Reader Marika writes:
"I have a 4 year old Golden Retriever, Dakota, who I love and adore and spoil way too much. I've had her for a year now - she was relinqushed for adoption by her previous family because she refused to remain in their unfenced yard. She briefly lived in a foster home before coming to me. Until recently, she has been practically perfect (if you overlook her inability to always come when called). No major issues. A month ago, I went on vacation for 10 days - the longest we had been apart. During that time, she stayed with three different people - including one person dropping her off at her doggy day care and a separate person picking her up. Since I have returned, she seems to have developed some separation anxiety issues. When I drop her off at the day care (a once a week treat because she used to adore it) - she doesn't want to go (though they tell me she has fun while there). Once I hand one of the people her leash, she digs her feet into the floor and won't budge (instead of sprinting to get back to her friends like she used to). today, the lady had to physically turn Dakota away from me. I try to keep our good bye simple, but it doesn't seem to make a difference. Another example - last summer when I ran track workouts, I would tie her to the fence and she would just lie down and wait for me. I tried that last week - and she whined the entire time (the first time I have heard her do that) and started digging.I have a family vacation in Idaho planned... and I am worried to go now. I live in Anchorage, a place with no real snakes and I am scared to take her because of the potential for rattlesnakes. However, I am also scared to leave her behind. Am I just over-reacting? Is there a way to cure her of her newfound separation anxiety?"
Marika's question about how to cure her dog's separation anxiety is one I get a lot. Separation anxiety is something you don't want to mess around with because the possibility of a small case getting much worse is high and I'm thrilled that Marika wants to nip this problem in the bud before it gets much worse.
Marika's dog is adopted and separation anxiety is fairly common in dogs who have been relinquished by their first owners. This dog not only had a first home but also a second for a short period of time with a foster family before ending up in her forever home with Marika. She's an adult dog who, by Marika's own admission, has been loved and "spoiled" by her new owner since her adoption. I hate to say this, but that sent some red flags up. I can't speak for Marika, but "spoiled" dogs are quite often not given the proper cues before major life changes are going to happen. We overcompensate for our lifestyle changes by showering our dogs with love and affection, teaching the dogs to get used to this attention, and then abruptly stop it when we're not around so much. Talk about pulling the rug out from under the dog!
I'm sure Dakota was pretty happy with her new routine in her new home until Marika went on vacation and had to have Dakota shuttled between multiple pet watchers. This is not to say that Marika shouldn't have gone on vacation, she's an adult and she should have her own life, and I don't even know from the limited information I have if the transition between owner to sitter and back could have been any smoother, but now that she's home I don't think Dakota wants to see her owner go away anytime soon. But she is, Marika's going on another vacation (actually, she's probably already gone on that vacation. Her question didn't come up in the queue until now - sorry Marika!), and the dog isn't going to like it.
The best thing to do with a dog with separation anxiety is to start them on an intense desensitizing program. Start by getting the dog used to you leaving for short periods of time and then work up to leaving the dog for extended periods of time, like a vacation. For guidelines on how to do this, check out this article on the ASPCA website and then call a trainer if you need help.
The same goes for the daycare, if your dog doesn't want to leave you for what normally is his favorite activity try getting him used to just the drive over to the daycare facility. Praise him for being there and then drive home. Work in small steps - drive to facility; drive to facility and get out of the car with the dog; drive to the facility, get out of the car with the dog, walk to the front door, etc. - until you can walk into the daycare, hand over your dog and leave without too much stress to the dog.
Remember, there is no magic bullet. Your dog's separation anxiety could be a big problem and that means big solutions. It's going to take some time and effort on your part to ease your dog back into a normal routine. In the meantime, my advice to Marika is to enlist the help of a dog trainer and/or a certified pet behaviorist in her area for Dakota's separation anxiety. A trainer will help with those step by step solutions.
In the meantime, try the book "I'll Be Home Soon" by Patricia McConnell. Short and easy to read, that's a good place to start.