Seven Separation Anxiety Myths
Many dogs in our breed are slapped with the label of ‘separation anxiety’. While this is a serious issue to live with (been there done that) it is also doesn’t have to be a lifelong condition/state of being! There ARE successful ways in which you can address this behaviour. It requires consistency and a whole hearted approach. Here are some ‘separation anxiety myths’ I have adapted from a longer article on the topic from The Whole Dog Website:
“ Here are seven common myths, and why you shouldn’t take them at face value:
1. Dogs who have separation anxiety are always “Velcro” dogs. This is a term commonly used for dogs who stick close by your side, not wanting to be away from you even for a moment. It’s true that many dogs with separation issues follow their owners around the house. Some owners can’t shower in peace, while others can’t even use the bathroom without taking their dogs in with them. And a 2001 study (see “Resources,” next page) by Gerard Flannigan and Nicholas Dodman did find that hyper attachment to the owner was significantly associated with separation anxiety. With all of that, it makes sense to believe that all dogs with separation issues must be Velcro dogs.
There are plenty of other dogs who, while they might not be strongly predatory, are just fine in or outside the house as long as they know someone is at home. So don’t jump to conclusions. If your dog follows you around it could be separation anxiety, but it’s not necessarily the case. And if your dog doesn’t shadow your every move, that doesn’t mean separation issues can be ruled out, either.
2. Letting your dog sleep in your bed will cause separation anxiety. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve heard trainers advise owners not to allow their dogs to sleep with them, for fear the dog would become so bonded that being left alone would become unbearable. Nothing could be further from the truth. The above-referenced study also concluded that “activities such as allowing the dog on the owner’s bed . . . was not associated with separation anxiety.”
While it’s true that sleeping in the owner’s bed won’t cause separation anxiety, if your dog already suffers from the issue, all of that night time closeness won’t help. The goal is for your dog to learn to feel relaxed when alone, and if he can’t even be physically separated from you at night, how can he remain calm by himself during the day when you’re gone? Start by giving your dog an alternate sleeping space. Don’t worry; it can be right by your bed at first. Place a dog bed next to yours and gently coax your dog back into his own bed each time he tries to climb up into yours; or, if necessary, use a short leash to tether him in place nearby. You might eventually choose to have him sleep farther away or outside the room altogether, but getting him out of your bed is a good start.
3. If your dog has separation anxiety, he won’t eat while you’re gone. Think back to a situation where you were extremely worried or afraid. Chances are, a tasty pizza wasn’t the first thing on your mind. For many stressed-out dogs, the same mechanism is at work. But chewing provides stress relief for dogs, and in many cases, despite their stress, dogs will excavate stuffed Kongs, gnaw on chew bones, or work at food-dispensing toys. If you stuff a Kong or other food dispenser for your dog, place the item within easy reach and lay out a short trail of super yummy treats leading to it. This trail o’ treats is more likely to entice your dog to begin chewing than leaving the Kong lying there by itself.
Some dogs are too wound up to stay in one place to chew. For those dogs, a food dispenser that can be batted around, such as Kong Wobbler. These products allow the dog to expend that anxious energy in a more active way, and by providing that focus, may even prevent destruction.
4. If your dog destroys things while you’re away, he must have separation anxiety. While it’s true that destructiveness is the number one symptom of separation anxiety, many dogs are destructive for other reasons, including boredom, under-stimulation, or not being completely trained.
In cases of true separation anxiety, destruction is often focused on the owner’s belongings, since the scent is comforting to the dog, or around doors and windows where the owner has left or can be seen leaving. Destruction of other items is possible, of course, but again, destructiveness in and of itself is not necessarily a sign of a separation issue. As with other clues, it must be factored in to the total case history.
5. Getting another dog will solve the problem. Whether getting a second dog will alleviate the anxiety of the first depends largely on whether the original dog’s distress stems from being separated from a particular person (what we typically think of as separation anxiety), or from simply not wanting to be left alone, which is more accurately called isolation distress. In the case of the latter, any warm body will do.
That’s good news, as the problem might be solved by the presence of a different person, another dog, or, in some cases, even a cat. So for a dog with isolation distress, getting another dog certainly could help; but there is always the chance that it won’t; and, in the worst-case scenario, you could end up with two dogs with separation issues!
Unless you were planning to add another dog to the family anyway, it’s better to do a bit of experimenting first. Consider fostering a dog for a rescue organisation or borrowing a friend’s sturdy, non-anxious dog for a short time. That way, you’ll find out whether your dog is more relaxed with a buddy while you’re gone. (Just be careful to end the experiment if your dog makes the guest dog anxious.) Who knows, if it works out, you might even decide to adopt the foster dog permanently!
6. A dog with separation anxiety should never be left in a crate when alone. This one is another partial myth. There are dogs who, if left crated, will frantically try to escape, and may injure themselves in the process. Others will chew themselves to the point of self-mutilation. Clearly, for those dogs, crating is not a good option. But for a dog who is comfortable in her crate, who sleeps in it at night, and doesn’t mind being contained there for brief periods during the day, the crate might just be a saving grace. Many dogs will settle down more quickly when crated, particularly if the crate lends a feeling of being safely enclosed. For that reason among others, I prefer the plastic snap-together type crates to the wire ones.
7. If your dog has separation anxiety, it’s best to ignore him while you’re at home. This is probably an extrapolation of the traditional advice to ignore your dog for 10 minutes before leaving the house, and for 10 minutes after returning. Avoid making a huge fuss over your comings and goings, and keeping things on an even keel emotionally is the key.
Treat the individual
If your dog has separation anxiety, keep these myths in mind. While some might hold true, others just might not. Closely observing your dog’s behaviour and evaluating it on an individual basis will allow your treatment plan to be that much more successful.
Nicole Wilde, CPDT-KA, is the author of nine books, lectures worldwide on canine behaviour, is an “Ask the Expert” columnist for Modern Dog magazine, and co-stars in the DVD “Train Your Dog: The Positive Gentle Method.” Nicole runs Gentle Guidance Dog Training in southern California, and donates her time photographing rescue dogs to improve their chances of adoption. From The Whole Dog website. Article adapted by Carolyn Gale.