I often receive enquiries from clients and veterinarians about separation anxiety. Some of my clients also describe their dogs have separation anxiety.
Separation anxiety in dogs has been gaining awareness recently. COVID lockdowns and more people taking up dog ownership, it has become a commonly discussed topic. Many believe that we can create separation anxiety when we give a puppy or dog too much attention. It is not true as separation anxiety is a complex condition. I would like to clear out some myths about anxiety, or separation anxiety, in this article.
What exactly is separation anxiety?
The term “separation anxiety” is overused. Anxiety is a true mental health disease and the diagnosis of separation anxiety requires clear identification of triggers and symptoms. These symptoms are related to the absence of a specific attachment figure, such as the main guardian of the dog a.k.a. mum or dad. The symptoms are often intense, and they appear almost as soon as the attachment figure disappears. Dogs suffering from anxiety have a compromised quality of life. Their owners or guardians often also suffer from immense distress. It is truly a deliberating disease.
On the other hand, destructive behaviour, crying and barking when a dog is alone may not be related to anxiety triggered by the absence of an attachment figure. It could simply be the dog is looking for something to do, reacting to the environmental stimuli (maybe the neighbour’s dog is barking, or someone knocked on the door to trigger it), or does not like being put away or have no interaction with people. These behaviours that appear during the owner’s absence are not a strong evidence for diagnosing separation anxiety. A more appropriate term to use is “separation-related distress” until it is proven to be a disease.
It is important to understand these differences because separation-related distress can be normal, whilst separation anxiety is a disease and abnormal. The treatment and management plans for the two conditions are distinct.
The guardian or owner caused separation anxiety
The main factors that contribute to mental health diseases include genetics, inappropriate learning and an inappropriate environment. One does not create separation anxiety for their dog by providing comfort and care the dog needs.
Never leave your puppy or dog to “cry it out”. Especially for a puppy, leaving the mum and litter can be an unsettling experience. Treat them like a baby (because they are!). A baby or young animal needs frequent physical and social contact with their mother to develop into a healthy individual. Crying is an innate verbal signal for a young animal to communicate and seek comfort. Leaving them to cry will only intensify the fear of being alone, and increase stress hormones in the brain which will affect brain development and learning.
You will make the separation anxiety worse by giving the dog attention because the act rewards their anxious behaviour
Behaviour is the outward expression of internal emotions. Although it is true that behaviour can be modified through positive reinforcement (giving a reward), the underlying emotion for a dog to express anxious behaviour is fear. One cannot reward a dog’s fear by giving reassurance. Helping them out and giving guidance will only help the fear to go away and for the dog to settle down.
Therefore anxiety will NOT get better if you ignore or punish the dog’s attention-seeking behaviour. You are more likely to instil more fear into the situation and continue to battle with the anxious behaviour.
The dog is being naughty
Dogs need to fulfil their physical and mental needs. If they feel uncomfortable in a situation, they may need to ask for help by vocalising it or breaking through the door to escape.
A big part of separation anxiety management is to teach the dog a safe place and condition positive emotions in the safe place. They also need to learn to regulate their emotions when they are under stress and to be more independent.
Some breeds are more likely to have separation anxiety than others
We discussed genetics as a huge influence on anxiety development, but we need to separate “breed” and “genetics”. Modern dog breeds decent from a very small genetic pool. Their appearance differs due to the intense selective breeding in the past few centuries. According to one recent and thorough research by K. Morrill et al. (2022), most dog breeds actually share very similar genetic materials and most dogs (even the pure breeds) have the ancestry of at least 3 different breeds. You can access the research here: https://doi.org/10.1126/science.abk0639
When I talk about genetics, I am referring to the dog’s parents’ and grandparents’ genes, which can have a big impact on how likely certain diseases can develop. Therefore, if you are considering buying a puppy, meeting their parents is extremely important.
The dog will “grow out of it”
Anxiety is a true mental health disease. We describe mental health disease as an imbalance of hormones in the brain. Similar to other medical conditions, the dog will only improve with appropriate treatment and management. The longer the condition is left untreated, the more advance the disease will be, and the prognosis is less favourable the longer you leave it.
More exercise and walks will solve the problem
Although physical exercise is important for overall health, going out for a walk or run will not stop your dog from worrying when they experience triggers for anxiety. Physical exhaustion does not give your dog better mental health.
Leaving the TV or radio on so the dog feels that they have company when alone
It only works if the sound is used in condition training. Your dog can distinguish between a real human and the sound of a human from a machine. If your dog is suffering from separation anxiety, not being able to access your company is the biggest trigger.
Medication is the last resort
Medication is extremely helpful in any anxiety treatment. Anxiety is a fight-or-flight reaction, and your dog cannot learn under this reflex condition. Medication can reduce the level and intensity of the anxious response, and allow the brain to calm down and learn.
Getting another dog will fix the anxiety
Having another dog around does not address the underlying cause of separation anxiety. Research has shown that in most dogs (>95%), anxiety does not improve with a companion dog. So I suggest investing your time, money and energy in managing your dog’s anxiety instead of adding another dog into the mix.
If you believe your dog suffers from separation, please get professional help now. It is a deliberating disease for both the dog and their humans, yet manageable if appropriate measures are used. Seek help from professionals who has a good understanding of dog psychology and mental health illness. Veterinarian behaviourists and qualified dog trainers such as the Institute of Modern Dog Trainer (IMDT), Karen Pryor Academy (KPA-CTP), animal science and/or psychology background are your best bet.
The list of myths about separation anxiety and dog behaviour goes on and on. Be cautious when looking on the internet. I suggest these books that are written with science and experience: