Separation Anxiety. Have you ever heard of it? This has been one of the most discussed subjects between specialists, dog trainers, veterinarians and dog owners. But why? At the end of the day what does being a victim of this behavioral problem really mean?
HITTING THE REWIND BUTTON ◄◄
Let’s start from the beginning. And when I say beginning I mean way back. Somewhere about 14 thousand years ago! But wait, do we have to go back to history class just to understand why our dogs get anxious when we leave? Don’t worry, not quite…. But maybe a little. The thing is, in early history when wolves got close to humans and the domestication process towards the dog species we now know began, we as Homo sapiens didn’t live in apartments and worked 8 to 12 hour shifts a day. The key component within the domestication of dogs is directly related to the fact that they followed humans everywhere they went because dogs identified humans as their main source of resources. There weren’t any fences, gates or walls between dogs and their favorite humans, everything was wide open and dogs were totally wild and free to decide if they wanted to be closer or further from humans and the camping grounds they lived in. It’s crucial that we take this into consideration when discussing this matter. One thing I always bring to my clients’ attention is that dogs who live with the homeless are emotionally happier in comparison to our pets. This comes as a surprise to them and is almost shocking to think about but we always end up agreeing that it’s actually true. As a matter of fact these dogs are not only happier but also mentally healthier. They don’t develop anxiety disorders such as separation anxiety or any side effects that can come alongside it such as excessive licking and chasing shadows or lights, simply because they spend every waking and sleeping second right beside their owner. Not only that but they also devote the entirety of each day practicing and exhibiting natural behaviors such as: hunting and working for food, walking, running, sniffing (a lot) and shredding, making them much more of a dog than our own dogs. Let me just get out of the way that I’m not encouraging people to free their dogs or even discussing the safety risks that these dogs face, that debate is way beyond anything like this.
The main point of reflection in this article is that dogs weren’t evolutionary programmed to spend so many hours locked inside waiting for anyone to come back. Period.
It’s curious to think that us, humans, are exactly at the other end of the leash. We live in a society that is more and more technological every day as it brings out apps that keep us connected 24/7 inside a huge web of networks. In spite of that, depression and anxiety cases are rapidly increasing, bringing the use of antidepressants and anti anxiety medication right with them. What I mean by this is that we’re also evermore alone and having a hard time dealing with the collective solitude surrounding us.
Within psychology, anxiety is defined by the fear anticipating something bad. The etymology of the word ‘anxiety’ is associated with agony, disturbance and distress, meaning that anxiety is intrinsically related to fear. However, our species hasn’t always had to deal with it, neither have our devices brought it to us, we became anxious before living the pseudo connections that come with the internet.
Our share of anxiety began during the agricultural revolution, 12 thousand years ago. Before that, we were hunter-gatherers who lived in the present and didn’t worry about planning the future. Once humanity settled instead of living nomadly, plantation began and people started to worry about the future because it had a direct impact upon the harvest period, making this process the biggest anxiety trigger in all of history.
Nowadays making sure wheat gets harvested is the least of our worries because we developed much more complex and less palpable forms of anxiety. Unfortunately our loyal companions that were by our side without anxiety are still there even when it comes to dealing with anxiety. Both of us suffer greatly with the endless fear of an impending solitude but we still expect our dogs not to follow us when we’re about to leave or that they sleep peacefully while waiting for us to come back home.
Aren’t we maybe throwing our own fears and anxieties on top of a species that has learned throughout the years that following humans brings benefits? Have dogs become our only source of real and raw connection? Is it fair that we expect that our connection to dogs make up for those we don’t have with human beings? If these suppositions are true in any way, shape or form, how do we expect them to calmly deal with the fact that this strong bond just gets daily paused for extended periods of time?
In this article I’m not going to bring you the answers to these questions since I believe they’re very deep and much more complex than what is portrayed. The way this issue is shown by the media is the reason I chose to talk about it in such a manner. It’s nothing close to an easy fix to which you can find 397.000 easy to follow instructions in 2 seconds. However, if we don’t think and talk about anxiety and all that comes with it regarding our species (human and canine), aren’t we just pretending there’s no problem?
HOME: THE ULTIMATE CHALLENGE
Being alone involves looking at things we don’t always acknowledge such as our own emotions, feelings, desires and fears. We’re required to find a way to deal with them during life since they inevitably cause anxiety. Perhaps this is one of the hardest and most challenging tasks humanity has ever faced. Isn’t it curious then, that our dogs are dealing with loneliness and learning how to be alone just as much as we are, at the same time?
Being alone is one of the most essential skills you can teach your dog as early on as possible, no matter if the dog came from a breeder or shelter. Most people pick their dogs up at the weekends and have everything ready for them at home; new shiny bowls, comfy bed, new toys and lots of love and affection towards the newest family member. They all spend two incredible days together as a family but when Monday comes around everything changes and it seems like no one cares about the not-so-new dog anymore. It’s time for school and work and all of a sudden everyone is out the door and all Toto hears from his beloved Dorothy is: ‘Mommy has to work but I’ll be back later so we can cuddle okay? Be good, don’t destroy anything and don’t have any accidents!’. All Toto got from these sentences was the odd tone of Dorothy’s voice because it hasn’t even learned its name yet.
