Does your dog have separation anxiety? Let me alleviate any misconception or guilt you might be carrying: You did not give your dog this condition.
Wait a moment, you thought this article was about separation anxiety prevention didn’t you? Read on, it will make sense.
Sammy is a Cavalier King Charles pup and is as cute as they come. His dad, Patrick, did his due diligence and researched the breeder carefully, picked the puppy out of the litter himself, and read several good training books. After the first month of having Sammy in his care, Patrick was frazzled with the number of phone calls from his upset neighbors about Sammy’s barking when home alone. He was also troubled that even when he just stepped out for a quick trip to the grocery store, Sammy would pee in the house. Sammy was otherwise doing really great with his housetraining. What in doggie-heaven’s name was going on here?
Some people are surprised to hear that many puppies suffer from separation anxiety. The questions that understandably are raised in these cases are: was the cause of the anxiety a genetic predisposition or was there something training-related that could have been done to prevent the problem—or both?
Prevention is the act of stopping something bad from happening. For prevention to occur, there needs to be a clear cause and effect. For instance, we can prevent certain diseases with vaccinations and thwart worms with medications. We can prevent having a litter of puppies if we spay the dog. Numerous troubles can be avoided with regular teeth brushing and good oral hygiene. There are some behavior problems that we could say are preventable too. If we don’t leave food items out on the counter, we can prevent the dog from eating things he shouldn’t.
In discussing prevention of separation anxiety in puppies or newly acquired dogs, the problem is that we don’t have an absolute understanding of the cause. Once a dog has begun to show signs of separation anxiety we can speculate about a host of potential reasons, but there isn’t one definitive answer.
This is why I get upset when I read statements declaring that owners are the cause of separation anxiety in their dogs. Do we really know this to be true at all? I think it’s imperative that we remove the blame from the guardians and acknowledge that separation anxiety can manifest itself for many reasons, among which the least likely are over-coddling, being too lenient, not letting the dog cry it out, and similar unfounded notions.
If you are carrying around guilt that you have created your dog’s separation anxiety, I want you to let it go because it’s not your fault. Taking blame for the behavior problem won’t fix it either, only appropriate behavior modification will.
To further this point, we’ll look at a behavior problem that many understand is not particularly preventable – noise phobia. Notably, the probability that a dog with noise phobia would also have separation anxiety is high according to a study conducted by Dr. Karen Overall.1 The study suggests that averse reactivity to noises in general may predispose dogs to separation anxiety. How could we prevent noise phobia, though? Exposing the dog to low level noises and systematically increasing the intensity over time seems to makes sense, but which noises are problematic and which are not? In the case of thunderstorm phobia, many dogs don’t react at all when hearing a recording of thunder, but display extreme fear of the real thing, even at a great distance. Prevention here would be extraordinarily difficult, no?
So what can be done to prevent separation anxiety? Similar to many diseases and ailments that we currently don’t fully know how to prevent, I think there are things we can do to optimize the chances for successful avoidance. How many of you have heard the story about that one fella who smoked, drank heavily, had a pizza diet, and lived to be 100, while the guy up the road who exercised regularly and ate a vegetarian diet was diagnosed with heart disease and died at the age of 55? The second guy’s illness may not have been preventable, but it would be a weak argument to say that he was doing all the wrong things by living his life healthfully. The same would be true for some training ideas that surround alone-time.
My suggestion for anyone who wants to optimize the potential for home-alone wellness is to follow a modified plan of gradual absences similar to an actual separation anxiety protocol, just much less rigorous. A new puppy or dog can be purposefully taught how to be happy by herself, and, given that we know they don’t all come prepackaged with happy-alone software, this is worth doing. Teach the pup to be comfortable with (even enjoy) small amounts of alone time and slowly increase the duration of those times.
So now that you understand more, repeat after me: “I, [state your name], did not give my dog separation anxiety. But I am such an awesome and empathetic person that I’m doing everything I can to help him/her overcome this condition. Boy, is [state dog’s name] lucky to have me!”
1 JAVMA, Vol 219, No. 4, August 15, 2001