Separation anxiety myths Before getting too far into the nuanced areas of separation anxiety management and training, it will be helpful to dispel the many myths about treating separation anxiety. Many trainers, unfortunately, subscribe to some of the myths, but the bigger challenge is likely having to dispel myths for your human clients as part of your efforts to get them to commit to the behavior plan you choose to adopt.
This is a general list of the most common myths, but there are many more that I have not included. Think carefully about what is being said or suggested before considering a change in how you work with separation anxiety.
MYTH: The client caused her dog’s separation anxiety. This is not the case. It is often said that she let the dog sleep in her bed, she carried him too often, she petted him too much, she coddled his fears, and was even told she rewarded his anxiety. These things do not cause separation anxiety.
MYTH: Separation anxiety is not treatable. Like any fear, phobia, or anxiety issue, there are favorable treatments that can make a difference and lead to a reduction or complete resolution of separation anxiety. The reality is that we need to use the appropriate methods and be aware that they are not quick fixes. Whenever I hear someone say, “I tried everything, and nothing worked,” I question their definition of “everything.”
MYTH: Medications are a last resort. Waiting until everything is collapsing, and the client has used every last mental and financial resource, is not the right time to consider medication. Separation anxiety is a welfare problem for the dog and, in many ways, for the guardian, too.
Please don’t wait to explore meds as an option. We’ll talk further about medications to make sure you are aware of accurate, useful information about the options, and I encourage you to be open to the possibility for a separation anxiety dog.
MYTH: The dog is behaving out of spite. Dogs don’t have this sort of cognitive ability in their repertoire, so we don’t even need to entertain this discussion. See the discussion below in this chapter on guilt for more information.
MYTH: Only rescue dogs get separation anxiety. We have worked with dogs from excellent breeders and even very young puppies that experience separation anxiety. We are now seeing studies that show that genetics likely plays a role in separation anxiety, so don’t believe the myth that it is only dogs with “bad” experiences or rescue dogs who have separation anxiety (Bradshaw et al., 2002).
MYTH: Some breeds are more likely to experience separation anxiety. Considerable information discussing breed-specific characteristics exists, and some breeds are labeled as being prone to separation anxiety. While I suspect that there will be more information as further genetic studies are revealed about separation anxiety,
at this point it appears that separation anxiety is not a breed-specific issue. Sherman and Mills (2008) discuss the fact that no specific breed category seems to be overrepresented consistently with regard to separation anxiety. They do, however, mention that mixed-breed dogs show a higher prevalence in the research, but it is important to remember that the relative percentages of purebred dogs versus mixed-breed dogs who are diagnosed with separation anxiety vary from study to study. Their overall deduction was that no bias was observed when compared with the representation in the general population.
MYTH: Dogs “grow out” of separation anxiety. Forgive me if this is glib, but do you outgrow your heart disease, diabetes, or depression so very easily? As a clinical disorder, your dog will also not likely outgrow separation anxiety. Additionally, if you expect to let your dog grow out of separation anxiety while leaving him alone regularly, you can exacerbate the problem or at best leave the dog to suffer for a long while needlessly (Wright and Nesselrote, 1987; McCrave, 1991).
MYTH: The dog can be left alone sometimes when working on separation anxiety training. This is incorrect. When we are working through a separation anxiety protocol, the dog must experience no stressful absences. Other than the times the client is doing specified training, the dog will not be left unsupervised. Any absences outside of training that would cause undue stress have the potential to cause considerable setbacks to the critical work being done when working on separation anxiety.
MYTH: Getting more exercise will cure separation anxiety. Exercise is excellent for all dogs, but being exhausted from a good run or jaunt in the park is not what will fix separation anxiety. The more exercise a person gets for their dog, the more of an athlete they will create (and the more of an athlete they create the more activity their dog will potentially require). I am not advocating for less exercise than the dog gets currently, I’m merely pointing out that exercise is not the “cure” for separation anxiety. (Note: Exercise can be highly beneficial in the resolution of other behavior issues such as boredom or under-stimulation.)
