Jerry Lower/The Coastal Star
By Arden Moore
Face the facts: No matter how much you love your pet, he or she will spend more time in your home than you will.
Unless you win millions in the Florida Lottery and your life is so demand-free that you can afford to spend 24/7 with your beloved pet, chances are strong that two emotions may surface in your home: guilt and anxiety.
Guilt is reserved for people strongly bonded with their pets to the point that they feel pangs of guilt each time they bid a temporary bye to their favorite four-leggers before heading off to work or a much-needed vacation. And they display this guilt by “apologizing” to their pet for having to walk out the door.
Wrong. Making a big to-do out of leaving and coming home can backfire and cause your pet to become anxious and uncertain when left home alone.
Newly adopted dogs, unsure ones and those unintentionally “rewarded” for being clingy lack the social canine tools to be calm and confident while home alone. They sense the sadness and guilt inside their favorite person and, feeling helpless, they experience rising feelings of separation anxiety. Often, they chew rugs, piddle on the floor or unleash marathon bark sessions to cope with being left alone.
The bond between us and our pets is the strongest it has ever been. Just ask Marie Speed of Ocean Ridge. She was without a dog for a few months after the passing of her confident, sweet Shih Tzu named Sophie. She admits she needed a “dog fix” and stopped in a local pet supply store where a pet adoption event was occurring.
“I just wanted to pet a dog — not adopt one,” says Speed, group editor for Boca Raton and Delray Beach magazines. “I told myself I was not going to get another dog. Then the adoption person put Barney in my arms. He wrapped his paws around my neck like a monkey and looked up at me with those big brown eyes. I quickly left to go to the bookstore next door and called friends to try to talk me out of adopting Barney.”
She continues, “A friend pointed out that our quality of life is so much better when you have a dog and it is true. I was absolutely brokenhearted after losing Sophie. I am glad I adopted Barney. He is affectionate, but also clingy and needy.”
Barney, a Yorkshire-silky terrier mix believed to be about 2, barked whenever Speed was out of his sight from Day One. He also ripped a window screen when Speed was not home.
Speed knew she had to do something — quick — because she felt intense guilt each time she needed to leave the house without Barney. So she consulted a local veterinarian and professional dog trainer for ways to build Barney’s confidence and make him less clingy.
Barney is gaining confidence every day. Speed no longer gives him free rein in her cottage while she is away. Barney is ushered into his crate with a treat. And, if Speed is away for more than a few hours, she arranges to come home or have a trusted, dog-savvy friend stop by to visit Barney.
Barney’s tale is not uncommon. Newly adopted shelter pets need time to adjust to a new home environment. Most important, they need to feel safe. It often takes a few months or more for shelter adoptees to display their true personalities and develop confidence.
And, they are downloading all our actions and emotions, says Dr. Alice Moon-Fanelli, a nationally renowned certified animal behaviorist based in Eastford, Conn.
“Separation anxiety is one of the most over-diagnosed conditions in dogs,” she says. “Often, the real underlying cause for a dog barking too much or destroying things in the home while alone is a lack of stimulation. The young dog is bored being home alone with nothing to do.”
Here are some strategies to turn your home into a haven for your home-alone dog:
• Bring on the food feast. A few minutes before you head out the door, give your dog a frozen Kong toy stuffed with his favorite treat (peanut butter, kibble or cream cheese). Your dog should be so happily working to devour each little morsel that he won’t notice your absence for hours.
• Turn on the television or radio to provide some sound to counter the silence.
• Vary the daily routine. If your dog likes other dogs, treat him to an occasional day at a doggy day care center or a midday visit from a dog-friendly neighbor.
• Give him plenty of exercise. A tired dog is a more relaxed dog.
Speed is making sure Barney gets daily walks and is noting steady signs of confidence with each passing day.
“One positive sign was that he used to bark when I left the room, but now he is learning that I will be back,” says Speed. “And he recently stayed at a friend’s condo one weekend. He howled 10 minutes after I left and she brought him back to spend the night in my house, but the next night, Barney stayed at her place and was just fine. We’re making progress.”
I’m rooting for you, Barney. You’re a lucky dog to have a caring person like Marie Speed.
Arden Moore, founder of FourLeggedLife.com, is an animal behavior consultant, editor, author, professional speaker and master certified pet first aid instructor. Each week, she hosts the popular Oh Behave! show on PetLifeRadio.com. Learn more by visiting fourleggedlife.com.