In relation to dog behaviour, separation anxiety is a commonly used term for dogs who show signs including sadness, distress, fear and frustration, or who exhibit a range of behaviours including barking, whining, howling, house soiling (weeing and pooing), or destructive type behaviours – when left alone or separated from their caregivers, family members or even another animal from the same household. Often they have a strong bond with the person or animal they are being separated from, but this is not always the case.
MOST COMMONLY DIAGNOSED BY VETS
According to a recent scientific paper (de Assis et al 2020), the percentage of the general dog population believed to show signs of separation distress and related behaviours, is 22 – 55% and makes up between 14 – 40% of all cases of dog behaviour referral cases.
That means there are a LOT of dogs affected! It’s widespread throughout the world’s dog population, and not specific to the dog’s breed, age, size, health status or where/how the dog was acquired (eg. breeder or shelter).
In more recent years vets, behaviourists, scientists and ethologists have started taking a closer look at this, in order to better understand the underlying emotional states and the psychology behind it, in an attempt to provide more effective diagnosis and treatment plans which can be offered to support these dogs.
SEPARATION RELATED BEHAVIOURS
It has become clear that not all of these behaviours and ‘symptoms’ can be termed as ‘separation anxiety‘. The word anxiety refers to feelings related to worry, fear or apprehension about what’s to come. Though this might be true in some cases, not all dogs show initial signs of distress at being left alone, and only after a period of time will start to vocalise and become destructive.
The preferred terms now used therefore are: ‘Separation Related Disorder’ or ‘Separation Related Behaviours’, which are both umbrella terms for the wide range underlying emotions and ways they are expressed by dogs, when they are left home alone or isolated for any reason.
TAKE IT SERIOUSLY
Whatever the cause or reason is for the dog ‘acting out’ in this way – please don’t ignore it in the hope that he/she will simply get used to being alone.
Dog’s behaviour is communication – we need to listen and take them seriously. Their needs are just as valid and important as any member of our family. If we don’t, it is likely to develop into something more serious. Don’t ignore their ‘whispers’ until they have to ‘shout’ to get their message across.
Thankfully there is help at hand for both dogs and their caregivers, who are affected by this often debilitating condition. Indeed, the emotions and mindset of the person involved are equally important, and should not be considered separate from the issue.
Because of the complexity, there is no ‘quick-fix’ or ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach to helping dogs with separation problems. It’s important that each individual dog and their particular situation is assessed carefully and thoroughly by an experienced professional, and then a holistic plan put together that will be effective and supportive for the dog and their person.
There is so much more to this topic, and I will be writing a series of follow up of blog posts, so stay tuned and sign up for the newsletter if you want to get the latest article straight to your inbox.
Does Your Dog Need a Teddy Bear?
Teddy Bears are often given to children in times of need, could the same practice work with your dog?
Whether transitioning to sleeping alone at night, being separated from their parents or carers, or during times of discomfort or illness. Teddies and other stuffed animals have been known to soothe anxiety and offer comfort and safety to children. They are generally made of soft materials, which children love to cuddle and snuggle with, and these actions allow them to mirror those of being warmly embraced and comforted by a parental figure or carer. In child psychology these are known as ‘Transitioning Objects.’ In dog behaviour science these are referred to as ‘Maintenance Stimuli’. They are basically any cues that have been conditioned to represent a feeling of safety, bonding and relaxation for that particular child or animal. These could be physical objects like a favourite toy, a blanket or a stuffed food toy/puzzle.
The comforter could be olfactory in nature, eg. an item of the caregivers clothing containing their familiar scent, or the soothing, calming or uplifting scent of an essential oil. Or, they could be auditory signals such as specially formulated music which promotes a feeling of calm and relaxation. Even a familiar radio channel which is played regularly when the caregiver is home, can become a cue for safety, routine and a sense of belonging. The more Maintenance Stimuli which we offer our dogs during times when they are learning to stay alone, the better.
It’s important for me to point out here that the chosen object/cue must represent and trigger positive emotions in your dog. If not done correctly, it’s likely to have quite the opposite effect!
For example, if your dog has never had a teddy bear of their own before. Now, you decide to buy one and leave it with your dog every time you go out, in an attempt to offer an object of comfort. However,
Yet there has been no prior connection between this teddy bear and any feelings of safety, reliability or affection. The presentation of the teddy in this case, is more likely to become a cue that you are leaving and trigger feelings of abandonment, frustration or anxiety. So, it is important to carefully consider which items you choose for this purpose and how they are related to any or all of the positive emotions you would like them to represent to your dog.
If you would like to know how to establish new or existing transitioning cues suitable for your dog, then look out for our online course coming soon.
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