What is Separation Anxiety?
Separation anxiety is an anxious reponse that is usually triggered when a dog becomes separated from their owners. Symptoms range from mild vocalizations to full blown panic, often leading to property damage and/or physical harm to the dog. The cause is usually a combination of things but lack of leadership and fulfillment, combined with the relationship dynamic between the dog and human are the primary factors.
The good news is that this can be helped by creating a balanced relationship with a fulfilled dog. Dogs who follow and get their minds and bodies fullfilled on a daily basis never have a problem when their owners leave.
Since the trigger of the behavior is being separated from the human, most people tend to think the behavior is about the dog feeling sad, lonely or missing the human in a terrible way. Don't get me wrong, dogs do get lonely and certain vocal sounds are about them wanting to be with us, but dogs experiencing lonliness tend to have mild symptoms (usually vocal) and ignoring them, exercsing them a bit more or redirecting them with a bone when you leave usually fixes the problem.
The type of anxiety that leads to the more extreme symptoms like destruction, relentless escapes, obsessive barking & drooling, or personal harm tend to have these things in common:
- The dog is leading.
- The dog is high energy, pushy and often a bit unsure or nervous.
- Dog is humanized. People feel sad, guilty or become emotional when leaving.
- Dog needs more exercise.
- Dog gets little to no rules, boudaries or limits. Spoiled.
How Does Leadership Play a Role In Separation Anxiety?
The primary job of a pack leader is to protect and direct the pack and one of the things that pack leaders influence is movement - which is why us coming and going from our homes can trigger the dogs anxiety. The instinct of a dog in charge is to control the comings and goings of the pack so they can't understand why you would leave without their guidance and protection.
Dogs in charge have the same role as a parent. Could you imagine if your 10 year old took the car keys and and locked you in the laundry room and told you they would be back soon. The same panic you would feel is the same panic your dog feels when you lock them in a kennel and leave, and its why the reaction can be so intense. When a behavior is motivated by a deep instinctive drive, you get an extremely strong reaction.
The "wild" version of this is established when the pack goes off to hunt or protect territoy. The lower ranking members are often left behind because they are a liability to success. They learn to calmly wait until the others return which is what followers are instinctively wired to do.
Leadership tips: https://ocpacklife.squarespace.com/leadership/
How does Relationship Dynamic Effect Separation Anxiety?
Do you humanize your dog? Do you treat them like they are your "babies?" Do you spoil your dog? Do you give into every demand? Do you always give them what they want? Do you feel guilty and sad when you leave your dog? Does your dog keep you emotionally grounded?
The more emotional needs we place on our dogs and the more we treat them like a human, the more pressure we are putting on them and it can have powerful effects on their emotional stability.
Example: An owner whose dog had a very high level of separation anxiety revealed this to me: When her dog was a puppy and someone else would interact with the dog she became fearful and anxious that her dog would like the other person more than her. And anytime she left the dog alone in the house she felt incredibly guilty.
As a result the dog became incresingly anxious and insecure every time the owner left the dog's side. Now the dog has red zone level separation anxiety. The owners insecure/anxious energy "told" the dog she badly needed his leadership so he panicked when she was out of reach of him. This is a good example of a relationship dynamic being out of balance.
When your dog thinks you need them more than they need you it puts a lot of pressure and responsibility on them to support you. When dogs are balanced and fulfilled they can support our needs without it affecting how they behave and thats a win-win for us and the dog.
How does exercise help separation anxiety?
If a dog does not get enough mental and physical exercise on a daily basis they will find a way to release that energy and what better release than a door frame, pillow or new blinds. When a dog is challenged mentally and given a good physical release they will spend their day calmly waiting for your return.
Dogs with separation anxiety are usually not mentally challenged and often have excess physical energy that can get released in unbelieveably damaging ways.
One of the biggest challenges for dogs with anxiety is waiting in a "place" for more than a few seconds. Put an anxious dog in a place and have the owner walk away and the dog gets up 100% of the time. Working a dog through this with short training sessions can have a big impact on anxiety. The more a dog learns to sit still and be calm the more mental energy they burn. It also helps the dog relate separation to calmness which is the goal.
Ways to mentally and physically exercise a dog: https://ocpacklife.squarespace.com/using-structure-and-exercise-to-change-behavior/
Tips For Separation Anxiety
- Exercise your dog before you leave.
- Ignore your dog 10-15 minutes before you leave.
- Before you walk out the door take your dog to a spot several feet away from the door. Put them in a down, wait for them to calm and then walk out the door. You must practice this until they stay put.
- Ignore your dog when you return until they are calm.
- Only give affection to your dogs when they are calm and relaxed.
- Follow the expectation vs invitation motto. This means you ignore demands and only give when invited.
- Establish rules, boundaries and limits each and every day for your dog(s).
- Practice down/stays. Put your dog in a bed and put them in a down. Wait for them to become completely calm and relaxed and then walk a short distance away. Start with short distances and short amounts of time and work up. Get to where you can move in and out of sight but have the dog stay put. Very important that you wait for the dog to become calm and relaxed before walking away.
- Practice crate training early on.
- If you are a human who has anxiety and you have a dog that has anxiety you must help yourself before your dogs behaviors will change. I suggest meditation, yoga, tai-chi, pilates or some other form of mind body exercises.
- Make sure your dog is mentally and phsically exercised every day.