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Managing Separation Anxiety in Jack Russell Terriers

All dogs are social by nature, as proven by the formation of packs. When you separate your puppy from his littermates, you and your family effectively become his pack. When you have to be gone, whether for work or play, your puppy is left without his playmates. You can make this time easier for your puppy by doing the following:

  • Exercising the dog right before you leave the house
  • Leaving special chew toys for your puppy to use during your absence
  • Providing a quiet, peaceful area with food, water, and a soft bed for your puppy to enjoy while you're away
  • Keeping your departures and returns low-key and unemotional
  • Never punishing your Jack Russell Terrier upon your return for any behaviors during your absence

Sometimes, regardless of your best efforts to provide a peaceful oasis for your puppy, he will still view your absence with some trepidation. You may find that your puppy barks for a few moments when left to his own devices but then settles into a quiet nap until you return. Or your puppy may get excited in the hopes of going with you but then, when he's convinced you're going out alone, resolve himself to playing solo until your return. In extreme examples, however, your dog may succumb to separation anxiety.

Hitting the panic button

Dogs who truly suffer from separation anxiety exhibit classic signs of claustrophobia when left alone. Basically, they panic. In their efforts to calm their fears, these dogs may tear up carpet, try to claw their way through doors, or bark until they can't bark any more. Although puppies are natural demolition derbies and usually outgrow this destructive phase, an adult dog who suffers from separation anxiety is a different kettle of fish altogether.

You first need to understand why this behavior occurs. Because you have become your terrier's pack, he feels vulnerable when you're away. Essentially, his backup buddies have left him all alone. Instead of taking a deep breath and waiting it out as humans may do, your dog begins to fret about the fact that you may not return. The more he frets, the more anxious he gets. The more anxious he gets, the more he tries to escape the confines of the house to reunite himself with his pack. As his concern builds into panic, his actions escalate. He begins to claw at the carpet surrounding the doors or the screens covering the windows. He may lose control of his bodily functions and soil the carpet, or he may dig frantically at the door jamb to try to open the door. All these things can lead to significant destruction of property in a very short time.

Separation anxiety is very real for your dog and is actually akin to a human anxiety attack or claustrophobia. Your dog isn't being destructive out of spite. He simply becomes so agitated that he can't control his anxiety.

By punishing your dog for his destructive behavior, you're teaching him to dread your departure and also to dread your arrival home, doubling your dog's anxiety level. The more anxious the dog is, the more destructive his behavior is. By punishing your dog after the fact, you're, in essence, creating a vicious cycle of escalating destructive behavior.

Dealing with the anxiety

When faced with particularly troublesome behavior from your terrier, try to think like your dog thinks. Sometimes this can significantly change your perspective and can help you come up with more effective, nonpunitive ways of solving the problem.

The best way to diminish this problem is through safe confinement and constructive training. Remember the golden rule -- never correct your dog after the fact. It simply has no meaning for your terrier and adds to his already-established anxiety level. Keeping this in mind, look at the following tips to help your terrier through this troubling behavior.

  • Create the best environment possible for your dog while you're away. Leave a radio on so that your terrier hears voices and doesn't feel quite so alone. Provide several toys and chewies that your dog can use to safely release his anxiety and rub your hands on them before you leave so they smell like you. Make sure the area is at a comfortable temperature and dim any glaring lights. By the same token, make sure your dog isn't left in total darkness, either.
  • Decrease the attention you give to your dog before you leave the house. If you always play and amuse him just before you go away, you've made separation that much harder. You inadvertently show your dog why he should miss you even more! Instead, quietly go about your business and, when it's time to leave, simply gather up your things and go. Don't say goodbye or tell him how much you'll miss him. Again, this may make you feel better, but it actually increases your dog's nervousness and anxiety.
  • Acclimate your terrier to your necessary periods of absence by taking short walks away from home. Make sure your dog has a doggy bed nearby and leave the house for an instant, stepping back in before your puppy has time to get worked up. Gradually increase the time in increments of just a few seconds. Avoid any drawn-out good-byes or threats about what you'd better find or not find when you get home. When you return, ignore your dog for the first several minutes, regardless of the condition of the house.

If some destruction has occurred, resist the temptation to begin yelling about how a dog can do so much damage in such a short amount of time. It won't make you feel any better, and it will nullify any benefit of this training session. If the dog has managed to resist his destructive impulses, you have good cause to praise him quietly. After you set the stage for a calm reunion, either praise your terrier for his good behavior or ask him to perform a simple obedience task such as sit or down. Then praise his cooperation.

Gradually increase the amount of time you're away until your dog gets the idea that you eventually will return and that your departure doesn't herald the end of the world. With a lot of practice and patience, you should be able to leave for a few hours without causing your dog to regress.

Some dogs will permanently respond to this training; others will only stay calm for a few hours before giving in to their anxieties. If your dog falls into the latter category, confine your dog while you're away. This is less stressful for your dog, and it ensures that your house will remain intact. But if your dog has serious separation anxiety, crating the dog can make the behavior worse — your dog may injure himself! Try using doggie daycare or consulting with a behavioral specialist.

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