Ramona, a dog we had years ago, would loiter just outside the bathroom when I was in it. Like a compass always points north, she pointed in my direction, no matter where I was in the house or at the office.
This is quite a different situation from those pesky, frisky feline invaders of my space. Ramona, even at 12 years old, had never completely grown out of her minor case of separation anxiety. You may have heard about this, but maybe not known what it is. You may even have a dog with this problem and never recognized it for what it was until now.
If your dog follows you everywhere, including the bathroom, it may not be just very attached to you – it may actually have separation anxiety. There are degrees of severity with this disorder ranging from dogs like Ramona that are slightly uncomfortable when you leave and like to be near you, occasionally chewing up the mail if it ends up on the floor, to those that claw through doors when you leave them.
How do you know if your dog suffers from separation anxiety? Typically, you find some sort of destruction when you return home after leaving the dog for even a few hours.
This destruction could be material (and usually is) like a chewed piece of furniture or clothing, or in the form of self-mutilation, like a great, big, festering, new hot-spot on the dog’s body somewhere. Some dogs bark all day long. (You wouldn’t know about this unless your landlord is threatening to evict you or your neighbors are threatening to call the cops.)
I have known clients with dogs that not only follow them into the bathroom, but also into the shower. I’d say, if your dog can’t stand you being out of sight long enough for you to take a shower, you are likely to have a problem.
How do you manage a dog like this? Like almost all behavior problems, we start with the proper diagnosis. It is important to have the dog examined thoroughly and screened for other underlying illnesses.
Not only is this important in diagnosing the problem, but it is a good baseline for later comparison. Separation anxiety can be treated (usually in its severest forms) with a combination of behavior modification exercises and medication.
Many cases of moderate separation anxiety can be treated with behavior modification techniques alone. It takes perseverance and patience and definitely a strong bond and commitment to the dog, but it can make a dramatic difference. Some techniques are as follows:
1. Use a crate. How many times have we been over this with owners and their new puppies? If you think it is cruel to confine a puppy or dog to a crate for a few hours a day, you’re not thinking like a dog.
Dogs are pack animals that live in dens. A den is very confined and secure. Ever notice your dog liking to sleep under low tables or in the corners? Many dogs prefer a closed-in corner to a wide-open space, probably for this reason. It has been shown that when the “pack” leaves (that would be you and-or your family) your dog feels a degree of separation.
Depending on the dog’s personality and experiences, he may become distressed. Enclosing him in a confined, secure space can help him feel protected and leave him with little to do but rest until your return.
Puppies that are crate trained early do not often experience separation anxiety as adults, and some still love their crates even when they are all grown up.
2. Don’t make a big deal about leaving and coming home.
This is unbelievably important! If your arrival home is coupled in the dog’s mind with the most rapturous moment he knows, he will anticipate that moment more and more each day. Consider that and the way you say goodbye – sadness, regret, multiple heart-felt kisses and hugs. If saying goodbye is as anxious for you as it is for the dog, you are sending a bad message and probably making the situation worse. Stop it. Just get your stuff and go.
Practice arriving home and not saying anything to the dog for a full 10 minutes.
Once the dog has calmed down, been outside to pee, etc., it is OK to pet him (calmly) and talk to him lovingly. This sends the message, “I love you when you are relaxed. My coming and going are no big deal.”
3. Give the dog something to pacify him as you are leaving.
A favorite chew toy, rawhide (if your dog can be trusted not to swallow big chunks of it!) or a hollow, hard toy (Kong toys work well) smeared generously on the inside with something sticky and yummy like peanut butter or cream cheese.
Since most destructive behaviors tend to happen within the first 10 minutes of an owner’s departure, this can work wonders to distract and calm the dog in your immediate absence.
4. Never scold or punish the dog when you come home.
Unless you catch him in the act of chewing up the couch, your punishment will be in vain. The damage may have been done hours before.
Although many people see a very guilty-looking dog and swear he knows what he did was wrong, dogs truly don’t connect the doing with the done unless you are present during the doing to correct the behavior.
All the dog knows is that you are cross with him almost every time you come home, and he needs to wait it out to get some affection till you’ve cooled down.
He knows if there’s pee on the floor (even if it isn’t his!) you’re going to be mad, so he may even hide or look guilty – he’s scared, based on your prior reactions.
