mother and baby

bitty with comfort toy

Separation Anxiety

Is it Real?
The dog behaviour usually labelled ‘Separation Anxiety’ is very real. One doesn’t have to come home from work too many times to soiled carpet, chewed-up upholstery, or irate neighbours, to realize something is wrong. In today’s society, we tend to put a label on everything, thus the term ‘separation anxiety’. Fifty years ago, a friend would quietly tell you that your dog was a brat, and it was time to teach him some manners. Most often this diagnosis however blunt, is correct, but it is harder for folks to come to terms with than putting a label on the behaviour, and looking for someone else to fix it.

Only in rare cases is there a physiological or psychological problem requiring the attention of a vet or canine behaviourist. If you have gotten your puppy from a reputable breeder and the puppy is in good health - all vet checks up to date etc. - you can surmise your training program has not been as successful as you had hoped. If however, you don’t know the puppy’s genetic background and/or you haven’t kept up with regular vet checks, then it is a good idea to start with a visit to your veterinarian.

Is separation anxiety common in Westies? Not really, however in any breed, there are those dogs that by nature are more shy, nervous, anxious, etc. than others. These traits are not desirable, and so are rare in a well-bred healthy Westie.

Checking Symptoms
First, review the symptoms to see if any or all apply to your situation. Do you come home to a soiled house, torn draperies, chewed table legs, spilt food or scratched doors? Do the neighbours tell you they hear barking, crying or howling on and off all day? Any of these and similar behaviours show that the dog isn’t sure of his situation.. He doesn’t know what the proper behaviour is when left alone, and he isn’t sure anyone will ever come back. Such overwhelming uncertainty causes distress and panic reactions which, since he can’t speak our human language, he tries to communicate in every way possible.

Common Contributing Causes
Understanding causes will often let you see how to make the appropriate changes.

Puppies at eight to twelve weeks of age are terribly cute no matter what they do. People tend to excuse and forgive any behaviour and cuddle the puppy using soothing, cooing sounds whenever it gets a little bump. Puppies do bring out the protective side of our human nature. We all fuss over puppies, but if this is overdone, the puppy will assume such human behaviour is to be expected on a continuous basis, so when that behaviour stops, as when you go away, he panics.

Lack of Socialization
Some puppies are kept at home and allowed only to interact with the immediate family. This leaves out a lot of everyday experiences such as meeting strangers, hearing all sorts of noises and smelling a variety of environments, as well as meeting and interacting with other members of their own species. If this type of socialization is left out of the dog’s experience, he will have less confidence in himself, and less confidence in his family when he encounters strange circumstances, thus causing undue stress.

Routine in Daily Life
Dogs love routine: meals at the same time every day, walks at the same time every day, bedtime at the same hour etc. Routine puts order into the dog’s environment which will add to his confidence and stability. When routine is absent, the dog doesn’t know what to expect next and who or what is dependable. This is a recipe for the stress which when acted out is often destructive.

First and foremost - punishment of any kind will not only not help, it will make the situation worse, as it confirms to the dog that all his anxieties and fears are justified. The utmost personal control is needed by the family as anger is a natural reaction to finding one’s house trashed. However, just put the dog in the yard, and clean it up. To reduce further destruction, close off carpeted areas so the dog is confined to an easily cleaned-up floor space such as the kitchen. Provide old towels for bedding, safe toys like kongs, and water in a non-tip bowl. Put the tv. on low, on an all day talk/news channel. To reduce your own frustration and anger, mentally prepare yourself to clean up when you get home. If all is well, praise the dog, give him treats, and take him for a walk.

Next, plan a routine about your going out for the day. A good walk with the dog just before you leave will burn off some of his energy. Make your leaving preparations quiet and unhurried. As you go out, give a small treat used only for this purpose and use a key phrase such as ‘going to the store’ or ‘away today’. The words don’t matter - the repetition just before you go out the door does matter. Keep your voice quiet and matter of fact. To train for this routine, take time to practice it several times a day starting by being out only a few seconds. Then work up to several minutes. The dog will learn that the routine and the words mean ‘yes you’re going out, but you’ll always come back’. Remember that it has taken some time for the dog to get into these bad habits and it will take some time to change the behaviour.

If you haven’t taken the time before to teach your dog tricks, such as ‘come’, ‘down’ ‘sit’ and ‘wait’, do teach these now. The more the dog learns to do, the more confident, relaxed and trustworthy he’ll become. Keep in mind that Westies learn best and fastest with positive reinforcement, not punishment. Always reward good behaviour. Look for a class teaching dog manners which uses positive reinforcement.

Author: Anne Matheson.