Dogs are pack animals and rely on others for protection and safety.
While most dogs will be sorry to see their owners leave, some, around 14%, suffer from what is termed Separation Anxiety. These dogs are well-behaved when people are around, but when left alone they panic and become noisy and destructive. Some dogs become emotionally over attached to one person and are sometimes referred to as, “Velcro dogs” or “My shadow.”
Older dogs also tend to become more neurotic about being left alone. They naturally become more dependent on their owners as their hearing and eyesight begins to fail. Things that bothered them when younger become more intensified as the years pass. However, it is also often seen in younger dogs that have been rescued from animal shelters. They may have been abandoned or had multiple owners and multiple homes because they displayed unacceptable behaviour and their owners did not have the skills to rectify the problem.
A milder form of separation anxiety could manifest itself in excessive greeting or constant pestering of the owner which is often misconstrued as being a “loving” dog. Humans also often find it difficult to relieve their inner tensions. We see them pacing up and down; chewing their finger nails, chain smoking or drinking.
When left alone, most dogs will find a favourite spot to wait and sleep. A few, however, are utterly “lost” when left alone and can become extremely anxious, not understanding where you have gone or if you will ever return. These dogs have been reported to jump over walls, bark continuously, howl, scratch and chew through doors, bend metal bars on crates, even jumping through closed windows or digging under fences. Inappropriate urination and/or defecation may occur.
Some dogs behave badly when you are away because they are just bored and simply need more to do and more exercise. These dogs do not necessarily suffer from separation anxiety. The difference being that, in the case of separation anxiety the stress/discomfort behaviour starts almost immediately the owner leaves. In general, the dog either becomes depressed when the owner is about to leave, or hyperactive and disobedient. To be separated from its owner can be very upsetting for them. The sense of anguish these dogs feel can be the cause of some terrible destructive behaviour. Worse is to follow when the owner, on arriving home, punishes the dog for the damage that was done.
The question to be answered is; what causes so many lovely dogs with caring owners to become emotionally unstable when left alone?
Most “Velcro” dogs are made, not born.
Some puppies, given constant attention when they are developing, can become fearful of being left alone and consequently do not want to leave its owner’s side. They can become “clingy” especially if we change their daily routine. “Clinginess” is often learned dog behaviour. They learn it depending on how we respond to them when they follow us. If we reward them with a treat or affection, the behaviour can easily become a habit and progress to a form of separation anxiety which in many dogs is a serious, emotional and behavioural problem.
Some lapdog breeds are prone to clinginess, but also working dogs like German shepherds and Border Collies that are trained to be dependent on their owners can become clingy.
Clingy dogs and separation anxiety dogs have similar behaviour characteristics. The difference is in how they behave when their owner or leader is away. Velcro dogs want to be as near their owners as possible when at home but do not get into a panic attack when left at home.
Separation anxiety is what causes panic attacks in some dogs that lead to destructive and self -harming behaviour. It is important to understand that these dogs with true separation anxiety are not “acting out” because their owners are away – they have an overwhelming panic that they have no control over.
Lack of leadership
In our modern society, we keep dogs as eternal puppies, feeding them and caring for them, so they never have to fend for themselves. Therefore, dogs should never be given the responsibility of being leaders in their new human pack. They will simply be unable to cope with the demands they will face. The responsibility puts immense pressure on them and leads to many behavioural problems. Where leadership is lacking they can begin to take over. Some dogs will not only feel responsible to look after the house but also after the owners. Left alone it can give the dog a misplaced sense of status over especially, the one he has been shadowing.
Jan Fennell* postulates that the dog’s anxiety is not so much pining like an abandoned child for its mother, but it is the dog that sees itself as a parent. The distress is because its “child” is out of sight. When it was following its owner from room to room it was actually on “patrol duty” watching over him or her. Owners may think it is sweet and they shower the dog with love thereby giving approval of the dog’s behaviour. But it creates problems when they have to leave the house. Pure panic sets in and the dog is desperate to make sure his “child” is all right.
