Managing Separation Anxiety in Shih Tzu Dogs
I. Introduction – Separation Anxiety in Shih Tzus
Shih Tzu dogs are known for forming extremely devoted bonds with their owners. While their affectionate and loyal dispositions make them wonderful companion pets, these same traits also predispose the breed to separation anxiety when left home alone for extended periods. Separation anxiety is very prevalent among Shih Tzus and can result in a number of distress behaviors like constant barking, destructive chewing, inappropriate elimination, and more. Successfully managing this anxiety requires ample patience and consistency in training, but the good news is there are a variety of effective strategies that can help a Shih Tzu learn to feel truly comfortable and confident when left home alone. This article will provide an in-depth outline of the top methods for addressing Shih Tzu separation anxiety concerns in this loyal and attached breed.
II. Strategies for Managing Separation Anxiety
A. Progressive Exposure Training
Systematically and gradually exposing a Shih Tzu prone to separation distress to brief periods of time alone is key to properly preparing them to tolerate alone time. This progressive training should start with very short departures of just a few seconds initially. When stepping out briefly, it’s important to ignore any vocalizing or fussing behavior the dog exhibits, and then calmly praise and reward the Shih Tzu upon your return for settling down. Over a period of days and weeks, gradually increase the duration of these practice absences. Go from stepping out for 5 seconds to 10 seconds, then 30 seconds, 1 minute, 5 minutes, 10 minutes, and so on. Always be sure to return before your dog has a chance to become overly anxious or distressed. This careful process slowly conditions the Shih Tzu to become desensitized to, and gain confidence in, being left alone for continually longer time spans. Rushing this progressive training by suddenly leaving for long periods risks intensifying a Shih Tzu’s separation anxiety rather than improving it.
B. Varying Location for Alone Time
In addition to incrementally increasing the duration of absences, it’s also important to conduct the training departures from a variety of different locations around the home. Only practicing leaving from one spot, such as always crating the dog beside the front door, can create an association between that specific area and nervousness or anxiety in the Shih Tzu’s mind. Instead, the location where you leave the dog should be varied and random throughout training. Place their crate or confinement space in multiple different rooms and locations around the house, then conduct brief training departures starting from each spot. Doing this prevents the Shih Tzu from linking being left in any one particular area with stressful emotions. It teaches them to maintain their settled composure when left alone, regardless of which room or location they are confined to in the home. Rotating their safe space helps them generalize their independence.
C. Using Anxiety-Reducing Products
As the alone time durations reach longer levels through progressive training, specialized anxiety-reducing products could be temporarily utilized to help soothe any mild distress the Shih Tzu still exhibits. These can be judiciously used in conjunction with the behavior modification training techniques. Options include pheromone diffusers, calming treats or supplements, anti-anxiety wraps, or other medication prescribed by a vet. It’s important to avoid relying too heavily on any one specific product, and to rotate different aids to prevent dependence or diminished efficacy. The goal remains building the Shih Tzu’s confidence in being alone through training, using anxiety aids only as needed during the process.
D. Establishing Routine for Departures/Returns
In addition to gradual exposure training, establishing a consistent and drama-free routine surrounding both departures and returns can help further reduce separation anxiety. All interactions before and after absences should be kept calm and low-key. Before leaving, be sure to provide exercise and enrichment activities to redirect any nervous energy. Avoid long drawn-out goodbyes which can trigger anticipation anxiety. Exit the home matter-of-factly and unemotionally. Upon returning home, ignore any initial excited behavior and wait until the Shih Tzu is settled to calmly acknowledge them and provide praise. Keep arrivals and departures brief, neutral and repetitive. This communicates to the Shih Tzu that your absences are a non-event and not something to get stressed over.
E. Performing “Mock Departures”
Another technique that can minimize separation anxiety is to periodically conduct mock practice departures. Go through all the normal motions of your pre-departure routine such as picking up your keys, putting on your coat, opening doors, but then sit back down instead of actually leaving. This helps disassociate those cues from meaning you’ll definitely be gone a long time, since sometimes the triggers happen but you don’t leave. Repeating this randomly prevents your body language and routines always predicting real prolonged absences, which can lower anticipation anxiety.
F. Leaving on a Positive Note
Make an effort to always interact positively with your Shih Tzu right before necessary departures. Engage in 5-10 minutes of calm petting, light play or training using praise and treats, ending any session on an upbeat note. Then exit neutrally without fanfare. This helps prevent triggering separation distress by abruptly leaving when the dog is feeling insecure. Sharing pleasant moments prior and making the departure undramatic teaches the Shih Tzu your absence is nothing to dread. It builds their confidence in being left alone.
G. Providing Exercise and Enrichment
Since Shih Tzus thrive on companionship and were bred as lap dogs, leaving them under-stimulated and under socialized for long stretches can manifest as anxiety. Make sure your Shih Tzu receives adequate daily mental exercise and physical activity. Multiple brisk leash walks, interactive play sessions using fetch or tug toys, and training new commands or tricks helps tire them out. Providing puzzle toys, snuffle mats, and other food-dispensing enrichment also keeps their mind engaged and prevents boredom. A well-rounded routine prevents pent-up energy from turning into stress when alone.
