Separation anxiety is a distressing condition for dog and owner, and often even other people in the community.
Sometimes a dog develops the behaviour seemingly for no discernible reason, sometimes it seems related to moving house or a change in the household. But no matter the superficial cause, close examination of human behaviour is the key.
The unfortunate truth is, humans cause separation anxiety. The good news, however, is that you can begin to deal with ‘separation anxiety’ immediately, without medication, and effect positive change often within hours of changing your behaviour.
What is separation anxiety?
Separation anxiety can manifest in many ways, but typically people first recognise barking and destructive behaviour, rather than the more subtle whining or behaviour people often think is endearing, like 'clinginess'.
Separation anxiety is not that the dog is afraid to be alone, misses you, loves you soooo much, or needs you with him.
Separation anxiety is caused because you behave in a way that tells the dog you are not competent to be out on your own - more like a parent being frantic about a missing child.
Additionally, you unwittingly create a bunch of negative associations with the set of events related to your leaving. The dog soon associates your very predictable behaviour that precedes your departure - getting dressed, putting on shoes, picking up keys, putting out toys, and ‘be a good boy’- as a prelude to these awful feelings.
Much of the resulting undesirable behaviour is to eleviate extremely high levels of stress.
In effect, this means that how you have been behaving has in fact inadvertently caused the problem.
It can be hard to hear that what you think is your expression of 'love' for your dog, is in fact causing this distress for your dog, and you. But understanding this means you can start to tackle the problem in a way that is sustainable, and meaningful for your dog.
Make your dog the luckiest devil!
A dog is a social pack animal. The pack is a dynamic social order in which dogs almost constantly and subtly vie for status, authority and control. The way you interact with a dog communicates your status in the pack, your knowledge, your authority, your ability to lead.
A dog is not competent to be in charge of this social structure, in spite of his constant attempts to control. If you are not in charge, it’s like letting a toddler drive a car!
You can prevent or eliminate separation anxiety by communicating in simple ways that a dog understands, and that confirm you are competent and in charge. When someone else is in charge, you can chill out knowing that someone else has got this!
Relieve your dog of the pressure of being in charge, and he need not have a care in the world! Lucky devil!
Begin with these tips:
Come and go
Break the association between coming and going and a stress reaction by simply going about your business when you come into and leave the dog's presence - like when you go to work, or go bed or go to the toilet.
Nothing special happening, everything normal. Pretend the dog doesn’t exist. That means no eye contact, no verbal contact and no physical contact. Your absence was normal, and your return is normal.
If your dog starts to get agitated when you pick up keys, close doors, or put on shoes, do those things without going out, for example.
Practise by coming and going through doors that you close behind you, ignoring the dog as you go around the house. Start with short periods - perhaps just seconds - on the other side of a closed door, and build it up over time.
When you come home, pretend he is not there and wait to greet him until you have put your shopping away, or got changed, or perhaps made a cup of tea. Wait until the dog is calm and quiet, maybe even lying on the floor, then call him over. Then have all the cuddles you need!
Get rid of anxious energy
Good habits can tip things in your favour. Walk your dog off-lead to burn mental and physical energy before you leave. The dog will be more likely to be settled when you leave and less likely to need to take out his excess energy and stress on your home.
Control your resources
This means food, toys, beds, furniture - it's all your stuff, on loan temporarily and at your discretion! Don't leave toys or food out, move the 'dog bed', don't allow dogs on human furniture, go through thresholds first - just some of the ways dogs in a domestic situation understand status and control.
We reward our dogs a million times a day without ever knowing it. Understand how and when your dog has you wrapped around his little metaphorical finger. Understand 'contact on your terms' and eliminate this subtle confirmation that he is in charge.
Create positive associations
You have undoubtedly created negative associations with the prelude to your absence.
You can create positive associations by providing food reward on leaving - first when going into room very briefly.
You might give your dog a meaty bone, or dry food in a ’toy’, like a Kong, where he has to occupy himself to get food, for example.
Additionally, if the behaviour is also associated with boredom, then the activity occupies him with something productive and appropriate rather than destroying stuff.
Importantly, take this bone, Kong or toy away when you get home. And provide these calories ‘instead of’ not in ‘addition to’ the daily food intake!
This approach is only helpful when the dog’s anxiety is lower. And you need to combine this with all the other stuff as another tool to knock this one on the head.
When you feel you have created a neutral or positive association with your leaving, taper off using this tool. You don’t want to create another rod for your back!
If you need help to deal with separation anxiety, get in touch!