The Happy Beast - Blog - Exercise

Separation Anxiety: Behaviorist’s Approach

Separation anxiety is probably the most common behavior concern our customers have with their dogs. It is characterized by dogs who, when left alone, howl, bark, whine, house-soil and/or chew and destroy carpet, doors, blinds, couches, etc. Behaviors range from mild to extreme. Some dog may not eat when left alone, while dogs with more severe anxiety might break out of crates, scratch through doors, or dig under fences.

In January, I met with animal behaviorist, Dr. Juli Potter, DVM of Starwood Veterinary Care in Boulder County, to discuss separation anxiety in canines: what causes it, how to manage it, and when an animal behaviorist can help.

Dr. Potter explains that most dogs suffer from some kind of separation anxiety. We have spent thousands of years domesticating dogs and breeding them to be our constant companions. While dogs are not meant to be alone, we can train even the most anxious dog to be comfortable and confident while we are away.

Rule out or identify any medical problem contributing to your dog’s separation anxiety.

Dr. Potter recommends a full blood panel with urinalysis and a complete physical exam. Left untreated, pain and illness lead to and/or increase anxiety.

Practice empathy.

Coming home to a dog who has destroyed the house or getting complaints from neighbors about your dog barking can be terribly frustrating. Try to understand why your dog behaves this way. He’s not angry or “acting out.” He’s seeking out ways to cope with the stress he’s feeling. Remember, punishing a dog who is fearful or anxious will only increase his fear and anxiety. It may even teach him to avoid you.

Make life predictable.

Create a predictable daily schedule for you and your dog. A consistent routine reduces separation anxiety by teaching your dog what to expect. Feed, walk, and train your dog 2-3 times per day. Training sessions and walks don’t have to be long; 15-30 minutes for each is sufficient. Dr. Potter says the morning walk is the most important one. It allows your dog to burn up energy before spending the day alone. Need help with training? A behaviorist can design a treatment program based on your individual needs. Need help with walking? Stop by The Happy Beast to pick up business cards for local dog walkers and pet sitters in the area.

Teach basic commands.

Basic commands like “sit”, “down”, “stay” and “shake” help teach your dog predictability as well. When practicing, say the command, wait for (or encourage) your dog to perform the behavior, then reward your dog with a treat. Practice these behaviors for 10-­15 minutes 2-­3 times a day. Teaching basic commands and tricks is a predictable way to interact with your dog for it helps your dog learn what is expected of him.

Ignore needy behavior.

Ignore very needy, attention-seeking behavior. Dr. Potter says this is more challenging for the humans than for the dogs. If your dog jumps up on you, shoves his head under your hand to be pet, or begs for attention, you have to walk away and do not look at him. Giving in to these behaviors reinforces your dog’s constant “neediness” for you.

When you have to leave…

Be sure to ignore your dog for at least 20-­30 minutes before you have to leave.. By this time, your dog should have had a walk, a short training session and his breakfast. Don’t make your departure anything special or overly emotional. About 10 minutes before you leave, give your dog a special treat such as a Snoop filled with treats, a bully stick or a Kong stuffed with peanut butter or dog food. (Dr. Potter suggest filling a Kong with canned dog food and freezing it overnight.)

When to seek professional help.

If your dog’s separation anxiety is negatively affecting you or your dog’s quality of life, consulting with a behaviorist can make a remarkable difference. Dr. Potter explains that sometimes the things we think are helping our animals are actually reinforcing their anxious behaviors. A behaviorist can help you identify what is working, what is setting you back and also prescribe a training protocol.

In certain cases, a vet may also prescribe an anti-­anxiety medication. Dr. Potter explains that medications like these are a “band­-aid” and should only be used short term. The medication reduces the dog’s anxiety so that he can begin to learn alternate positive behaviors. As training goes into effect and the dog becomes symptom free,the medication should be tapered off. Anti­-anxiety medications inhibit the production of neurotransmitters in the brain, therefore a rebound effect, or worsening of symptoms, can occur if the medication is stopped suddenly.

Dr. Juli Potter, DVM of Starwood Veterinary Care in Boulder County offers in home wellness visits, behavior consulting and training. Her mission is to enhance the human-animal bond through knowledge, empathy, and compassionate care.

 

Indoor vs. Outdoor Cats: Benefits and Risks

Keeping cats indoors has become our cultural norm only in the last 20 years, and as a result of this, cats are living longer. However, it is not always the easiest decision, nor the right decision for every cat. The question that has always been in the back of my mind regarding outdoor cats is, “Does a longer life mean a fuller life?”  I think the answer to that question likely depends on the cat and the living circumstances.

Benefits of the Indoors:

  • Safety from cars, fights and injury from wildlife or dogs
  • Longer life expectancy
  • More domesticated- Many say that cats become more “domesticated” when kept indoors
  • Protect wild birds
  • Avoid risks from poisons and toxins

Benefits of the Outdoors:

  • Reduced behavioral issues like unwanted scratching and urination
  • Reduced aggression towards humans and other household pets
  • Reduced emotional stress due to environmental stimuli
  • “Barn” and “working” cats help keep rodent populations down

Keeping cats indoors is by far the most common sentiment regarding the responsibilities of cat guardianship. Life expectancies have greatly increased because of the reduced risks of traffic accidents, fighting, injury, and infection. A major consideration for keeping cats indoors is safety.

