Does your dog cling to you or shadow you everywhere you go? Even to the bathroom?
It has been said that dogs with separation anxiety have an over-attachment to their guardians, but evidence shows that this is not necessarily true. If you talk to your friends, colleagues and neighbors with dogs that don’t have separation anxiety, you may be surprised to discover that many of their dogs also follow them from room to room. In fact, if we really look into it, this “following thing” is more of a dog thing than a separation anxiety thing.
Research conducted by several veterinarians supports the fact that non-SA dogs and SA dogs alike have similar behavior when it comes to an attachment test. The research showed that dogs with separation anxiety spent no more time in contact with or proximity to their owners than dogs without separation anxiety. Actually, in the same study it was shown that 65% of the dogs without separation anxiety were reported to follow their guardians from room to room.
Why on earth does this matter? First of all, it is important to realize that over-attachment is not a reliable assessment criteria for separation anxiety — other indicators must be present to confirm that separation anxiety is the issue. Secondly, because over-attachment appears to not be a contributing factor to separation anxiety, it doesn’t make sense to focus on that aspect for training.
Many trainers talk about using a training technique called “Nothing in Life for Free” with separation anxiety dogs. Guardians are told to ignore their dogs — particularly when they are displaying any behaviors that are engaging in social contact. I personally think this is absolutely the wrong direction to go with a separation anxiety dog, as it harms the relationship and will likely create both confusion and frustration in the dog. Now, understand that I am not saying be overly indulgent either. If the dog is jumping on you or barking at you for attention, we should surely walk away from that, but across the board ignoring the dog for any pro-social behavior feels heartless to me and is also counter-intuitive to what we want out of a relationship with our beloved pets.
In addition to ignoring the dog, it is sometimes suggested that a sit- or down-stay be trained, or other general obedience behaviors be worked on and greatly strengthened. There is certainly nothing wrong with doing these things. They help overall with having a nicely behaved dog, provide mental stimulation, and can enrich the dog’s life. However, we really have to examine whether this approach is genuinely beneficial for treating separation anxiety.
What does remaining in an obedience “stay” have to do with separation anxiety? Very little. It might be a lovely behavior to have, and it could help the dog to learn that the coming and goings from room to room are not reason to follow, but once actually left alone, this behavior does nothing to help. I would never recommend that anyone teach a dog to “stay” and then actually leave the house for any appreciable length of time. Yikes! A stay behavior is trained obedience, and the dog can learn to remain motionless for a time, however, do you want the dog to feel that they have to remain motionless the whole time they are left alone in the house? Can you see how this stay behavior would become too challenging for an anxious dog after some duration had passed, so the stay would get broken anyway?
Working on all other behaviors that a dog does — such as jumping or pulling on leash, etc. — is excellent stuff. But it is not going to do anything for the sheer terror the dog is experiencing when left alone.
So, what will help? Teaching the dog through exceedingly gradual steps that being home alone is not a scary thing — a process called desensitization, which is used with animals of every species (including humans) to help overcome fears and phobias.
To explain the process, I’ll use a human example. Let’s say you were deathly afraid of spiders (like I am). If you went to a counselor to help you with your debilitating fear, the last thing that she would do would be to throw a spider into your lap or dump a bucket of them in your hair. (Oh geez, I am going to have bad dreams tonight just thinking of that!) The first thing that the counselor might do is show you a picture of a cartoon spider or use a stuffed spider toy. Sound crazy? It’s not!! Eventually the photo of the spider would be more realistic and you would be encouraged to be comfortable — relaxed even — while looking at the spider picture. Later, maybe a realistic plastic spider would be introduced. In time, you would move to a spider in a locked jar 20 feet away. Eventually things would progress to more close encounters of the “spider” kind, but only when you were comfortable and ready for the next level of difficulty. This, of course, would take time, but being anxiety free always does. And trust me, it is so worth the time and effort.
We use this same process with dogs when helping them to learn to be relaxed at home alone. For some dogs, we might have to start with a one-second absence (or less) but we can build that up over time and repetition. Are you wondering if it will be the year 2027 before your dog can be left alone if you go at this slow pace? Fortunately, the answer to that question is no — dogs will progress slowly at first (kind of like watching paint dry), but things will accelerate as you move forward with the process.
So, the next time someone suggests obedience behaviors for your separation anxiety dog’s treatment, you can thank them for their kind suggestion, but be confident that you know where to spend your training efforts — desensitization is where it’s at!
 Valli Parthasarathy MS, PhD, DVM – Sharon L. Crowell-Davis DVM, PhD, Dipl. ACVB Relationship Between attachment to owners and separation anxiety in pet dogs (Canis lupus familiaris)