Remember, this is an anxiety disorder. Yelling at an anxious dog only makes him worse! He is not doing this out of spite; he is nervous, frightened that you may never return – some dogs actually panic.
5. Seek professional help.
Don’t let things get so bad that you’re at the end of your rope before you do seek the help of your veterinarian. Many animals are euthanized for behavior problems that may have been treatable if advice and treatments were sought before things got out of hand.
Know that there are specialists in animal behavior out there that deal with these types of cases all the time, so help always is available, if you look for it.
Daverio is a veterinarian at Williamsport West Veterinary Hospital.
Her column will print every other Sunday in the Lifestyle section. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
I haven’t had a private moment in the bathroom at home in years. My husband generally leaves me alone, though on occasion, he needs to discuss some very important topic while I am otherwise occupied. My children, however, routinely need me for any number of important things while I am using the facilities.
Apparently, the very action of me entering the bathroom triggers perfect recall for very lengthy, hilarious stories. All important decisions about inviting friends over or needing spending money or a detailed recital of this year’s entire Christmas list, or signing permission slips are routinely addressed through the bathroom door (unless I had forgotten to lock it, in which case, the inquisition occurs face-to-face without an ounce of decorum on the intruding party’s part.)
I am asked to purchase apps for the iPhone more often in the bathroom than in any other room in the house, and despite my flat refusal to do so, they keep asking. Curious. If I ever need to feel wanted and needed and loved, all I need to do is go to the bathroom.
At work, nobody insists on me keeping the door open. They usually wait for me to emerge to ask me to sign documents. They also refrain from simply screaming to get me to hurry up. (Thank goodness.) However, I can’t say I’m left alone completely at work, since it often seems that whenever I do find myself in the bathroom, someone needs me for something.
And then, there’s my furry companions. For those who are uninitiated with cats: books, newspapers and important school or work papers take precedence over almost all other items on the cat daily agenda (sleep, food, litterbox) since it falls under the category of “bother someone.” There is only one thing that comes before that: someone just sitting down on the toilet. It summons a cat like the “Bat Signal” calls for Batman.
Virgil, one of our cats, loves to come bopping into the bathroom, right at my heels. Normally, Virgil doesn’t have much time for me – he considers himself my husband’s cat. However, in the bathroom, I am suddenly (albeit temporarily) his new best friend. He seizes these opportunities to demand affection and to solicit play.
He touches me with his front paws, grooms my hands, winds his body around my legs – and has even hopped onto my lap on a few occasions. If I’m sitting in a chair, he doesn’t give me the time of day. Lovable, but odd.
Through the years, many of our cats have liked to sit in the sink and beg incessantly for a drink directly from the faucet (the “good” water.) Murdock taught Grace about the “good water,” and Grace taught Sr. Mary Agnes. Sr. M.A. became so fixated on beating Grace to the bathroom in the morning; she often slept in the sink to get a head start. Virgil still hasn’t learned to drink from the faucet at 9 years old, but that hasn’t stopped him trying, though always ending in a bedraggled, wet mess – and still thirsty. He’s sweet, but he’s not the sharpest knife in the drawer.
“Igor,” one of my childhood cats, was so anxious for his breakfast each morning; he would go to the trouble of unrolling the toilet paper for my mother to help speed things along. He was also famous for barging in on guests and surprising the heck out of them in the bathroom.
You’re probably wondering why cats like to bother people in the bathroom. I bet you’re expecting a brilliant answer, since I’m supposed to know about these things. Sorry. My answer: cats are weird. I do have an idea, however misguided it may be.
Cats are mostly very intelligent and it doesn’t take them long to figure out that they can be very silly and even annoying while someone is in the bathroom, and will likely get away with it. It is against all rules of statistical probabilities that you will spring up off the toilet and seize them as they sprint away. (Even if you did try this, you would fail, since cats are adept at always being just out of reach when it really counts. Not to mention the added bonus of you feeling and looking ridiculous.) So they can get away with stuff like biting your feet, without being punished for it – at least not right away. But one thing’s for sure: cats are different from dogs in this instance. Cats that won’t leave you alone in the bathroom are, well, normal. Dogs that do this may have some … issues.
To learn more about dogs and this subject, read the follow-up article: “Degrees of Separation.”