As I’m writing this on my couch, I’m in a certain amount of pain. Pins and needles shoot through one of my ankles due to long inactivity under one peacefully snoozing dog and my body is twisted into an awkward position to reach the keyboard over another pooch, luxuriously sprawled across me. Enduring this discomfort for the love of my dogs reminds me of a conversation I had recently with a new client.
The client, Rebecca, struggled with guilt and confusion because, she had been told, she loved her dog too much. Friends, family, even a few dog professionals had put it to her that her adoration had caused her dog’s separation anxiety. The prevailing advice was to withdraw her devotion, be more cool and aloof, and thus encourage her dog to become more independent and learn to be confident without her. This is very common advice, and that saddens and worries me.
Before we dive into why I feel this way, let’s make the following clear:
1. Love and affection, however frequently showered on a dog, do not cause separation anxiety.
2. Removing affection is not going to boost a separation anxiety protocol.
These, I know, are controversial statements to many. Yes, you can potentially over-coddle a dog and yes, you can create an environment-specific demand barker through over-indulgence. And no, overly effusive greetings are not ideal. However, comments like these miss the point. Separation anxiety is a panic disorder—in the same class as phobias—and must be approached with judiciously calibrated, context-specific classical conditioning. In the meantime, any comfort you can give the dog, or he you, should be enjoyed freely.
In more than a decade of working with hundreds of dogs, I have observed both dogs whose guardians lavished them with adoration and dogs whose guardians more or less ignored them. I didn’t see more cases of separation anxiety—or more serious cases—in one category over the other.
Research bears out this observation. Professor of animal behavior Victoria Voith writes: “Studies that have examined client behavior and the development of separation anxiety have demonstrated no association between the former and the development of the latter.”1
Now back to Rebecca and the bad advice she received. What saddens me about her situation is that she was allowed to believe she had caused her dog’s separation anxiety. Not only is this not true, but the guilt and feelings of inadequacy that accompany such an allegation is likely to damage anyone’s ability to tackle a gut-wrenching behavior problem—or put them off doing so altogether. Guardians setting out to help a dog with separation anxiety deserve practical and emotional support, any tools we can give them, admiration, respect, and, as far as I’m concerned, a medal.
And what worries me is the prevalence of the notion that removing affection and attention from a relationship will somehow produce a more confident being, whether your dog, child, or spouse. This is unequivocally not the case.
In her diagnostic criteria for separation anxiety, when discussing risk factors, E. A. McCrave states “…there was no association with spoiling activities such as allowing the dog to sleep on the owner’s bed, feeding the dog from the table, or taking the dog on errands.”2
Taking an example from this text, let’s examine the instruction by many practitioners to no longer allow a separation anxiety dog to sleep in the bed or even to ban the dog from sleeping in the bedroom altogether.
This approach likely won’t help. Dr. Karen Overall states when referring to separation-related issues “…sleeping with a pet does not cause the problem—the majority of people who do sleep with their pets have no problems. Were this a causal pattern, that could not be true.”3
Moreover, this might be the only time the dog experiences a feeling of calm or relief during an existence of nonstop anxiety.
Not everyone does or should extend bed rights. It’s down to personal preference. The point is, if you and your dog enjoy co-sleeping, there’s no separation anxiety-related reason to stop.
Having established that affection-removal strategies aren’t useful in separation anxiety training and that our behavior does not cause separation anxiety, we can focus on what we know to be helpful: systematic training exercises.
My advice to Rebecca and the countless doting guardians like her?
Go ahead and be as loving with your dog as you want to. You are doing nothing but good. I extend this advice from under two dogs whose up-close-and-personal affection has, by now, left my ankle numb and my upper calf throbbing painfully. But that’s true love and I am wholeheartedly in favor of it.
1. V.L. Voith and P.L Borchelt, 1985c; Voith et al. 1992
2. McCrave, E.A. 1991. Diagnostic criteria for separation anxiety, 21:247-255
3.Overall, Karen L., Clinical Behavioral Medicine For Small Animals 1997, p 218