In Jack London’s classic, White Fang, the main mutt of the same name (W.F. for short) developed one strong bond with his man. So tight was this bond that when master departed temporarily, the mutt refused to eat and chose to pine away in agony. As a kid, I was enamored by this romanticized display of loyalty between dog and owner. But now that I know better, when I recall the story I just wanna shout, “Hey! That dog has separation anxiety. He needs help.”
London’s main character is not the only dog who has ever had separation anxiety. He’s not even a rarity. In fact, separation anxiety is one of the most common reasons for a trip to the animal behaviorist. It comprises 20–40% of all canine cases seen by behaviorists in the U.S. and Europe. Unlike W.F. though, most of these dogs don’t display their despair in such poignant fashion. Instead, they rip the house to shreds, bark incessantly, and leave accidents in conspicuous places. For their worry, all they get is the label “spiteful.”
Why would a dog get so upset about being left alone?
It all has to do with the group mentality. As social animals, dogs love to hang out with their peers, and, when raised with people, they view these people as their peers. Usually this isn’t a problem. We humans like the attention. But some dogs are a little too bonded to their two-legged friends.
Often you can spot these dogs right off. They follow their owners from room to room, never letting them out of sight or even out of reach. It’s as if they’re afraid that their human could vanish at any time. These dogs may ask for constant reassurance by perpetually leaning on their owners, climbing into their laps, and asking for attention. In essence, these pooches have a sort of doggie low self-esteem.
But this isn’t the only type of dog who succumbs to feelings of angst upon an owner’s temporary departure. Any dog who is used to having a person with him at all times is prone to despair when abruptly left alone. This could occur, for instance, when the human gets a new job or school starts and the kids are no longer home. This is how might happen. After a melodramatic good-bye, the owner leaves Fido alone for the first time. Fido’s puzzled.
“Hey. Where’d you go? You forgot me. I’m in here! Hey! Hey!” Of course to the casual listener it sounds more like this. “Woof! Woof! Ruff……. Owoooooh!” After ten minutes, Fido figures he wasn’t just forgotten; he’s been abandoned. Now he’s really worried. He tries to get his mind off the situation by chewing on something convenient — the dining room table — but it doesn’t work and what’s more, all this worry’s giving him an upset stomach. He leaves a number two on the carpet. Finally, he can’t stand it anymore. “I gotta get out and find him!” So he starts frantically digging at the front door.
How do you deal with a dog who loves you too much?
Well, punishment is out of the question. It only confuses the frightened Fido. But surprisingly, a sympathetic streak can make things worse, too. Coddling actually may deepen Fido’s dependency when what he really needs is a chance to stand on his own four feet. Here are some ways to boost Fido’s independence.
Boosting Fido’s Independence
Believe it or not, the first step is to teach Fido some emotional control so that instead of immediately whining and then barking and getting more and more worked up as soon as you leave, he learns to sit or lie down calmly to get you to come back. I build this calm behavior up quickly by putting dogs through my version of the Learn to Earn Program for teaching impulse control in dogs and developing leadership in humans. This starts by training dogs to say please by sitting immediately and automatically for treats/kibble and then progresses to sitting to earn petting, attention, toys and virtually everything Fido wants.
Next, teach Fido that out of sight doesn’t mean out of mind. This starts with teaching him to lie down several feet away with treats coming frequently (such as every 3 seconds) and then systematically decreasing the number of treats he gets while also increasing the distance your walk away from him. This is basically a down-stay that gradually progresses to being able to have your dog lay out of site of you for, say, a half hour.
If Fido’s further along, then start with short departures. They teach Fido that good-byes are okay; they’re followed shortly by hellos. Make sure you cut the drama out of greetings and departures and turn both into ho-hum events. For easy dogs you can do this simply by ignoring Fido for 20 minutes prior to leaving and after returning home. Or you can teach Fido to look forward to your departures by pairing them with special treats or toys. Goodies should be given well before departure and must occupy Fido for a while when he’s alone.
For more challenging dogs, you have to actually train him to remain calm while you leave by, for instance, having him lie down and receive rewards while, and after, you leave. How can you reward him when you’re gone? Well, you could get a Treat & Train®
which dispenses his meal bit by bit and comes with a training protocol that teaches you to have Fido lay on a rug and stay calmly with increasing greater distractions. All you have to do is follow the distractions protocol and make leaving the house one of the distractions. Once you can leave for just a minute or so with treats dispensing from the Treat & Train® really frequently, you can slow the treat rate down and leave for increasingly longer periods.
In yet another variation, I specifically train these anxious dogs using a Learn to Earn exercise variation, that lying down calmly gets their owners to come back—first from a short distance away and then from another room or from outside the house.
Some Dogs Need the Help of Drugs
This treatment plan sounds simple, but if you’ve ever lived with a needy dog you know it’s really not. Some dogs turn around within days while others drag on for months. In some cases, Fido may even need medications. The two that have been approved for use in dogs with separation anxiety are Clomicalm® and Reconcile®. But even with these drugs, separation anxiety is not quickly fixed. For best results, the medication has to be paired with the behavior modification. And to throw a wrench into the process, dogs showing individual signs of separation anxiety may have a different problem instead.
Many dogs need the help of a qualified behaviorist. In many cases, it’s a good idea to seek the help of an educated, behavior specialist. That means, for one, someone who won’t just tell you that , your dog is trying to dominate you and, that to fix his separation anxiety, you have to show him you’re the boss. (To understand why separation anxiety is not related to dominance, read The Dominance Controversy). Undoubtedly, if your dog has true separation anxiety, you will suffer thousands of dollars in household damage, making the cost of a good veterinary behaviorist, applied animal behaviorist, or other qualified specialist well worth their fee.
Originally appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle in 1999