Separation anxiety — could you be making it worse?

Could you be making your dog’s separation anxiety worse? You may be contributing to his fear without even realizing it.

Wendy adopted a collie mix recently. He soon developed separation anxiety, and she didn’t know why. Then a trainer told her it was because of the way she acted whenever she left the house. “I hated leaving him alone and always made a big fuss of him, telling him over and over that I’d be home soon,” Wendy says. “I was as worried about leaving him as he was to be left, and it was making him anxious.”

As this example shows, separation anxiety isn’t always just about the dog. I have found over the years, when working to solve this issue, that there are several ways people can unintentionally trigger separation anxiety in their dogs. By watching out for these relationship errors, you can avoid or more quickly stop separation anxiety before it becomes a severe problem.

Don’t go away mad

Perhaps one of the most common ways you can unintentionally trigger separation anxiety in a dog is by using the wrong kind of leaving protocol. To better identify how your dog may feel, let’s say you are at the dentist’s office and just had a routine cleaning. The dentist comes in and picks up your chart. Looking at him hopefully, you notice his jaw tighten. He flips the top page with intensity and quickly flips it back. You know this can’t be good, and your imagination begins to spark anxiety. The dentist snaps closed your folder, puts it down sharply, and leaves the room. The entire time he is gone, your anxiety escalates.

What you don’t know is that the dentist wasn’t even thinking about your teeth, but about something else entirely. Perhaps his car mechanic gave him bad news and he left you in a huff because he suddenly decided to call the mechanic back before dealing with you. Meanwhile, you end up feeling a lot of anxiety while you wait for his return.

Unfortunately, you can put your dog through a similar experience when you leave the house. For example, maybe you’re uptight because you’re late. A lot of dogs respond poorly to human tension, anger or other negative emotions. If you leave the house after displaying these feelings, your dog can feel the same way you would in the dentist example above. Stress-filled leaving habits can not only result in the development of separation anxiety, but your dog can start feeling anxious the moment you pick up your keys or put on your jacket.

Too much lovin’?

Another way you can create unease in your dog before going out may seem ironic because you probably see it as a positive experience. Maybe you speak in a higher pitched tone of voice as you lavish affection on your dog before you depart, and when you return home. But what you think of as communicating love to your dog can actually stress him.

Part of the problem is that your heightened energy can give him the wrong impression. He is expecting something fun to follow your excitement, such as a walk – but then you leave and close the door on him. Likewise, the excitement you show when you come back can create an anxious anticipation about your return while you are gone. Not all dogs subjected to these overly excited departures and arrivals will end up with separation anxiety, but I’ve met a lot who have.

A sense of security

Insecurity is a very common trigger for separation anxiety. There are two common ways people can inadvertently create or perpetuate insecurity. One is when they allow overly submissive behaviors in a dog. If he rolls onto his back in a submissive manner when you approach, you need to break this habit, because allowing it undermines his confidence. One way I work to change this behavior is to stop approaching the dog the moment he rolls on his back. I try not to show disapproval, but instead turn around and calmly walk away. Often, I will get down to floor level a short distance away and invite the dog to receive attention by coming over to me.

Another common way you can create insecurity in a dog is by coddling him. If he becomes afraid, your first instinct may be to snatch him up and cuddle him, especially if he’s a small dog. A fearful dog has his fear confirmed when you show tension in your haste to grab him. Soon, he learns that anytime he feels uncertain, he needs you to survive the situation. Unfortunately, dogs handled in this manner will begin to follow their people around the house like a shadow, because they’re afraid of everything, including being alone, and need to keep their humans in sight. When you leave the house, a fearful dog can begin having full blown panic attacks that we label as separation anxiety.

Teaching your dog to be more secure begins with a better assessment of any potential threats. If the dog is not in any danger, you need to allow him to calm down with four paws on the floor. Retraining may be needed for dogs that have developed shadowing problems.

Household stressors

Some of the separation anxiety I see occurs after something stressful happens in the home. Stress can come from a change in the household, including the loss of a family member or military deployment. The dog not only feels the absence of one individual as a loss, but may pick up on the elevated stress levels among remaining family members. Stressed-out humans can create anxiety in some dogs, and that anxiety can trigger separation anxiety.

Adoption can trigger separation anxiety

An all too common trigger of separation anxiety stems from the adoption process. Some dogs become very stressed in a shelter environment. If a dog was insecure prior to entering the shelter, perhaps because of poor socialization, then he will be more prone to separation anxiety when he is adopted.

Dogs coming from a shelter often need help acclimating to a new household. Working to create security in the dog during the first three weeks can help prevent separation anxiety issues.

When you first get the dog home, don’t overwhelm him. Allow him to slowly adjust to the household. Once he feels more secure, instead of trying to make up for the injustice he may have suffered before, use training to help transform him into a secure and happy dog.

While separation anxiety sometimes stems from factors beyond our immediate control, we shouldn’t underestimate the influence our own emotions and behaviors can have on our dogs. By understanding this, and by being aware of how your dog is responding to what is going on around him, you can help him learn to stay calm and collected whenever you have to go out.