Behavior problems lead to the death of more animals than all the infectious diseases combined. Animals with housebreaking issues, separation anxiety and aggression are often placed in home after home, sent back to the shelter or euthanized.
Preventing behavior issues is easier than correcting bad behavior. Proper training with puppy classes is more common now. Many veterinarian offices -- ours included -- offer this critical training for new pets and pet owners. Training sets boundaries for your dog so he or she can be better adjusted and secure.
One of the frequent questions asked by Post-Gazette readers is the issue of separation anxiety. One in six dogs experiences this problem.
In spite of normal training, some puppies will become stressed when left alone. They will destroy and soil parts of the home and bark repeatedly.
The following is the story of Shiloh. Jeff and Kate were a young couple who had many dogs growing up. Shiloh was a friendly lab that they got from a rescue group. Without much communication with the group, they took Shiloh as a foster and possible permanent home. The group did not know of the couple's work hours, and the new family did not know that this dog had been in five homes in 11 months.
Shiloh was calm, obedient and housebroken. He would sleep next to the family on the floor and enjoyed playing with people and toys. He would follow Jeff and Kate but would be OK when left in a room by himself. He liked his crate and would rest there when the family ate dinner. He walked well on a leash and was a great dog.
But his behavior changed dramatically when they left the house. He would break out of the crate and try to claw through the front door or window. If unable to break out of the crate he would soil himself and the bedding.
Jeff and Kate realized this was not normal adjustment. The behavior was repeated daily, and it was not healthy for the dog. He was causing physical and emotional harm to himself.
When I was consulted, the diagnosis of separation anxiety was easy. We started a routine of behavior modification and medication. This can be successful 70 percent of the time. It is not easy and takes lots of dedication. Despite our efforts, Shiloh eventually had to be returned to the shelter.
As mentioned before, preventing separation anxiety is easier than correcting the behavior. Training starts on day one with your new puppy. Puppy class and obedience school are highly recommended.
Most veterinarians will recommend a crate for your pup. This helps with housebreaking and provides a safe and secure environment. It is best to not signal your puppy when you are leaving. Get the puppy used to your absence by leaving for short and then longer trips away. You may have to train your dog to be left by leaving multiple times a day.
Grabbing your keys and giving the dog clues that you are leaving can tell a puppy it is about to be left for the day. Try to keep a puppy occupied with chew toys -- such as one stuffed with a biscuit or peanut butter -- when you're departing.
Upon returning do not interact immediately. When you do interact do so at your initiative. Dogs who act up hours before owners return should not be punished.
My personal opinion is that many dogs require more exercise than they receive and that this can help them adjust. Doggie day care is now widely available, and this is a good option for dogs who do not like to be left alone.
Many animals are helped with behavior modification alone and two medications -- tricyclic antidepressants and Prozac, a SSRI antidepressant -- are now approved for this condition. Additionally there are training videos and programs to help the dogs overcome their anxiety. If separation anxiety is a problem for you, there are resources your veterinarian can provide including behavior specialists.
Dr. Gerson is a veterinarian and founder of the Point Breeze Veterinary Clinic. His column appears biweekly. The intent of this column is to educate pet owners. Consultation with a veterinarian is necessary to diagnose and treat individual pets. If you have a question you'd like addressed in Pet Points, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org . Please include your name and municipality or neighborhood.