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Reducing Separation Anxiety in Your Chihuahua

Most mature dogs catch a nap when their owners leave the house, but some pitch a fit when they're home alone. They may chew on the carpet, shred the toilet paper, urinate, bark nonstop, or any combination of other destructive behaviors. You're probably thinking, poor owners. But believe it or not, the destructive dogs are miserable, too. They have a problem called separation anxiety.

To understand separation anxiety in dogs, consider phobias people have. Some people are afraid of heights, others are afraid of tight places, and still others are afraid of the water, or snakes or spiders. Well, dogs are social creatures, and some of them are afraid of being alone. They panic, pure and simple, and then make noise or destroy stuff to release pent-up nervous energy.

Exits and entrances

Some dogs seem to be born with tendencies toward separation anxiety. Others develop it after a major change . . . like their owner's divorce, or being given up for adoption. But a surprising number of dogs catch the problem from their owner. It sounds something like this:

"Oh, poor, poor Pepe. I'm leaving now. Are you gonna miss me? Are you? I'm gonna miss you. Poor sweetums. You'll be all alone. (kiss, kiss) Now you'll be a good boy won't you? Give mama a kiss. That's my boy. Poor baby. I'll be back soon. I promise (kiss, kiss)."

And then the owner leaves.

Now what does Pepe make out of all of this? He just got a lot of attention and sympathy, and then his human left. Maybe she's not coming back. Maybe he'll never see her again. Maybe he'll never see anyone ever again. No wonder he feels anxious.

The best way to prevent separation anxiety is to make comings and goings low key. Ignore Pepe for ten minutes before you leave, and take him for granted when you return. That's easy. But what can you do for a dog that already suffers from the problem?

Alleviating anxiety

Let's start with what you shouldn't do. If Pepe becomes a demolition demon when home alone, the worst — yes, the absolute worst — thing you can do is punish him when you get back. All that does is give him additional anxiety. Instead of being scared only when you leave, he also is terrified of your return. That means double trouble.

Okay. You know you have a problem, so don't set up your dog for another dreadful day of demolition. Instead, crate him comfortably when you leave the house. In addition to keeping him out of trouble, being in his own den may calm Pepe. Yes, that's a just a quick fix and doesn't actually cure the problem. But it's a start. We have to start somewhere, and keeping Pepe out of trouble so he doesn't sense your aggravation is the best possible place.

Don't make the mistake of thinking your dog has human emotions. He doesn't tear up the house out of spite because you left him alone. And he certainly doesn't have fun doing it. Instead, he's miserable. Separation anxiety can be compared to a person with claustrophobia getting stuck in an elevator. Pepe needs help, not punishment.

You must alleviate Pepe's anxiety problem when he has the run of the house (or even a whole room). To do this, leave the house frequently for short periods of time. Eventually that teaches Pepe that comings and goings are unimportant because you always return. Here's how to set up your scenarios:

1. Take Pepe outside to eliminate about 10 minutes before you leave.

2. Turn on the radio and make sure two of his favorite toys are available.

3. Leave Pepe's crate in its normal place with the door open, so he can go inside if he wants to.

4. Don't say good-bye or reassure Pepe in any way. In fact, don't give him any attention at all for several minutes before you leave.

5. Leave, close the door behind you, and count to ten. Open the door, go inside, and ignore Pepe for a minute or two. Then tell him to "Sit" and praise him for obeying.

6. Gradually increase the amount of time before you come home. Make progress slowly at first. Take two weeks to go from 10 seconds to 10 minutes.

7. If you find a puddle, or the beginning of any destruction, don't call it to Pepe's attention, but make a mental note of how long you were gone. Next time, decrease the amount of time you stay away. Then gradually work your way back up.

With a lot of practice (and patience, too) you may be able to work your way up to spending a few hours away from home without Pepe having an anxiety attack. Unfortunately, it doesn't work with every dog. If your dog doesn't learn to accept separations, he may need professional help. Ask your veterinarian for referral to a behaviorist (if you're lucky, there may even be a Board-certified veterinary behaviorist in your area). The solution will include desensitization work, and may include a temporary prescription of a drug to help keep him calm as he completes his desensitization program.

If your dog has overcome separation anxiety, put him in a reputable boarding kennel when you go on vacation instead of hiring a dogwalker or housesitter. Otherwise, your leaving home and not returning for a week or more could make him regress.

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