Some pet problems mistakenly blamed on separation anxiety

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Recently, Merrick Pet Foods conducted a contest via Facebook, asking readers to ask me: "Why does my dog...?" The first 20 responders received a copy of "Decoding Your Dog: The Ultimate Experts Explain Common Dog Behaviors and Reveal How to Prevent or Change Unwanted Ones" (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, New York, NY, 2014; $27) authored by members of the American College of Veterinary Behaviorists, co-edited by myself, and veterinary behaviorists Dr. Debra Horwitz and Dr. John Ciribassi.

Here is a second batch of my replies:

Q: Why is my puppy so anxious when we put her in her crate, then leave the house? -- S.G., via cyberspace

Q: Why does my dog piddle on the rug when I'm gone? We had him checked out and there's no medical explanation. -- N.D., via cyberspace

A: In "Decoding Your Dog" there's an entire chapter on separation anxiety written by veterinary behaviorists Dr. E'Lise Christensen, of New York City, and Dr. Karen Overall, of Philadelphia, PA.

First things first: Always get a diagnosis from a veterinarian. Sometimes, separation anxiety is mistaken for lack of house-training. A dog who piddles when its owners leave the house may simply not be properly house-trained, or the dog may never have learned how to behave when people depart, and isn't anxious so much as having a good old time chewing on pillows. There may also be a medical explanation, such as a urinary tract infection or diabetes.

Often, dogs with separation anxiety drool excessively (so much so that owners find a puddle when they return home), destroy furniture and/or chew on inedible objects, bark, yelp, whine and/or forget house-training, and won't eat even yummy treats while their people are away. Videotaping your dog shortly after you depart is the best way to show your veterinarian exactly what's going on.

Another sign of separation anxiety is that a dog begins to get "stressed out," picking up cues as you prepare to leave the house.

While, overall, I'm a proponent of crate training, putting an anxious or panicked dog in a crate is not always a good idea. Dogs can hurt themselves attempting to break out of the crate.

While some dogs with separation anxiety do tolerate confinement, the solution is to deal with the separation anxiety itself. What you do depends on how panicked the dog is, as well as on the individual pet; what works for one dog may not work for another.

For dogs who go into total panic mode when left alone, an anti-anxiety drug is the most humane answer, and one that helps tone down anxiety enough so that behavior modification training can be used.

The good news is, with patience, you can help your dog. For details on behavior medication, talk with your veterinarian or a certified animal behavior consultant.

Q: Why does my dog lick at the sheets before we go to bed? -- A.B., via cyberspace

A: It could be that your dog senses your smell and/or his own smell, and likes it. Sadly, for your ego, it might be all about the smell of fabric softener on the sheets.

If the licking is excessive, try to distract your dog by calling the pet to you and offering something to chew on.

Q: Why does my 1-year-old male Doberman constantly yelp during leash walks? It's annoying. I have to wait until late in the morning to walk him so he doesn't wake up the whole neighborhood. -- D.P., via cyberspace

A: Without seeing exactly what's going on, this problem is tough to pinpoint. I hope your pooch is not in pain, perhaps from a "choke collar" used incorrectly, another piece of equipment, or due to leg or back problems. Far more likely, though, your pup is merely overjoyed about the walk and can't contain himself.

It's possible the yelping became a habit when you (or another family member) reinforced the behavior when the dog was small; after all, it was likely cute then. It's also quite possible that your pet is anxious.

For some dogs, the solution can be teaching the pet to carry a toy or a ball indoors, then doing the same thing outdoors. The hope is that a dog won't make as much noise with something in its mouth. If that doesn't work for your dog, feed him as you walk. He likely can't chew and yelp at the same time. When he's not yelping, along with the food reward, say "good quiet," so in time he's only rewarded for the sounds of silence.

If anxiety is the issue, an Adaptil pheromone collar and a nutritional supplement called Anxitane might help your dog feel more relaxed.

If the problem persists, you might want to seek hands-on help from a dog behavior consultant or trainer who can observe the behavior.

Q: Why does my dog, Chloe, get between me and my husband when my husband comes home from work? -- B.M., via cyberspace

A: I'm not sure what the problem is, assuming you both have a similar relationship with Chloe. It might be that she just wants to be sure to be included. If Chloe's behavior bothers you, stand in such a way that she can't get between you. You could use a leash to control Chloe's movements. Distracting her with a chewy might also help.

Q: Why does my dog sit like a goofball? -- C.P., via cyberspace

A: I'm not sure what position you're describing, but it could be your pooch was previously rewarded for the goofy behavior -- even with a giggle -- reinforcing the habit. The oddball way the dog sits might also be comfortable. Sometimes dogs do imitate us, so maybe your pet is attempting to sit like you!

(Steve Dale welcomes questions/comments from readers. Although he can't answer all of them individually, he'll answer those of general interest in his column Send e-mail to PETWORLD(at)STEVE DALE.TV. Include your name, city and state. Steve's website is http://www.stevedalepetworld.com; he also hosts the nationally syndicated "Steve Dale's Pet World" and "The Pet Minute." He's also a contributing editor to USA Weekend.)

(c) 2014 DISTRIBUTED BY TRIBUNE CONTENT AGENCY, LLC.
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