H. Scheduling Exercise Before Departures
An effective strategy is to always make sure your Shih Tzu gets adequate vigorous physical activity right before you have to leave them. Take them for an energetic walk, play an intense game of fetch or tug-of-war, or engage in training exercises using lots of movement and treats. Meeting their exercise needs immediately prior helps them feel content, relaxed and tired when left alone afterward. A sufficiently worn out Shih Tzu is less likely to develop anxiety or destructive behavior problems.
I. Offering Interactive Toys
Provide engaging, interactive puzzle feeders, treat-release toys, snuffle mats or food-dispensing balls to keep your Shih Tzu’s mind stimulated and busy during absences. Prolonging mealtime by making them manipulate the toys to access kibble or treats replaces your companionship time and prevents destructive or disruptive behavior stemming from separation stress. Rotate puzzle toys to add novelty and prevent boredom.
J. Having Friends/Family Visit
For longer necessary absences like a work day, arranging for a trusted friend, family member or pet sitter to stop in and visit can be extremely helpful. They can take your Shih Tzu out for a potty walk, provide affection and one-on-one play time, then leave again. Even a short 10-15 minute visit can help break up an extended alone time into smaller, less stressful chunks for your dog. They also get important physical and social activity. Advise visitors to ignore attention-seeking behavior, and to keep greetings and goodbyes as low-key as possible to avoid increasing separation anxiety upon their departure.
K. Asking Visitors to Leave Scented Items
Ask your designated dog visitor to leave something with their scent on it behind for the Shih Tzu, like an unwashed shirt or towel. The familiar smell of this person can have an ongoing calming effect on the dog in between visits. Trading out the scented garment periodically maintains freshness. This lingering sensory reminder of someone trusted helps combat feelings of isolation.
L. Consulting Veterinarian about Anxiety
If your Shih Tzu is exhibiting severe separation anxiety that is not improving with consistent training, consult your veterinarian. The vet can check for any underlying medical problems that could be contributing to or exacerbating the behavioral reactions. They can also refer you to board-certified veterinary behaviorists who can design customized behavior modification plans and prescribe anti-anxiety medication if needed temporarily. Getting expert guidance tailored to your dog’s needs can greatly help resolve persistent separation distress.
M. Maintaining Communication with Vet
Going forward, maintain open communication with your veterinarian, keeping them updated on your Shih Tzu’s progress and responses to the training techniques and any calming aids. Get their input about any adjustments needed to your dog’s behavior modification program. Work collaboratively together to determine the right anxiety reduction protocol for your particular Shih Tzu’s needs. Your vet wants to help your dog overcome this challenge and will be your partner in this process.
III. Setting Up a Safe Confinement Space
A. Limiting Space at First
When first introducing crate training or confinement, it often helps to limit the dog’s space at the outset. For example, use a crate divider panel in a large crate so the Shih Tzu initially only has enough room to stand up, lie down, and turn around. This creates a cozy, den-like environment that prevents them from feeling restless or pacing when first being conditioned to spending time in confinement. Once the dog is fully comfortable and content resting in the limited space, gradually allow more room over time.
B. Using Interactive Puzzles and Toys
Be sure to provide stimulating interactive food puzzle toys inside the confinement space to occupy your Shih Tzu’s mind and time while you are away. Options like Kongs, puzzle feeders, snuffle mats or food-dispensing toys prolong mealtime and provide important mental exercise. The physical and mental engagement of manipulating the toys to extract kibble or treats helps take their focus off your absence. Rotate novel puzzles periodically to prevent boredom. Supervise all play until you’re certain your dog won’t destroy or ingest pieces.
IV. Using Calming Aids As Needed
While calming aids like pheromone diffusers, anxiety wraps and chews can assist in anxiety management, it’s important not to use them excessively or rely solely on these products without training. Use such aids temporarily and judiciously, always working to gradually wean their use and prevent psychological dependence. The goal remains building your Shih Tzu’s confidence in being alone, not becoming reliant on any one particular product or medication. Work closely with your vet and trainer to ensure proper use of calming aids.
V. Frequently Asked Questions
How long can I leave my Shih Tzu stay home alone?
- With proper progressive training, Shih Tzus can learn to eventually tolerate being left alone for 4-6 hours at a time. Untrained dogs or puppies may only handle 30 mins – 2 hours alone initially. Build up alone time gradually.
What if my Shih Tzu has accidents or destroys things when alone?
- Destructiveness and elimination accidents are common symptoms of separation anxiety. Stick to consistent training routines. Never punish anxiety-driven behaviors. Use confinement, exercise, enrichment and calming aids to prevent undesirable behaviors until the distress improves through training.
Should I get another dog to keep my Shih Tzu company?
Getting a second dog for companionship is generally not advisable, as your Shih Tzu may become overly bonded and anxious when separated from that other dog instead. It is better to focus on training your Shih Tzu to be comfortable independent of other pets.
How can I make departures and homecomings less stressful?
- Keep arrivals and departures brief, low-key and drama-free. Exercise and enrich before departures and ignore attention-seeking upon returns. Maintain consistency, exit calmly, and acknowledge dog only once settled. Gradually increase alone time through training up to 4-6 hours.
In summary, with ample patience and diligent application of proven training techniques like desensitization, enrichment, exercise, confinement, and professional guidance as needed, the separation anxiety commonly seen in loving Shih Tzus can be successfully overcome. While this breed is prone to distress when alone, they can learn to feel relaxed and self-assured through consistency in these behavior modification methods. The result is a better-adjusted, happier Shih Tzu.