Separation Anxiety - what is it, what causes it and what can we do?
What is Separation Anxiety?
True separation anxiety can be defined by looking at a dogs behaviour. Separation anxiety displays in two ways, either by behaviours that only happen when the owner isn’t at home, or behaviours that are more intense when the owner is not present. We are not talking about when you turn you back and your dog takes his chance and steals some food off the side, we are looking at pacing, panting, whining, toileting inside. Behaviours displayed will be more persistent and at a higher intensity when the owner is not around. Some dogs may self harm, be sick or toilet inside, others may try to escape.
What causes SA?
Well the honest answer is, no-one really knows. Many studies have been done, and whilst separation anxiety can be attributed to being taken from their mum too early, having a bad experience when left alone, or simply lack of exposure to alone time, there seems to be no real cause that can be identified. More often than not, it’s not the owners fault. If a dog isn’t sure of a situation, it’s better to assume something is a threat then take the chance. For example, if an Antelope hears a noise, assumes it is a threat and runs it, it is no worse off if it got it wrong. If it hears a noise and takes a chance that it might be safe, but the noise was in fact a Lion, then it’s probably game over. As animals, dogs still have that inherent genetic drive to survive.
Separation Anxiety does seem to be slightly more prevalent in male dogs, with around a 60/40 split. The function of the fear related behaviours are either to increase the distance from the confinement situation (i.e in the house) or to decrease the distance to the owner. It’s reinforcing as you do always come back, so the dog thinks that by crying/destroying, this made you come back when of course, you were coming back anyway!
What can we do to help your dog overcome SA?
80% of dogs are unhappy when left alone. These do not all show signs of true separation anxiety, but unlike humans, they don’t like alone time. Whilst your dog may not ever love alone time, we want to teach them to tolerate it and realise there is no reason to panic or be afraid.
We do this through exposure therapy, by slowly exposing the dog to it’s fear at a level they can cope with. We do not ever want to let the dog have a fearful experience again, so we need to try and keep the dog under threshold at all times. If a dog can only manage 5 seconds, then we work at 4 seconds to begin with and build it up. We build in very small increments, your dog is not sat there with a stopwatch and most likely won’t tell the difference between 10 and 12 seconds! Treating separation anxiety is quite a complex process, some dogs do better in a crate, but a lot do better out. Wi-fi camera’s are invaluable as they allow us to see when the dog might be about to go over threshold, allowing us to go back in before this happens. Slow and steady wins the race with dog behaviour modification every time, and we want to use fear-free training to build up a positive association with ‘scary’ home alone time.
If you think your dog is suffering from Separation Anxiety, please get in touch to see how we can help.