Separation Anxiety 101

October 21, 2014 at 10:16 am
Herald Sun. Alex Coppel

Separation anxiety is a common issue that I get asked about.  The truth is that the word ‘anxiety’ is in fact the most common issue for dogs in today’s society. To me, this makes perfect sense. This world is stressful! Imagine living in this world as a dog! Most of your survival resources are out of your control, leaving you with a whole lot of anxious energy.

The role of dogs has changed over time and is perhaps the main reason why so many dogs now suffer from a range of anxieties that leave owners asking the desperate question ‘why?’.

As a specialist in the behaviour of companion dogs, I have seen how the relationship between dogs and owners can sometimes unknowingly be more beneficial to the owner than the dog. Dogs are amazing companions, they give us so much love and comfort that sometimes, we forget that we have a responsibility to think from their point of view as much as our own. We should be asking ourselves some important questions such as ‘is it of benefit to my dog to feel he needs to follow me everywhere?’.  ‘Are free cuddles and treats really showing my dog I love him?’. ‘Does her neediness really mean she loves me?’.

Evidence shows that dogs who display demanding, nervous and needy behaviours are the prime candidates for separation anxiety. In many ways, the owners have encouraged it.

How can you alleviate Separation Related Behaviours (SRB), if your dog already panics when you leave their sight? It can be done, but with effort and commitment each day. Any quick fix has a quick end, so let’s start dealing with the cause instead of the symptom.

Five Essential Steps

  1. Exercise – increase it! Even if you think your dog gets enough, they probably don’t. Remember think more from your dog’s point of view than your own.
  2. Mental exercise – encourage them to use their brain in positive ways.  Hide ‘n’ seek games, ball games, new tricks etc. Draining your dog’s mental energy can increase their confidence, which is crucial to alleviating SRB. Impulse control behaviours are critical , such as the ‘sit/stay’ behaviour. Cue your dog to sit and increase the distance and time you can be away from them. Calmly return to them and release. The more impulse control your dog has, the better they can control their state of mind when left alone.
  3. Departures and arrivals need to be a non-event. No energetic greetings are allowed. It needs to be as if leaving and returning was always a certainty and that it’s no big deal.  When your dog is calm and relaxed, that’s when calm and friendly greetings are permitted.
  4. Don’t allow your dog to follow you everywhere. Your dog should not need you to be in sight at all times. Close doors and access for a few seconds at a time and return without making a big deal. Work your way up to being in a different room from your dog for a few minutes to an hour without them needing to be with you.  Encourage this with yummy chew bones and toys, not by enforcing it.
  5. Practice the departure routine as often as you can without leaving.  Pick up keys, put on shoes, collect your wallet or handbag and head to the door. Ignore your dog on all departures, even if you’re not going anywhere. You can even give them a cue such as ‘bye for now’, give them a treat, leave the room and return shortly. Gradually increase the amount of time you are out of sight and observe their behaviour. If they can predict what ‘bye for now’ means, they will more likely relax, knowing that you will return to them.

The golden rule is to be consistent.  Try to see your relationship from your dog’s point-of-view more. You will find that the free cuddles, treats and fuss is not what your dog really wants after all, and that true love with a dog is being a consistent and fair leader, who your dog trusts and respects.

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