone during a vicious thunderstorm, he can develop separation anxiety.

If your dog is rarely left alone as a puppy he can become overly reliant on his human “pack” which can trigger separation anxiety when he is later left alone.


Clues to Recognizing Separation Anxiety


There are several behavioral clues that can help you determine whether your dog suffers from separation anxiety or simply another behavioral problem:

If your dog gets very upset and anxious when he realizes you are leaving the house. The simple act of picking up your car keys, purse, or putting on your jacket can elicit this behavior. Another sign your dog is suffering from separation anxiety is If your dog is extremely enthusiastic to the point of disobedience when you arrive home.

If your dog follows you everywhere and becomes very distressed if he can’t be near you is another obvious clue.

Manifestations of the Disorder


Your dog can express his anxiety over being left alone in a variety of ways, some more annoying than others. However, it is important to remember that if your dog is exhibiting minor or subtle separation anxiety behaviors you need to address the problem immediately, even if you think it is “no big deal”. The longer it goes on, the greater chance your dog will develop a more neurotic and destructive means of expressing his anxiety.

Verbal Manifestations


Barking, whining, howling

Destructive Manifestations


Chewing, clawing, digging, house soiling, breaking things

Health Manifestations


Licking, self mutilation, vomiting, diarrhea, loss of appetite, excessive salivation, panic attacks

Helping Your Dog Cope


While some people look for a “quick cure” by trying different medications available for separation anxiety, this is not usually the best path as these medications should not be used long term. Until you address the underlying behavioral problem, the manifestations will reappear the moment you stop using the drug.

The most important fact to always remember is that you, along with everyone in your household, MUST be committed to working with the dog using the methods below. If even one family member fails to follow the rules, then you will never accomplish your goal of a calm and relaxed dog.

Step 1


If your dog has to be right at your side whenever you are home, you need to begin to teach them that it is all right to be away from you. Practice the down-stay command and step away from him. You may only get a few moments and a few feet, but if you are diligent, you will be able to extend the time and distance you spend apart. You can use special toys or treats that will keep him occupied during this process. Your goal is to eventually be able to move throughout the entire house while your dog happily chews, sleeps or plays in another room.

Step 2


Get your dog used to being outside in the yard while you are inside. Again, start off with very small periods of time so that your dog cannot get all worked up and stressed. If you leave him out too long, you are only rewarding his stress when you go out to be with him. Leave him out but reunite with him BEFORE he shows signs of separation anxiety. Gradually, you will be able to lengthen the time over a period of weeks.

Step 3


Observe your dog closely for those things that trigger his separation anxiety behaviors ie: getting your car keys, picking up your purse, putting on your coat or shoes. Once you have a list of triggers, begin desensitizing your dog to them. Pick up your car keys and clean your house with them jangling from your pocket. Pick up your purse and carry it while doing laundry. Put on your coat and shoes and then sit down to watch tv or read the newspaper. After a while, your dog will begin to ignore these triggers because they no longer mean you are going to leave him.

Step 4


Fifteen minutes before you leave the house and for 15 minutes after you return, YOU DO NOT OWN A DOG. Ignore him completely. Do not look at him or acknowledge him in any way. Episodes of separation anxiety are only heightened by the fact that we give our dog lots of love before we leave (“don’t worry sweetie, I’ll be back soon”) and when we come back (“oh poor baby, did you miss me?”). We are actually encouraging the anxiety with our behavior.

A good training method to practice over a long weekend is to leave the house for only a few seconds and then come right back in - ignoring your dog the entire time. Gradually extend the time by sitting on the front porch, taking a walk around the block. Don’t forget to ignore your dog before you leave and after you come back. Work up to getting in the car, starting it up, backing up in the driveway and eventually driving around the block. If your dog has a particular treat he enjoys that can take him a while to devour (kongs stuffed with peanut butter are popular), give it to him. Just be sure it is before the 15 minutes of ignoring him.

Stick to a set program and realize that the results will not necessarily be immediate. I have known some dogs to take as long as 6 weeks to finally get over separation anxiety. But don’t give up; the joys of having a happy and contented dog are immeasurable.

Cheating

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It happens to all of us. You’ve had a busy day at work, you’re exhausted, and when you get home you remember that you don’t have any homemade dog food ready to feed your dog.

In our last blog we talked about how you can prepare healthy food for your dog for a week in just 20 minutes, but that time didn’t include cooking time. So, what do you do if I’ve got nothing but frozen meat, no time, and a hungry dog waiting to be fed? That’s where “creative cheating” comes in.

