Separation anxiety is a behavioral disorder that manifests itself in signs of distress when a dog is separated from his owners or people to whom he is very attached. This is one of the most difficult behavioral issues to resolve and the second most common reason for behavior therapy. As with other behavioral problems, prevention is far better than cure.
How does separation anxiety manifest itself?
When owners are away
As soon as his owners leave, the dog destroys everything he can, he barks, whines, howls! He can even get messy and defecate around the house. They are also generally anxious dogs who frequently engage in activities such as excessive paw licking for example.
When owners are home
When the owners are present, they are very "clingy" dogs, who are always with their owners and who constantly ask for little attentions. If you find that your dog is following you everywhere, as soon as you get up, he may be suffering from separation anxiety.
During walks, these are dogs who do not stray too far from their owners and always need eye contact with them.
What is the origin of separation anxiety?
For dogs adopted from shelters, the anxiety can be severe and stems from the fact that they have been abandoned by their previous owner, or the whole family, and they are simply afraid it will happen again. These dogs are particularly clingy and very anxious when they don't see their new owner.
As young puppies, they are totally dependent on maternal care during the first weeks of their life. Attachment is a calming bond that binds the dog to a particular being. It starts with the mother, then with the owner or family.
From an early age, the mother teaches her puppies to gradually detach from her. She no longer responds to all their requests, demands that they sleep further away from her, pushes them away if they sticks to her. Thus, at puberty, the puppies are permanently detached and live their adult life, within the hierarchy established in the family system.
Upon arrival in a new home, the puppy quickly becomes attached to one or more individuals. Owners often make the mistake of making too much fuss of the puppy. They pet and cuddle him as soon as the puppy calls out, let him follow them everywhere, and allow him to be in situations of dominance, such as letting him eat first and accepting that he sleeps high up on the sofa, on the bed, usually out of fear of upsetting him.
However, this can have consequences for the future life with their puppy. They do not perform the detachment necessary for the independence of the young dog as his mother would have. Therefore, when the dog then sees his owner leave, he becomes very anxious and manifests his distress by destroying and barking or whining.
Certain behaviors of the owner promote this anxiety such as the rituals of departure and those of return.
When the owner leaves, he tries to reassure his dog, talk to him, explain to him that he is not going to be away for long. All this ritual makes the dog anxious because he quickly understands that all these signs precede the departure of his owner. So the dog's anxiety increases the more he sees his owner lacing his shoes, taking his coat, waving the keys. All of these rituals ultimately result in stressing the dog even more and speeding up the process instead of reversing it.
Likewise, the return ritual is also a problem. As the owner feels guilty for having left his dog, he makes a fuss and responds to his requests and the dog therefore associates the return of his owner with appeasement. If the dog has damaged the house, we tend to scold him, which is wrong, as a dog only understands that he has done wrong when he is told off on the spot. Telling him of two hours later is useless and only reinforces his anxiety. When returning home, keep calm, ignore the dog, send him to lie down gently in his basket and clean up the mess (but not in front of him).
What to do if your dog has separation anxiety?
If your dog is already anxious when you are away, you have to gradually teach him to be independent from you:
- Do not let him spend the night with you on the bed or even in the bedroom. He needs to sleep in another room.
- Do not respond systematically to the dog's requests when he comes to seek a cuddle. Wait a few minutes and call him to play, or to cuddle him. You should always be the one who initiates contact with the dog.
- Do not let him always be by your side. It is important to sometimes send him to his basket so that he is not in the same room as you, give him toys or a bone if necessary.
- Gradually teach him to be alone. Start by leaving your puppy alone for 5 minutes and then gradually go away for 10, then 30 minutes, until he agrees to be alone for an hour. However, always be careful not to go too fast.
- If he is whining, do not go to him, even to reprimand him, because he will associate your return with his cries and not with the reprimand! He will therefore do it more and more.
- Break the rituals of departure and return: before leaving, ignore your dog for a good half an hour, so that he does not associate the departure with the lack of contact between you, and leave without making a fuss of him. You should do the same when you return: if he is celebrating you, push him away and ask him to go to bed in his basket, and not re-establish contact, on your own initiative, until half an hour later.
- If the dog has caused damage, do not scold him or clean in front of him: he would not understand and would be more anxious.
- Introduce him to dog training classes that will stimulate him, and to a dog daycare center that will allow him to meet other dogs and do exciting activities without you.
When this is not enough or the barking of the dog is a problem with the neighbours, you may need to call a dog behaviorist, and possibly even a vet if anxiety medication is needed.