They understand the power of barking and bark, “Come back” “Come back” and are desperate to free themselves when closed inside the house. The dog feels responsible for his human and does not want him to go away. Biting the door is his way of trying to get out of the house and find his charge. Any mother will be out of her mind if her little girl suddenly walks out of the house and down the road.
Dog owners often only find out that their “Shadow” or “Velcro” has developed separation anxiety when the neighbours complain that the dog has been barking nonstop while they were away. They see the property damage he has caused or Law enforcement has arrived at the house.
What can be done to prevent undue clinginess and Separation Anxiety.
Leadership and Becoming the pack leader
A dog’s misplaced sense of status must be removed and the owner must be reasserted as the pack leader.
Dog psychology teaches us that dogs need a healthy balance of affection, attention and discipline in order to feel safe, secure, and happy and a true part of the family pack. If they don’t receive some form of discipline through effective and consistent training and their owners do not take a dominant stance, they can easily become unhappy, confused and emotionally unstable. Dogs do not necessarily need obedience training; they must simply do what the owner wants.
Dogs are pack animals and are born with the knowledge that the preservation of the pack is paramount for its existence. They instinctively know that without leaders the pack will not survive. When you arrive home and have difficulty getting through the gate because the dogs are excited to see you, as they jump up onto you, it is not necessarily a demonstration of love but rather of happiness that the pack leaders, their protectors and caregivers are home and fit and strong. In the wild this is how they welcome their leaders back from the hunt.
All dogs go through this ritual of re-establishing pack leadership. It is crucial for their leadership that the owners ignore the jumping and barking and pretend it is not happening. Walk right past them and they will immediately start following their leaders. Every morning Memphis has the same happy ritual when he tests to see if I am still his leader. I simply ignore his antics and pretend it is not happening. He has to wait for my attention.
When a dog is called he must come to the owner, stand or sit in front of him while making eye-contact and await his orders. He must be rewarded for coming by touch or a treat. This is the way to establish leadership. However, if the dog comes and sits in front of you, uninvited, he should not be rewarded because he is attempting to gain control of the decision making.
There should be areas in the house that belong to the leaders, where the dog is not allowed. Everyone in the household, including the children must exercise their leadership and see to it that the dog obeys that rule. If he is ordered out of a room he must be body-walked all the way out of it.
On the walk, when on leash, the owner goes through the door first and the dog walks next to or slightly behind. He must not get into a pulling battle with the owner and must learn that by pulling on the lead the walk does not happen. The dog must play by the owner’s rules. Do read “Stop pulling.”
As owner and leader of the dog you can come and go as you please. You do not have to ask permission or warn your dog that you are going. He already knows that it is about to happen because everything is closed, switched off and you leave food for him. Dogs suffering from separation anxiety do not eat the food left for them because they are too stressed.
Destructive behaviour by the dog cannot be left unattended – the owner must do something about itbecause it will becomeworse over time (see Destructive chewing)! These dogs really suffer every time they are separated from their people. They also have no knowledge or understanding of what humans want or do not want them to do until taught. They require effective behavioural intervention and possibly also medical treatment. Instead of getting cross with these dogs, one should rather feel sorry for them!
What more you can do to prevent Separation Anxiety
Puppies must be trained to get used to being left alone. They should be left alone regularly during the week for about 1 hour a day in their long-term confinement area. Check regularly and reward the puppy for being quiet. The aim here is not to let the pup associate the confinement area with your absence.
Create a safe place to relax: Dogs need a place where they can cope without its owner. An indoor kennel to a dog can become a safe den or a safe hole in the ground; a place where it can voluntarily pop inside when it wants to rest or sleep or feeling worried when alone. This “den” is a way of treatment where the dog can become accustomed to confinement. Familiar blankets and toys are left inside or nearby and in the beginning the dog can be fed and encouraged to sleep there. The dog must have free access to go inside or out while the family is at home.Dogs usually create their own den in the home, under a table or in a corner between the wall and a chair or cupboard. By putting a long hook onto an outside door it may be possible to allow the dog to rest indoors while you are away
Over-dependence on the family must be overcome by reducing the time he/she is allowed to spend in the direct company of his owners. Contact time must be reduced by as much as 50%. If the dog was allowed to sleep in the bedroom, it must slowly be moved further and further away to a position where a lower ranking dog would be sleeping.
