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.