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When dogs are home alone chewing, urinating are expressions of loss, not spite
Imagine yourself returning home from work to find your couch has been chewed to shreds or piles of feces and puddles of urine are soaking into your rug. You'd be furious and frustrated, particularly if it happened repeatedly day after day. And yet this is what many dog owners face on a regular basis. Often owners believe these animals are acting out of "spite," angry that they are being left alone. But this is seldom the case. Most often these are dogs that are suffering from a very common behavioral disorder known as separation anxiety. Dogs with separation anxiety are typically extremely overdependent. They tend to follow their owner from room to room wherever he or she may go. When separated from their owner (this can sometimes occur even when other people are still with the dog), the dog becomes anxious. This anxiety can be expressed differently by different dogs. Some dogs may whine or bark. These are referred to as distress vocalizations. They may become restless and agitated, and begin pacing. They can become hypervigilant, watching out windows and searching for their owner. When the anxiety becomes intense it gives these dogs a huge amount of nervous energy, and that energy has to go somewhere, hence the pacing and the whining. But dogs are also very mouthy creatures. They often chew to get out energy, and so separation anxiety often presents itself as a highly destructive problem. These dogs chew up furniture, they chew through drywall, they chew up the molding around doors, and just about anything they can get their teeth on. Still other dogs are scratchers. They often try to dig their way through doors or through carpeting. Many times these acts of destruction are specifically targeted at points of exit. These dogs may actively be trying to escape the situation where they are experiencing such intense anxiety and trying to get to their owner. There have been separation anxiety dogs who have literally thrown themselves through plate glass windows to get out of the house. And then there are dogs with separation anxiety who urinate and/or defecate. Think about when you get really anxious (for instance, before you take a really important test or have a really important meeting). What happens? It makes you have to go to the bathroom with greater urgency. These dogs are no different in their physiologic response to intense anxiety, and so it is not out of spite that they are acting, but out of an uncontrollable distress response. So what do you do about these dogs. People have tried crating these animals, often with disastrous results. Many of these dogs are able to brake out of crates, to do their usual damage. Others in attempts to chew or dig their way out have injured their mouths and paws. Punishing these dogs for their acts simply does not work and is an entirely inappropriate means of handling to a distress response. Treatment is largely dependent on the specifics of each individual case. General principles involve desensitization to predeparture cues (to keep the dog from reacting to the usual signals that precede your departure) and a detailed behavior modification program to teach the dog to relax as owners depart for progressively longer intervals. Success is dependent on having sufficient time to implement the behavior modification without continued episodes. This is most effectively managed with the help of anti-anxiety medication. Separation anxiety can be a very costly and frustrating problem, for which many owners have given up or destroyed animals. Such action, however, is not necessary as it is treatable.