While you can always keep a spare bag of kibble on hand for just such an emergency, many pet parents find they just don’t want to go back to feeding it. Don’t worry if you are one of those people, there are many different items you can keep on hand that are preprepared and easy to throw together for a healthy and satisfying meal.

PLEASE NOTE: SOME OF THE FOODS LISTED BELOW SHOULD ONLY BE USED OCCASIONALLY, FOR THOSE TIMES YOU DON’T HAVE SOMETHING PREPARED FOR YOUR DOG. IN NO WAY ARE THEY TO BE FED ON A DAILY BASIS. IF YOU FIND YOURSELF HAVING TO “CHEAT” MORE THAN THREE TIMES A MONTH, YOU SHOULD SERIOUSLY RECONSIDER MAKING HOMEMADE DOG FOOD AS THIS MAY NOT BE FEASIBLE FOR YOU.

Proteins


It is not a bad idea to keep a couple of cans of tuna, salmon or even chicken in your cupboard. Canned chicken often has high levels of salt, but as dogs do need salt in their diet and you are only feeding it rarely, it should not cause a problem. If your dog is on a sodium-restricted diet, you should stick with tuna.

Eggs are another quick and healthy alternative for protein. Scrambled eggs take less than five minutes to prepare and most dog love them - especially if you sprinkle a little bit of cheese on top!

Cottage cheese and yogurt, while not recommended as the only source of protein for your dog’s meal, can be used to extend the amount of protein you are feeding to create an appropriate portion if you are short.

If you are truly desperate, lunch meat works in a pinch, but because of the sodium levels and the sodium nitrate used as a preservative, it is not recommended.

Carbohydrates


Having Bingo’s Bounty on hand makes fulfilling the carbohydrate portion of your dog’s meal quick and easy. If time is short, you can add warm water instead of hot water to rehydrate the vegetables and feed it within five minutes.

If you have run out of Bingo’s Bounty, frozen vegetables are a good alternative. Just pour the appropriate portion for your dog into a microwave safe bowl, add a small amount of water and microwave for four to five minutes. Canned vegetables are not recommended, not just because of the high sodium levels, but because the cans they come in are lined with BPA.

If your dog tolerates legumes and grains, they are another way to increase the protein and fiber content of their meal. Eden Foods carries a variety of canned legumes, all in BPA free cans, that are nice to have on hand. Oatmeal is a quick and nutritious grain that cooks in only two minutes in your microwave. If your dog does not have a sensitivity to wheat, whole grain bread can fill in in a pinch. Whole grain cereal, preferably without high fructose corn syrup, will work as well.

If you have any leftovers from your own meals, you can utilize them as well as long as they do not contain dangerous ingredients, such as onions. I’ve fed my dogs leftover pasta, lasagna, and chicken stew. If you are feeding a leftover that has both protein and carbohydrates in it, don’t worry about trying to figure out the correct proportion of 2/3 protein to 1/3 carb. Simply feed your dog an adequate portion for the meal. A single imbalanced meal will not harm your dog as long as it does not happen on a regular basis. The same can be said for the calcium to phosphorus ratio - don’t worry about it for a single meal.

The Last Resort


If for some reason you cannot do any of the above, there is one option left. It may surprise you to hear that I do not suggest that you go to the store and buy regular dog food. Instead, head for your local fast food restaurant. Yes, that’s right, from a health standpoint it is better to feed your dog something from McDonald’s or Burger King than from Purina or Iams. Sad but true.

Most fast food restaurants carry burgers with double meat or grilled chicken sandwiches. Remember to order them plain as condiments will usually upset your dog’s stomach. If your dog can handle wheat products, you can feed him one side of the bun (both sides are too much). If they are sensitive to wheat, you can order a small fry. Just ask for them without salt, and limit the amount you feed. Many restaurants also have healthy choices such as apple slices and milk. If your dogs likes and tolerates these, go ahead and order them. Again, don’t worry about this particular meal being unbalanced. It will not harm your dog as long as you don’t do it on a regular basis. Just like human kids, a single meal of “junk food” won’t cause any lasting harm.

Remember, cheating once in a while is not a crime and you are not a “bad parent” for resorting to cereal, canned tuna or a double Whopper from Burger King. The world we live in requires us to live in the fast lane most of the time and we can’t always remember to have food prepared as we should. One of the biggest obstacles to feeling confident over making the commitment to switch to homemade dog food, is the fear people feel over what to do if they forget to prepare something. As you can see, it really is easy to keep on hand the ingredients to make your dog a quick, moderately healthy meal without resorting to processed dog food.

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