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Busting The Myths Around Separation Anxiety | Vanity Fur Magazine
Busting the myths around Separation Anxiety

If you look around Google, many articles and videos may show what you should and shouldn’t do if your dog gets distressed when home alone.

And on Facebook, you are going to get hundreds of opinions, anecdotes, and advice from strangers.

But how do you know if you are helping your dog or actually making them worse?

Since it was found that dogs can suffer from separation anxiety (there is one myth bust!), and have panic attacks when left on their own, there has been an ever increasing amount of scientific research, but also that has led to some very unscientific advice being produced.

Here are some myths and why they are not true

#1 You caused it

There is unlikely just one cause of separation distress, but as an owner, it wasn’t you.  Most dogs tend to be hard wired to this phobia, and our eagerness to take puppies away early may not help.  Dogs have been domesticated to be with us for thousands of years, and have not really then learnt the skills to automatically cope when we suddenly disappear for a long time.  Puppies can have it (another myth gone!), but older dogs can develop it too.  It may have always been there but life changes, trauma or old age can trigger the panic whereas before they were coping.

#2 Giving them too much attention

Dogs rely on the relationship with us, and having them with us, stroking them, caring for them and letting them be up on the furniture and bed is not causing the anxiety – in fact it is reassuring them and strengthening the relationship we have.   Ignoring your dog is likely to cause more distress, especially if before you were enjoying the closeness all the time.

#3 It’s a phase – they will get over it – leave them to cry it out

It is highly unlikely that your dog will get over their phobia by themselves, as the methods for this are distressing for the dog before you even add on the source of the fear.  This involves just abandoning the dog and not reacting or responding to them.  With the distress, what happens is that as soon as you leave, the panic starts and doesn’t finish until you return.   Your dog may go quieter but it’s because the howling, crying, barking and destruction has not resulted in help, and so they give up – learned helplessness.  They have shut down but certainly have not ‘got over it’.

During this time, what is the dog learning?  That you are not there to help them when they need it, which erodes at your bond with them, and therefore less trust towards you.  You moving around makes them so anxious that you may go out of the door.  Whilst they are having continued distress, the effect on the brain (especially a young developing brain) is noticeable longer term.  Toxic stress has physiological and psychological impacts.

Rather than a phase, it is a real emotion and quite a common one too, due to how dogs were domesticated and bred to attach to humans for working and companionship.

#4 Crates work

When a dog is distressed, they may cause damage to your home.  It’s not premeditated but they are trying to escape the fear.  It’s common for flooring to be chewed, or the exit door to be scratched, and it’s been known for dogs to jump out of windows.   When you are scared, you lose your bowel functions.  One way owners try and mitigate the damage is to put the dog in a crate.  However, confinement can exasperate the fear – fancy being locked in a tiny cupboard when your home is overtaken by marauding insects (or your fear)?  Often, the association of fear and crates can cause long term problems as they do not cope in any vet kennels or van crates.  You create claustrophobia.  As Julie Naismith, a Separation Anxiety Expert says, ‘if the crate didn’t break, the dog did’.

#5 They did it out of spite – the guilty look

When you are in a true panic, your logical reasoning disappears.  Rather than the prefrontal cortex firing well for rationalising, your amygdala takes over for fight/flight responses.  This can cause your dog to do things without realising – soiling, knocking over things, chewing or destroying objects. When we come home, we are not looking happy and our dog responds to our features and mood – so if we shout at the dog (although they won’t make the same associations as us for accidents happening earlier in the day), they make appeasement faces.   But your dog doesn’t do guilt.  They are not plotting against us, or finding ways to punish us for going out without them, and not being naughty.  They were just scared.  Simple as that.  So rather than shout at them, look at why they may be scared and seek professional help to find ways to make the situation better for everyone.

#6  Getting a second dog will solve the anxiety

Dogs are bonded to us humans and it is us that they miss when we leave them.  It’s not common for your anxious and distressed dog to suddenly be ‘cured’ when a strange dog joins the household.  In fact, given that over half of dogs have real distress, the chances are that your second dog could suffer too.  It could even escalate the anxiety by having another dog there in their home.  Only get another dog if you really want one, not as a solution to your existing dog’s distress.

#7 Leave out food

If only leaving out a never ending stuffed feeder toy was the cure, then there will be no separation anxiety!  This myth is a huge one, and there are many reasons why this doesn’t cut it.

When you are stressed, your digestive system shuts down so you are prepared to flee if needed.  When we do other training, if your dog doesn’t eat, it is a sign of being over threshold.  They will only eat when they feel calmer again, and dogs often wait until you return to eat that chew.  When you are scared, you will turn down even your most favourite foods.  Some dogs do manage to eat, but then when the food runs out, the panic sets in.   Even the best toys only hold your dog’s focus for so long.  It’s a temporary distraction at best, however it can be a good management tool to allow you to sneak out to the local shop for the emergency milk.

In reward training, we normally ask the dog to look at the scary thing and then reward them.  In SA training, we can only give the food before we go out,  so it’s not a reward – the food toy soon becomes a predictor that you are leaving them, and so that loses its appeal pretty quick.

#8 Isn’t going back when they bark only reinforcing the noise?

Technically, yes this can happen, but there are different types of barking.  Some are attention grabbing barks, some are warning barks, and then there is the distress crying.  Going back to comfort them reassures them that we will be there for them in their hour of need, building the trust with them.  In the method we use, we never leave the dog’s long enough alone to have them barking or crying – no need for the fear again.

#9  It is the breed…

All dogs can and do have separation anxiety, and the breed is unlikely to be the main factor.  There are some breeds that have developed to be companion dogs, however it may just seem that some breeds suffer more than most.  The real view is that some breeds are more popular so there is a greater chance of meeting one with SA.

#10 I don’t want my dog to be a zombie on drugs

Medications may be the additional help alongside the training to get progress.  Your dog will not be a zombie, but a better version of themselves as they are not always on edge for fear of you leaving, so a less stressed companion.  When the cortisol hormone is lowered, then the training often sticks better too, you can learn when you are less stressed.  Sometimes our dogs need a bit of a medicinal help.  Many owners try natural remedies, but there is very little independent research to verify many claims of non – medicinal treatments.

#11  It’s not treatable

Actually, SA is!  But like a phobia, you have to take it slow and understand your dog’s body language.  You need patience, but the work will pay off.  Of all the differing types of fears, this one is probably the easiest as you can set the parameters, and not be worried by strangers approaching too close at the wrong moment!  A very common mistake is to start with going out for 5/20 seconds as your beginning. The fear is already there, and dogs do not have concept of time.   Often with my clients, it really starts from the moment they move off the sofa.  This is where the success begins.

You can find out more about the help with SA by visiting my website

Busting the myths around Separation Anxiety | Jo Pippins | Vanity Fur Magazine

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Pippin Pets Dog Training


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