Teaching puppies how to be alone is a very important part of raising a behaviorally healthy dog. Dogs are genetically programed to be part of a group, and puppies need to learn to feel comfortable when left alone by their owners. I get calls all the time from people telling me that their dog has separation anxiety. That it cries, whines or is destructive when left alone. I am happy to report that in most of these cases there are other reasons for the dog’s behavior, which makes me think that people don’t understand what separation anxiety really is.
Separation anxiety is a fearful reaction shown by dogs to being separated from someone to whom that animal is attached. It’s like a panic attack. The pet experiences that their person isn’t coming back. Almost always it is triggered by being separated from a person, but occasionally we see it when an animal is separated from another animal.
The symptoms that are shown when the person is gone are usually: panting, pacing, salivating, barking and howling, destructiveness, house soiling or escaping from the house or yard. Not every dog shows all these symptoms. However the dogs with separation anxiety show the symptoms very consistently when the person is gone and don’t usually show them when the person is around.
Other characteristics that are often diagnostic of animals with this problem include, becoming anxious or depressed when people prepare to leave or over-exuberant greeting responses when people return. In addition, these dogs often follow their owner around the house and don’t seem comfortable out of sight of the owner.
Let’s dispel a few separation anxiety myths, shall we:
Myth #1: “Whenever a dog is showing disruptive behavior when the owners aren’t around, its separation anxiety”. Not all home-alone problems are separation anxiety. Other problems can cause these symptoms. They include:
• Fears of other things – thunder, fireworks, construction noises
• Medical problem – pain causing vocalizations, urinary tract infection causing house soiling
• Aggressive motivations – barking, growling, destructiveness or escape to attack others
• Boredom – destructiveness, vocalizing or escape due to the lack of mental or social stimulation
• Play or Attention seeking – overturned objects, chewed objects, barking at others
Myth #2: “Dogs show the behavior because they are leaderless. Owners who are properly dominant over the dog don’t have the problem”. It doesn’t happen because the owners haven’t established dominance or the right relationship with the dog. Along with this, sometimes people argue the problem is caused by a lack of obedience. It’s not an obedience problem and obedience classes won’t help.
Myth #3: “Dogs show the behavior because they aren’t getting enough exercise”. It doesn’t have anything to do with lack of exercise. Exercise won’t cure the problem. Exercise might help with play or boredom caused problems, but not with fear-motivated problems.
Myth #4: “It’s caused by your dog being spiteful, or jealous or acting out to make a statement, or is done in revenge”. It isn’t caused by spite, revenge, acting out, making a statement or jealousy. There is no evidence that dogs behave for these reasons. Such explanations often lead owners to punish the animal for the misdeed. Any sort of punishment after the fact, when the owners get home, won’t be effective, and punishing a fearful behavior only increases the fear and anxiety. Using electronic fences, remote training collars or anti-bark collars on fearful dogs will only make it worse.
Myth #5: “It’s caused by people being too close to their dogs, and treating them like people rather than dogs”. It isn’t caused because people are too close to the dog. Ignoring the dog or not letting him be with people won’t make it better, and may make it worse. Such withdrawal of attention often creates more anxiety and makes the problem worse.
Myth #6: “It’s cured by giving the dog a pill”. It can’t be cured by just giving the dog a pill. Drugs are helpful, but rarely do medications by themselves resolve the problem.
Myth #7: “The problem is hopeless. Once a dog develops it, it can’t be changed”. The problem isn’t hopeless. It responds very well to behavior modification that aims to create a relaxed emotional response to being separated from the owners. But, people have to do the work, it doesn’t happen overnight, it takes weeks or months, and drugs may be needed to facilitate the process. It must be done correctly or it will make the problem worse. Owners usually need the help of a qualified behavior consultant or veterinarian experienced in working with the problem.