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Separation Anxiety


by Pat Renshaw (This article previously appeared in Dogs in Canada Annual)

Dogs left alone for periods of time often manifest stress behaviours that are pigeon holed into the catch-all phrase of ’separation anxiety’. I’m not sure that this is an accurate term but it is a term that humans can understand thus we tack it on to a dog behaviour.

Call it what you will, it is taught by the human care-giver and is manifested in dog stress relieving behaviours (chewing, urinating, defecating, self-mutilization, etc.). If the first part of this statement is true, how does this happen?

Simply put, we make a big deal of leaving. We instill a feeling of gloom and doom. We assume that the dog is going to be upset because we’re leaving. Worse, we feel guilty about it and to alleviate that guilt and to let the dog know that we feel guilty about it, we make it into a big production. The dog understands that you are upset; he has no idea why but he does understand that there is a problem. This causes stress and to relieve it he does dog things. Unfortunately, they are inappropriate albeit perfectly normal - for a dog.

Let me set a scenario for you. You have a new puppy. You work full time so you are away from your home for 8 - 9 hours a day. You feel that you have to pack a day’s worth of time with your puppy into the 1 - 2 hours prior to your leaving. Just prior to leaving the house you cuddle, coo and coddle the puppy. You probably don’t feel comfortable confining him so you gather his toys, pat and kiss him and generally fawn all over him. Then you leave.

The dog is left to his own devices for a long period of time. Although he sleeps a goodly portion of it, he does entertain himself for the time that he’s awake. He’s a dog and he sees your home and possessions as one huge chew toy. Keep in mind he is not capable of putting monetary value on your household or personal items. Old shoes, Gucci shoes; they’re all the same to him. An antique table, one from Leon’s; no matter to him. He’s left to his own devices so he entertains himself with what’s at hand. This does not please you.

On your arrival home, you react. The dog understands nothing except that when you leave you are cooing and fawning all over him. When you return, you are angry.

He soon learns that your leaving is not a good thing. Your returning is even worse. That time he spends alone anticipating your return is nothing short of stressful! He is, after all, sharing his life with a human who appears to have a temperament problem. His human is loving and fawning one minute and in the next instance, exhibits ’rage syndrome’ at the drop of a hat and without warning. To relieve the stress, he does what dogs do. You see it as destroying things. You see it as spite for leaving him. It isn’t. Spite is a human emotion not an animal one. Animals are not capable of spiteful behaviour. The ’look’ that you interpret as guilt so "he knows that he did something wrong" is not guilt. Every time you return you are angry. You never disappoint him in this regard so he reacts to your entering your home by running and hiding or cowering. That ’look’ is fear, plain and simple.

If separation anxiety is a learned behaviour, how can we modify it? How can we teach our dog that our leaving is not something that he has to concern himself with? Stop making it into an event. To modify the dog’s behaviour, it is necessary to modify our own first.

Put your puppy in a safe place; one where he can’t get into any trouble, give him his toys. Don’t pat, kiss and cuddle him - just leave. When you come home, if anything is amiss, just deal with it. Note I said ’it’ - not the dog. If he’s destroyed a book, clean it up. Don’t say word one to the dog - just clean it up. The dog will still react as if you’re going to do the rage thing but understand that that’s all it is - anticipation of your reaction. If you don’t he’ll have no reason to stress about it. If you do this, eventually the destructive behaviours will extinguish. You will not be creating a reason for them. If your dog is in a confined and safe place during your absence, he can’t get in any trouble and you can return with the assurance that your house and possessions are intact. Everyone’s happy.

A word of advise. You knew when you got your puppy that you would be away from your home during the daytime hours. Don’t feel guilty about it. Don’t put your guilt on your dog’s shoulders. He can’t handle it. There’s many a dog that is placed in a new home or euthanized before their first birthday through inappropriate behaviours that are actually inadvertently taught and reinforced by the human care-givers. Don’t let this be the fate of your puppy. If you are in this type of situation, seek help from a professional dog trainer.