What SA Looks Like: A Dog’s View
“I’m Bella. I’m happy, boisterous, full of energy. I love just about everything and everyone. But most of all, I live for my wonderful humans.
Every day when I’m left alone I’m overcome with panic. My heart races, my body shakes, and my insides squeeze into a knot. I pant, drool, bark and howl, and sometimes even wet myself. I can’t control my fear, and I’ve even torn up the door in my desperation to get to my people.”
What SA Looks Like: An Owner’s View
“Bella is an awesome dog. She’s funny and smart and affectionate. But we don’t know what to do with her. When we leave the house to go to work or run errands or anything else she falls apart. The neighbors are complaining about her barking, and I’m constantly stressed about what I’m going to find when I get home—an angry note, a torn-up rug, pee on the carpet, Bella acting like I’ve been gone for years instead of hours. I feel so bad for her, but I can’t figure out how to make her understand we’re coming back—we always come back. I’m not sure how much longer this can go on.”
This is a classic narrative for the millions of dogs suffering from separation anxiety, and the owners who love them. SA dogs are usually perfect companions in every other respect, but this devastating disorder leaves both dogs and their people stressed and exhausted. Perfect dogs, amazing owners, daily misery.
You’re not alone. The American Veterinary Medical Association estimates that 15% of the 72 million dogs in this country suffer from some degree of separation anxiety. Milder cases often go untreated, creating a daily ordeal for these dogs. Severe cases often result in relinquishment to a shelter, where a dog’s options are euthanasia or re-adoption. Unfortunately re-homing generally increases the severity of SA symptoms.
What Causes SA? (Don’t Worry, Your Dog Isn’t Mad At You.)
Separation anxiety can be caused by a nervous disposition, a scary experience when left alone (such as a house burglary or taunting by construction workers), moving, re-homing, changes in the family
(the loss or exit of a family member, for example), a particularly traumatizing experience (for example, a dog attack, or being hit by a car), or regular, overlong absences.
It’s a common misconception that dogs pee, defecate, bark incessantly, or tear things up because they are mad at their people for leaving them alone. It’s an understandable and tempting explanation, but it just isn’t so. Dogs do not have the same cognitive machinery as we humans. Lucky for them, they’re not able to experience or express human emotions like resentment, guilt, or angry protest.
Your dog isn’t angry with you for leaving. He’s terrified of being left alone. This is not a voluntary state of being for him. It’s something he has no control over.
Why SA Doesn’t Resolve On Its Own
It seems logical to put off training with the hope that a dog will eventually get over the fear of being left alone. After all, you always come back, right? Unfortunately, it doesn’t work this way. In fact, it’s just the opposite: Most dogs with SA get worse over time, not better.
An SA dog’s body is flooded with stress-inducing chemicals each time he’s left alone. The experience of daily panic and fear begins to make him hyper vigilant, constantly watching his owner for signs she may be leaving. You may have noticed over time that your dog has become very aware of what shoes you put on (watching whether you’re lacing up for a walk or slipping on your work heels), where you keep your car keys, even what day of the week it is (Sunday mornings are “safe,” while Monday mornings are reason to fret). Dogs who worry about being left alone get good at noticing the predictors of your departure (certain shoes, reaching for your keys, even eventually your morning bathroom routine—“Oh no! Mom is showering for work!”), and over time they begin to worry about more and more predictors.
This constant state of mild stress punctuated by the panic brought on by actual absences contributes to a devastating cycle of stress chemical production that makes it impossible for a dog to learn to feel safe while alone without training intervention.
The good news is that through training and, in some severe cases, the additional aid of medication, dogs can learn to be much more comfortable when left on their own.
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