On the second day that we had Pete, our new dog, I noticed that he followed me everywhere I went. When I took a shower, he was there. If I walked outside to get something out of my car, he was there. If I turned around too quickly, I would trip over him.
While it might seem like Pete really loved me, I knew that this behavior was the first sign of separation anxiety. Think about it: If your spouse followed you everywhere, even to the point of waiting for you outside of the bathroom door, would you think that was love? Of course not! It’s not normal for dogs either.
Separation anxiety is a disorder of hyper attachment, where a physiologic panic response is paired with the owner’s departure. It occurs in about 20 percent of dogs in the United States. There is no specific breed predilection for this disease, although some breeds (Weimaraners) have been indicated in one study.
Separation anxiety is more common in single owner households. It occurs with the same frequency in households with male or female owners, multiple dogs or only dogs, and in families that spoil their dogs and ones that do not. Dogs who have been through an animal shelter are more likely to have this disorder. While it hasn't been studied specifically, I suspect that it is not the shelter itself that causes the disorder, but rather the fact that the dog has been rehomed.
Dogs are social creatures, which causes them to bond closely to us. This is part of why we love them so much. When they are suddenly moved to a new home, they experience stress; they attach to the person with whom they are most comfortable or spend the most time. Add to that the dog’s keen ability to read their environment. Because of this, they pair the stimuli (cues) that precede the owner’s departure with the owner’s absence. Then, these cues — such as picking up keys or putting on shoes — become associated with the physiologic panic response.
This is called classical conditioning and is outside of the dog’s control. What results is barking, crying, urination, defecation, destruction, and other signs of distress when the owner leaves. Some dogs can even be aggressive, trying to block the owner as they try to leave the house.
Early signs of separation anxiety in your pup, such as following you everywhere, should spur you to spring into action. Because a physiologic response is at the root of the disorder, prevention focuses on keeping the pup from having that emotional response and pairing it with your departure cues. While obedience training is helpful in many aspects of your dog’s life, separation anxiety is not a problem of obedience, so it does not respond to obedience training.
To prevent your pup from developing separation anxiety, follow these simple steps.
- Do not pay attention to your pup when he follows you.
- Ask your pup to sit before you interact with him. If he doesn’t know how to sit yet, lure him with a treat. This sets up a predictable, structured relationship between you and your pup and helps him to understand how to get attention from you.
- Spread the responsibilities for care of the pup to different family members.
- Teach your pup to lie down and stay as you move around the house. This will help him to be more secure with your absence.
- Hide all departure cues from your pup so that he can’t begin to associate those with your departure.
- Keep your pup from having a full-blown emotional response. This means that he should not be following you to the door when you go to leave. Instead put him in his crate with something really fun to do, well before you get ready to leave.
- Associate your departure with something wonderful, like a rare treat that he only gets at that time of day.
- Confine your dog in his crate for 10 to 15 minutes once a day when you are home. Crate time should be fun, not punishment. This way, the crate will not be paired with your departure.
Dr. Lisa Radosta