MYTH: Getting another dog will fix separation anxiety. Several research papers (Lund and Jorgensen, 1999; Parthasarathy and Crowell-Davis, 2006; Ballantyne, 2018) suggest that most dogs with separation anxiety are not helped by getting another animal (be it a dog, cat, fish, or gerbil). For a very small handful, an animal companion helps, but the underlying anxiety still exists when the buddy is not present, so this is truly just a Band-Aid and is not recommended as a fix.
MYTH: Many dogs with separation anxiety will need to be euthanized. Absolutely not. As a behavior issue that has a good track record of being resolved, separation anxiety leads to euthanasia only in very rare and unusual cases (typically when medical complications are also at play). I want to be very transparent here that our goal is always to keep the dog’s welfare in mind. For dogs who are genuinely suffering and cannot find a suitable home (as sometimes happens in rescue situations), euthanizing may, unfortunately, be the most humane option in some cases.
MYTH: Clients are reinforcing bids for attention by re-entering the home if their dog is vocalizing. The dog is vocalizing because he is anxious, not because he is trying to call someone back. You cannot reinforce anxiety behaviors like this. If I hug you while you are anxious about an upcoming exam, will that “reinforce” your anxiety? Please tell me your answer was no.
If your dog barks at you for a treat, you can absolutely reinforce that, but reinforcing deliberate behavior (like barking at you for that treat or jumping on you for attention) is vastly different than the incorrect notion of being able to reinforce an emotion. Separation anxiety is an actual panic issue.
If a dog has been diagnosed with separation anxiety and barks while the client is out, this is a result of panic, so it may be more illuminating to think of the barking as the outward sign of an internal state (panic), rather than a straightforward voluntary behavior. The client need not worry that she is reinforcing barking in the traditional sense of the definition. Having said all of this, you will always be striving to have the client return when the dog is not vocalizing or displaying anxious behaviors, as that is the basis of remaining under threshold.
MYTH: Dogs with separation anxiety must be crated. This is a ubiquitous suggestion. While occasional dogs with separation anxiety can do well with crating (particularly those who are already completely in love with their crates), most dogs with separation anxiety do much better without.
Confinement anxiety is an extraordinarily frequent issue with separation anxiety dogs, so assessing whether the dog can do better outside of the crate is particularly important.
MYTH: If the dog is left with a food toy, he’ll have something to do and not be worried about the fact that his guardian is gone. Some dogs won’t even eat when left alone, but those who will eat usually display anxiety the moment the food is gone.
MYTH: Leave your dog with a T-shirt, blanket, or sock that smells like you. Hang on! Your whole house smells like you, so this really won’t make a difference for actual separation anxiety! (Why does this one always make me snigger a bit?) Yes, you have likely seen online posts about leaving your clothes wrapped onto a mannequin to “trick” your dog into thinking you are there via scent and sight. If these dogs were genuinely experiencing separation anxiety, this would not work, and at the end of the day, I urge you to never “lie to your dog” anyway.
MYTH: Training will boost a dog’s confidence, so engage in lots of activities that will make a dog feel more secure overall to fix separation anxiety. There is no correlation between the training of other types of behaviors and improvement in separation anxiety symptoms. Having said that, please know that it is terrific to train dogs for all sorts of reasons, and you can encourage your clients to do so. I just want you to know that things like obedience training, agility, or nose work, while excellent, are not instruments to fix a dog’s separation anxiety. Additionally, separation anxiety training can be time-consuming, so asking a client to engage in tons of other training activities that won’t have much (if any) impact is not a recommended practice (Voith et al., 1992; Flannigan and Dodman, 2001).
MYTH: Leave the TV or radio on to keep the dog “company.” While we sometimes recommend background noise like a radio or white noise machine, these are typically suggested to protect against potential upset due to external sounds that we can’t control. (An example would be apartment building noises that the dog is sensitive to.) Separation anxiety is commonly comorbid with noise phobia, so this sort of intervention can help mitigate fear-provoking sounds for those that are affected.
Sounds for keeping the dog company are not necessary. If sounds are used to protect from extraneous noise, this should be done systematically, and the sounds should be chosen carefully in order to carry no risk of scaring the dog themselves.