For the next two to three weeks, or longer, the dog must not be allowed to initiate successful contact with the owner. Playing, petting, grooming etc. can go on as usual, but only at the owner’s initiation and not by the dog. Some dogs are very good at gaining attention. They will bark, follow the owner, rub against them, scratch at the door, wag their tails, look cute etc. to gain attention.
Before leaving a dog alone at home, the ideal would be to take it for a good walk or run to tire it out and then feed him a good portion of food in his “den” to create drowsiness. For the next ten to twenty minutes the dog must be totally ignored to hopefully begin to snooze while you get ready to leave. All attempts to gain attention must be ignored and a firm, “Go lie down” order be given if all else fails. Do not have any goodbyes, simple walk out the door.
When at home over a weekend or on holiday, the following exercises can be started. Give your dog a treat and quietly leave the room or yard for a short while, shutting the door behind you. Do not make a fuss when you return! Only play or interact with the dog when it is calm and relaxed. Gradually work your way up to where you can spend an hour or more in a separate part of the house without the dog being concerned about your absence. If the dog cannot be left alone in a room when you are at home, there is no chance of leaving it alone at home!
Prepare the dog for your departure. Dogs are very aware of the fact that their owners are about to leave. They see them getting dressed, change shoes, close windows, switch off the radio or TV and pick up the car keys. Stress is already building up in the dog and they begin to shadow the owner and become breathless without exercise; an indication of separation anxiety. Get dressed as you usually do, pick up the keys, switch off the radio and TV then sit down and read a book or magazine until the dog settles down and is calm again
Leave the house for a short while when the dog is resting in another part of the house. This can best be done over a weekend. Go across the road and return. Next go around the block and return. Repeat as often as needed until the dog barely notices your coming and going.
Do not make a big fuss when leaving. Save your hugs and kisses for humans! No attention must be given to the dog for up to 20 minutes before leaving.
Paying too much attention when coming or leaving will make the dog more insecure. The dog must simply be ordered to go to its bed or kennel and told to stay.
Leave a treat. Something very nice to chew like a Kong with some peanut butter, cheese or something you know your dog likes and will find interesting and may even look forward to when you leave. Rawhide toys soaked in soup can provide a different flavoured chew a few times a week. Quietly place it near the dog before leaving. I have found it best to give it a short while before leaving so that the dog can get interested in it. Some dogs will bury a bone immediately you leave and dig it up when you return.
When you return avoid any excitement by delaying the greeting for a while. I now find that when I return home the dogs will be waiting in the front of the house to confirm that I am home and then immediately go to the spot where we will meet later. I then ask them to “fetch the Kong” and we check to see if they got all the treats out. This creates new interest in the chew toy and soon the dogs entertain themselves by searching for chew toys left in the garden.
Practice the routine. The hardest part for the dog is immediately after you leave. Put on your coat, walk to the door and leave. Come back immediately, greet the dog calmly, tell him to sit and reward with a treat when he sits. Wait a few minutes and repeat the exercise, this time remaining outside a bit longer. Repeat. Repeat.
Exercise him regularly. Before leaving take him for a good romp so that he will be tired enough to sleep while you are away. This is especially true of the Working group of dogs such as Huskies, Pit bulls, Shepherds etc. that need to have their energy used up with 1 to 2 hours exercise in the morning and the evening. “A tired dog is a good dog.“
Leave the radio on the station that you usually listen to so that he can hear familiar voices in the house.
Leave lights on if you go out in the evening so that it seems more like you are at home.
Another dog or even a cat can help reduce stress. This may not work with all dogs; it could even make matters worse, so great care must be taken to ensure compatibility before getting another dog. Remember, it is not loneliness that causes the problem – it is people the dog craves for and usually one particular person in the house!
Together with behavioural training, discuss with your vet the possibility of using medication such as CLOMICALM which is reported to be fast and effective in relieving the suffering of these dogs. Clomicalm is NOT a tranquiliser or a sedative and will not affect the dog’s personality or memory.
*Jan Fennell – “the DOG LISTENER.”