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Help Your Dog With Separation Anxiety and Other Common Fears

Animal Planet’s popular dog trainer Victoria Stilwell shares solutions for getting your dog through anxiety, fear of storms, and other worrisome behavior.
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Q: Why does my dog go nuts and tear up my house every time I leave? How can I stop this from happening?

A: This is separation anxiety -- the excessive chewing to relieve the stress it feels; continual barking; pacing; whining. Sometimes, if it’s really excessive, a dog will chew through walls. I’ve had dogs jump through windows, through glass, to get outside. Most of the destruction is centered on points of exit.

You have to do what I call independence training. You have to stop the hyper-attachment. You have to give your dog the ability to cope. I desensitize a dog to departure triggers, for instance. The dog’s watching you. You’re putting on your clothes, you’re putting on your make up, you get your keys, and the stress starts when you’re putting on your makeup. He knows you’re going to leave, so he starts to fret and get very anxious. So we start to desensitize him to the triggers. You put on your makeup and you don’t leave. You put on your coat and you stay in the house. You break your ritual completely. You go out the door and you come right back. And you do it 50 times a day.

 

Q: Can my dog be cured of his fears and anxieties? Or do I just have to learn how to control his problems?

A: A lot of dogs can be modified to a point where they don’t suffer from it any more. But I don’t ever like to use the word "cured."

A lot of cases can be made 90%, 95% better. Some just 60%. Separation anxiety is one of the hardest because it’s so difficult to work with. And aggression is wildly misunderstood. But when it is understood, it can take a while for a dog to feel confident and calm.

There’s no amazing quick fix. You’re talking about behavior. You’re talking about the way the brain reacts. If you’re a human and you’ve got a real anxiety, you’re not going to get better after just one visit to the psychiatrist. It’s going to take a lot of therapy to get you to the point where you feel better. And it’s exactly the same with dogs.

 

Q: What can I do to keep my new puppy from developing fears and anxieties?

A: The primary socialization window, when the dog’s brain is like a sponge and it’s learning and taking cues from its environment, is between birth and 16 weeks. But before 16 weeks you have to be careful of taking a dog out because of its vaccinations.

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