Who Causes Separation Anxiety? You or Your Pet?

August 22, 2011 | By | Comments (4)
dog lies by the door photograph by jennifer mirsky

Exhibit A: Lucy, a Bichon Frise, Awaiting Her Person’s Return

Jodi Andersen-Spen, author of The Latchkey Dog, How the Way You Live Shapes the Behavior of the Dog You Love, defines separation anxiety as “anxious behavior triggered or stimulated by the signals of separation.” She explains that it’s “latent in every dog on the planet, though it is cultivated by their humans. The dogs who are most prone to it are the ones who live with people who indulge them”

Uh-oh. I am guilty as charged. Does this sound familiar to you? You return home, you turn the key in the lock, your voice rises to a fever pitch and you commence making a huge fuss while your dog wags his tail madly, runs back and forth, jumps up to greet you and licks your face?

Andersen-Spen advises you to de-emphasize the act of arriving and departing, to “make coming and going as benign as walking in and out of a room.” In fact, she suggests turning it into a game. Walk out, walk in. Walk out, walk in. Go out the front door, come in the other door, etc. If you are with your dog most of the time, she recommends trying to leave a bit more often, if even for short periods of time. For example, walk in the bedroom and close the door. Walk right by your dog. That way your dog will have the reaction of “Oh, I get it. You’re not leaving, you are just leaving the room.”

Her analogy is one of a party. If the party starts when you walk in the door, then it stands to reason that your dog will end up listening to every sound and signal until you come home at which point the party can start again. “If someone was massaging your shoulders all day and then they stopped, you would really notice,” she explains. “I want your house to be the same, with or without you.”

So does this mean I have to ignore my dog? No, of course not. But I do have to take away the drama of leave-taking, for his own sake.

Dog owners/parents also have to make it clear to their dogs that the humans are in charge. If a dog thinks he’s in charge of his pack, then when the pack members are gone, he spends his time fretting about where they are and when they will return. If instead, he knows that someone else is minding the store, he can relax. His only “job” is to please his human(s). If they aren’t around, he can go “off the clock.”

Speaking of jobs, certain dog breeds can be especially susceptible to separation anxiety, and those are the herding, sporting, and working dogs who have been bred for partnerships for thousands of years.

A-ha! I knew I was only partially to blame as surely my Portuguese water dog was merely honoring the time-honored tradition of being an able working partner to the fishermen in his life. Without his team members, he was lost.

But I’m not letting myself off the hook, and here’s why — the writing was on the wall, and I mean literally on the wall. My husband and I were away for a week, which is not the norm. To counter what I anticipated would be hours of loneliness and boredom on the part of Mr. Monkey, I arranged round-the-clock dog walks and overnight companionship while we were gone. Unfortunately, this was not enough, as you can see from Exhibit B:

dog scratch marks on door photograph by jennifer mirsky

Exhibit B: Dog Scratches on the Door

Apparently the visual scratches were accompanied by the aural sounds of whimpering, in the few hours of true solitude he experienced each day while we were absent. I know this from our kind neighbors, who were more concerned than they were annoyed.

So our work is clearly cut out for us, and we’re starting with the constant repetition of commands. “Sit. Stay. Down. Come.” Saying this over and over will not only remind Mr. Monkey who’s boss, it will also give him the comfort of knowing that he’s not in charge and can relax. It will be our common language of commands, and will be most effective if reinforced by all who interact regularly with him. That way, he’ll always know the lay of the land and he won’t feel alone, according to Andersen-Spen.

How about you? Do your dogs suffer from separation anxiety? Might it be that you unwittingly have a hand in this?