Separation Anxiety in a dog can be very stressful, for both them and their owner. There is a wide scale of distress shown, which can range from a dog being unable to settle right through to howling, destruction, urination and panic. Where ever you are on that scale it would be helpful to both you and the dog to move towards the ‘neutral’ if possible.
The article below has been written by Dr Isla Fishburn, it looks at some of the causes of separation anxiety in dogs and explains how a dog might see our world as scary when we are not there.
Considering your dog’s wellbeing by accepting and working with separation anxiety in your dog by holistic dog behaviourist, Dr Isla Fishburn.
Does your dog suffer with Separation anxiety? Does s/he poo or wee in the home when you are out or even when you are in a different room? Does s/he bark, whine or howl from the time you leave until the time you get back? The first thing to realise is that you are not alone and have not done anything wrong. In fact, you are one of the many thousands of dog owners in the UK whose dog suffers with separation anxiety, or, an incomprehensible feeling of fear, little safety and concern of intruders (or more importantly large predators) when left in the home alone.
Being left alone, an unnatural phenomenon
For a dog, being left alone is a rather unnatural concept to understand. Whilst this does not affect some dogs, most dogs actually show changes in their behaviour when left alone; they become anxious, fearful, nervous or scared and can do anything from heavy panting, chewing owner’s belongings to scenting (toileting) in the home. The situation is not always improved by having two or more dogs in the home as it depends on the character of your dogs as well as environmental conditions that influence the ability for your dogs to feel comfortable when you are away from your home. In fact, if two or more dogs are uncomfortable when left without their owner they can feed off one another’s anxiety and can sometimes escalate the anxiety they display. This is because dogs are social group animals that are made up of dependent and independent individuals. It is the independent individuals that are content when being left alone, knowing that their home and environment is a safe place. However, for some dogs that have been incorrectly socialised with their environment, have suffered a trauma or for those who are naturally dependent on others, they are unable to feel secure and safe when left alone – they would expect a more confident and independent individual to support them.
A natural area of safety.
One cause of separation anxiety in dogs occurs through a common mistake that is implemented by the owner. For instance, a couple decide to get a young dog and, knowing this, they arrange with their employer to have some time off work. This allows the dog to become familiar with its environment and to begin basic training with the dog. However, for the whole time the couple are off work they are with the dog. This means that when it is time for the couple to go back to work the dog then begins to show signs of anxiety, fear and worry when in the home on its own; the couple have inadvertently highlighted themselves to the dog as them being the safety rather than showing the dog an area within the home as a safe place for the dog.
However, another important cause of dogs having separation anxiety is the home environment itself. To us, the room we leave our dog(s) in has no impact on the dog’s level of separation anxiety. But for some dogs the very room they are left in can result in mild to extreme cases of distress and uncertainty.
For both situations, it is important that we understand what a dog needs in its surrounding home environment in order for the dog to feel safe and relaxed when left alone. To a dog, its home is it den site – an area that the dog should be able to trust, feel calm and safe within. The den site should be such a peaceful area that it is the reason why some dogs are sociable when meeting people and other dogs outside but when the same person or dog enters the home the dog becomes wary and restless. In addition, the den site is filled with the dog’s resources (e.g. food, water, toys, bed, you etc) as well as its own scent, which gives every bit of detail to other dogs and predators. Thinking along these lines it is no surprise that many dogs actually show some sign of anxiety and fear when left alone.
Furthermore, by observing how both wild and domestic social canines are born can help us understand how best to help our dog when being left alone. Have you ever seen your dog go behind the back of furniture, under a coffee table, squeeze in to a small space under the stairs, hide under a bed or even hide behind your legs? You should notice one thing when your dog does this – it has its entire body backed in to the space with only its muzzle pointing out. Your dog has already identified areas that it can use to feel safe when it wants to rest or feels uneasy. This is because the dog is now positioned in a space that is small and that only allows a small fraction of its body to be seen. In addition, by having its muzzle protruding out the dog knows it has the best chance of defending itself if anything attempts to threaten it; the dog can merely push out its muzzle and snap out – a quick and safe way of deterring danger. This is one reason why dogs do show behavioural changes when left alone. For a dog, it feels safer if able to get into a space that is small, compact and is able to have only its muzzle exposed. Now take this picture and think of our doorways that are designed for two-legged bipeds to walk through. To a dog, when left alone this doorway now becomes a large threat because a large predator or other danger can come through this doorway that can be at least 20 to 30 times larger than the dog. The dog will look for that small area of safety for its protection.
Adding to this concept of creating a safe place in the home when our dogs are left can again be understood when looking at how wild and domestic social canines are born. Dogs recognise certain shapes to be associated with calm and safety. For instance, when a dog is relaxed and peaceful it will lay on its side almost in the shape of the letter c, or a curve. The curve shape or “c” shape is recognised by dogs at a time when they were young and were receiving trust, safety and protection from their mother in the natal den. This would be the time when the pups were with their mother and were suckling from her; the mother would lay in this curve shape and allow her pups to suckle. During this time, the mother would also intently groom the face and ears of her young pups and lay calmly and quietly with them. All the while her pups were learning behaviour associated with being calm and feeling trust in their den site environment. This is what our dogs require when in their domesticated home environment – an area within the home that is reminiscent of a time and space where the dog received calm, trust and felt safe.
In addition, time of year is important when we actually bring a dog in to our homes. In the wild, animals are born in spring – why – because there is plenty of food available, right? Whilst this is the case, another important natural element for an animal learning about its new environment that is also in full supply in the spring is daylight! With plenty of daylight about a dog has more time to acclimatise to a new environment with an experienced role model (i.e. an adult dog or you)! Can you think how a dog’s wellbeing can be affected by being brought to a new environment that it does not know, that gets dark very quickly, that has owners who shove the dog out in the back garden on its own because it is dark and cold for them to go outside with the young dog on an evening – it is no wonder how time of year can influence how a dog responds to its environment and behaviour within it.
In short, most dogs show some sign of separation anxiety when we leave them, as being left alone is not a natural occurrence for dogs. The extent of the behaviour they show will depend on the dog’s character and its environment but can be exacerbated by how and where a dog is left. By thinking of how a canine mother would create trust and safety in a natal den site we can help our dog’s(s) feeling of safety when left alone. Whilst the dog may always display some element of unease when left, by creating an area in the dog’s home environment and by applying other behavioural responses to communicate with our dog, the dog can associate this with calm, trust and safety when being left alone.
Dr Isla Fishburn owns Kachina Canine Communication in Northumberland. She travels nationwide to where there is a dog in need. Working holistically, Isla considers a dog as an individual and teaches you how to understand and communicate with your dog by considering how a dog’s innate character as well as environmental conditions such as surrounding family, environment, diet and trauma influences the wellbeing and life choices of our dog. Isla works on creating mutual trust and respect between dog and owner and gives one to one consultations, seminars and teaches holistic dog courses on how to consider your dog’s wellbeing by co-existing and interacting with your dog through mutual trust and respect and identifying your dog’s individual limitations, expectations and needs. If you would like more information please visit her website at http://www.kachinacaninecommunication.co.uk.
(this article was written and produced by Dr Isla Fishburn and copyright rules apply. Permission has been given to The Wolfdog Blog to use this article)
If you would be interested in hearing more from Dr Isla Fishburn please visit her website. She also gives presentations and workshops across the UK. For information on her upcoming workshop in the South West please visit the ‘Courses and Workshops’ tab on this web page, as it is being hosted by The Wolfdog Blog.