What happens after that door closes relies greatly on the dog’s emotional well being which was assembled by; genetics combined to its life experiences with mom and siblings added to the experiences it had during the sensitive socialization period (between 21 and 84 days of life).
Some dogs handle such terrifying events very well, they even begin to explore the environment searching for food, they sniff around and sometimes even play, relax and sleep. Most dogs on the other hand will stick with the path they were programmed for, which includes using all of the available resources to follow their owners everywhere. The results we generally see in this scenario is something more or less like this:
Unfortunately the most common reaction dogs get from their owners when they get home from a long day of work is punishment because they believe the dog was naughty or that it destroyed the house out of revenge. Let’s get into this issue so we can clarify what really happens inside the dog’s mind while we’re gone. We’ll take a viral video of a dog named Chico as an example. For those of you who don’t know Chicos’ video, it entails his owner filming while accusing him of destroying her mattress and a remote control. During the accusation Chicos’ ears are down, he wags his tail and bows in front of her. Dogs are amoral beings, they don’t distinguish right or wrong. I’m not the one stating this, science is. Scientists exhaustively study dogs’ emotions and have their main focus on guilt and revenge. The conclusions reached by them affirm that dogs don’t have the necessary cerebral apparel to feel such complex emotions.
Taking this into consideration, when dogs show us behaviors such as the ones Chico was showing in that video, they’re not feeling guilt. Do I have to say that again? They are not feeling guilt. They’re simply displaying calming or appeasement signals which means that they perceive our posture, our gestures and the tone of our voices and draw the conclusion that something is very wrong. They feel threatened and scared, making them try to calm you down in the only way they know which is by displaying these behaviors. Nevertheless there are people that are not convinced and insist on saying Chico knew what he was doing, so I’m going to repeat it all just for you: is Chico a dog? Yes. This means Chico is amoral. End of story, there’s nothing more to it. I hope it’s clear now because my drawing skills are not that good. After all Chico doesn’t know or care that one pillow came from Paris or how much you paid for the mattress or the couch, these worries and responsibilities are yours and only yours. To sum things up, dogs that display destructive behaviors when left alone may be dealing with boredom, excess of energy or even separation anxiety.
I still can’t wrap my head around the idea that videos like Chicos’ become viral and entertain people online, this aspect of our species still intrigues me. Separation anxiety is the second biggest behavior issue in dogs throughout the whole world, just behind aggressiveness. This is a very serious matter! Dogs who present with separation anxiety display physiological issues such as panting, vomiting, diarrhea and even self harming as well as behavioral issues such as destructive behaviors that usually target the door or the owners’ high value items such as remotes or shoes (that contain a lot of smell from them), vocalization (that can vary between soft barks to non stop howling), pacing and apathy. If the issues above describe your dog in any way, my suggestion is that you stop reading this article right now and look for a specialist.
Animals that experience this disorder need interventions that include:
- Environmental management: Rearranging the dog’s life in a way that a routine can be established so that the dog is at ease to exhibit natural behaviors of its species while also having its daily basic needs attended to. All of this needs to come right alongside an efficient communication between dog and owner.
- Behavioral modification: Exercises and training that help the dog with the process of modifying emotion and changing its feelings when the owner is absent from fear and anxiety to calm and relaxed. Besides that, learning impulse control is also a very important step.
- Medication: At this point a Specialist Behavior Veterinarian comes into play and evaluates the need for medication which helps to improve the dogs quality of life while also boosting the training progress.
I always state that positive training goes way beyond positive reinforcement, it calls for a new way of looking at our own reality and also the dog’s reality, similar to looking through a magnifying glass and analyzing our choices, impulses and motivations. Science based education for our dogs requires us to question our own ethics and ponder our actions and its consequences.
Positive training is basically teaching the dog what we want so that it can learn to make good choices in pivotal situations. Dogs, as well as humans, are social and gregarious individuals that were designed to form bonds and live connected to each other. The only way a dog is comfortably left alone is if it associates loneliness with positive emotions.
If your dog already shows signs of discomfort when you’re about to leave, seek professional help. You wouldn’t care for your (human) child’s anxiety with tips from google right? Of course it’s vital to research about which professional to hire, what approach they use, what certifications they have, you can even look for their clients and watch for their success rate, but don’t be impressed only by the number of followers they have on instagram or facebook. Dig deep for a good, ethical professional, remember they’re going to come into your house and help you with a very serious issue.
The most important piece of it all is: trust your dog’s ability to adapt. Dogs are resilient beings making them very capable of changing behavior within the right context. Trust the process and have the right amount of expectation, your dog can impress you if you’re able to communicate efficiently and have the right management.
Be open to trust yourself as well in your capability to learn the best way to be alone, together.
CPDT-KA Certified Professional Dog Trainer – Knowledge Assessed
Psychologist and Animal Behavior
Our special thanks to Sophia Forbes (Veterinarian Student, Dog Trainer, and #tdfstudent), for the translation 😉