Attitudes about “outdoor vs. indoor” cats is influenced by our culture, both macro and micro. For instance our “national” attitude towards cats is to keep them indoors, whereas our “neighborhood” culture may be to allow them outdoors.

Confining a cat to the indoors can guarantee their safety, but it also restricts their natural instincts to hunt, mark their territory, and explore. As a result of this confinement we see more behavioral problems with indoor cats than with outdoor cats.

It is my personal opinion that not all cats are well suited for indoor life. Those cats that are not well suited for the indoors will find other undesirable ways to express their biological needs, such as aggression towards others, spraying, scratching, and inappropriate urination/defecation.

We all know that an indoor cat will likely have a longer life, but I don’t believe this necessarily means a fuller life. We tend to project our own desires on to our animals, and I am no different. I look at my cats and when I think about that choice they would make for themselves, I feel that they would take the risk because I can’t imagine living my life solely indoors. I crave the outdoors and it’s an essential part of living a balanced life.

So here’s how I will break it down: For those who choose to keep their cats indoors I will provide a list of ways to keep your cats well balanced and happy. And for those who choose to let their cats outdoors I will provide a list of ways to keep your cats safe.

Keeping Indoor Cats HAPPY!

  1. PLAY! Play is so important for allowing your cat to express their natural instincts to hunt and explore. Interactive toys such as laser pointers, “chaser” poles, and treat dispensing toys provide both physical and mental stimuli.
  2. Scratching posts allow your cat to “mark their territory.” Provide different types of scratching options, i.e. sisal, corrugated cardboard, and cat trees made from real wood and place them in several different areas of your house.
  3. Provide options to climb, jump, and perch. Cat trees, shelves, and window perches give your cat the ability to exercise and give them a safe zone to observe their environment.
  4. Playmate: Companion animals can provide social interaction that can be beneficial as long as the animals are provided with enough space and resources and their personalities are well suited for one another.
  5. Treasure hunt- When you are at work or gone for extended periods of time, think about hiding treats around the house. This is a fun game that will engage your cat both mentally and physically.

Keeping Outdoor Cats SAFE!

  1. Cat enclosures and cat-proof fencing- enclose a window or porch. Cat proof your yard with angled fence attachments that prevent your cat from jumping out of your yard. Check out www.CatMan-Do.com and www.EasyPetFence.com
  2. Take your cat for a walk! Cat harnesses can be a super fun way to spend time with your cat and give your cat a safe way to access the outdoors. Remember the key to success is to let your cat walk you!
  3. Outdoor time should be permitted during daylight hours only, and only when you are home to supervise.
  4. Make sure your cat is healthy and up-to-date on vaccinations.
  5. Train your cat to come when you call them…. yes, it’s possible!

In summary, I think it’s important to understand the needs of your cat on an individual level and to provide for those needs accordingly. Not every situation is black and white. Use your own best judgement and make the decision that’s right for your cat.

Walk Your Dog! (It’s more rewarding than you think)

I used to hate taking Pi for walks. She pulled. She growled at strangers. She went crazy every time she saw a rabbit. But now we walk happily all over town. 15-minute walks easily turn into two-hour long adventures. We have discovered beautiful open spaces, interesting old houses and smelly things for Pi to roll in. Pi is a calmer, happier dog and I’m a cheerier, more relaxed person when we make a point to walk every day!

Turns out, there’s science behind this. Dogs and wolves come from a common ancestor – one that foraged for food, covering miles of territory every day. Today, our canine companions don’t have to go searching for food (that’s what they have us for!)- but walks help satisfy other basic needs. Sniffing out other animal smells and encountering new things in their environment provide great brain stimulation. Even a ten-minute walk can help mentally-exercise your dog! (Just like ten minutes of doing tough math or word problems can help exercise our brains.)

Walking is good for us too. A study done at the California State University- Long Beach, showed that walking benefits humans in more ways than just the physical exercise. The study followed 37 subjects over a 20-day period. Professor Robert Thayer, leader of the study noted, “We found that there was a clear and strong relationship between the number of steps [participants] took and their overall mood and energy level,” (If you want to read more about that study, click here: http://www.csulb.edu/misc/inside/archives/vol_58_no_4/1.htm)

It took some time, patience, and a lot of training treats to get Pi to walk nicely on a leash, but  the effort was totally worth it! I recommend using a training tool so you have a little more control over your dog if they get distracted. I used a Easy Walk Harness and a Halti head collar when I was training Pi to walk nicely. I still pull them out when we go to a new trail or exciting environment where she might “forget” her leash manners.

Walking Pi in the morning also allows me time to gather my thoughts before starting my workday, and walking her in the evenings helps me to unwind and review the day. Pi’s always happy to get out and see who’s peed on each fire hydrant since she smelled it last. If walking isn’t part of your routine yet, take your dog for a 5-10 minute walk around your block. I’m willing to bet you’ll both have some fun. If you and your dog are already getting out for regular walks, we want to hear about that too! Tell us where your favorite route is!