MYTH: The owner must be their dog’s pack leader. This advice is outdated and not accurate. Dogs are not out to take over the world or assert dominance over us. Not only is this advice outdated and factually incorrect, but it is also harmful – especially when it comes to things like separation anxiety. Dogs deserve our understanding, and as our loving companions, we owe it to them to recognize their needs.
MYTH: If the dog isn’t punished for his alone-time destructive activity or urinating, he will not know it is wrong. Research from Borchelt and Voith (1982) indicates that punishment can increase a dog’s emotional dependency on his owner. O’Farrell (1986) noted that punishment contributes to a dog’s general anxiety level. Punishing dogs who suffer from separation anxiety is not only counterproductive but cruel. Imagine being yelled at for your fear of flying during take-off, or slapped for your fear of driving over a bridge while driving over the bridge!
Those things would not only be awful; they’d be heartless. Please remember this if your personal frustration starts to mount. Take a deep breath and remember that your dog is experiencing panic, fear, anxiety, and stress. He is not a bad dog; he is scared out of his mind.
MYTH: Training a Velcro dog to not follow is the key to treating separation anxiety. If you think that addressing clinginess in dogs is the key to separation anxiety, you may be surprised to hear that it is not (Herron et al., 2014). A dog who follows his or her owner a great deal is not necessarily a dog with separation anxiety.
We have seen numerous examples of confirmed separation anxiety dogs who were initially called clingy and remained devoted owner followers even after the separation anxiety was completely resolved. Persistent owner following is not necessarily a result of anxiety.
Many dogs just like to be with their people a lot, and that doesn’t have to be looked at as an abnormal attribute. To further confirm this, I’d like you to look at the graphic showing the percentage of dogs who follow their owner closely is high in both separation anxiety dogs and non-separation anxiety dogs. Some myths are worth exploring in more depth due to the concerning subtext that correlates with their existence.
Often times people consider that separation anxiety dogs are simply being naughty or are spoiled, and both of these descriptions need to be dissected.
The myth of the naughty dog. I feel people must understand that separation anxiety-related behaviors are emphatically not indicative of a dog being naughty. There is no malicious intent on the dog’s part, nor is there a speck of revenge-seeking, despite what is commonly discussed amongst the general public. Calculated reasoning is not in a dog’s repertoire. The guilty look that some dogs display is commonly used as a case argument for the naughty-dog-syndrome.
However, it has been shown in many studies that these guilty-appearing behaviors are born of something completely different. The appearance of guilt is typically associated with a fear response to the owner’s reaction. Guilt is not a dog-construct, as dogs have no moral compass. (I remember hearing that sort of statement initially from Jean Donaldson, and it shook me to the core. If it does the same to you, please know I relate.) Many people disagree with that statement, but I would urge you to consider this or research it further while thinking critically.
Being virtuous requires a type of cognitive reasoning that dogs do not possess. Helpful definitions Moral compass: An internalized set of values and objectives that guide a person with regard to ethical behavior and decision-making.
Virtuous: Conforming to moral and ethical principles; morally excellent; upright. Dogs can react to our irritated or angry emotions, even in the absence of punishment. One example that I found fascinating was a study I read years ago (sorry, I can’t remember the author to give a reference). If a dog defecates in the house, and the client
gets angry (maybe just sighs, yells, or worse), the dog can become fearful. If the dog has a history (however brief) of Mom getting angry at alone-time indoor elimination, he can begin to exhibit a look that may be interpreted as guilt. This look is simply born of association and is anticipatory in nature. Interestingly the study elaborates that if one were to take feces from the yard and place it in the middle of the living room (even an unfamiliar dog’s feces, by the way), the dog can still show signs of fear or appeasement.
It is, therefore, not the act of defecating in the house that the dog is “regretting” or showing remorse over, but rather the association of the presence of dog feces indoors when the owner arrives home after an absence. This reaction in itself is fascinating, but let it ring true for all of us that the guilty look is not a sign of compunction. The statement “he knows better” needs to be removed from our dog-related language!
The myth of the spoiled dog. I’d like to open this section by asking if you (personally) spoil your dog. The percentage of you, my dear readers, who talk to their dogs in a baby voice or as if they are human, let them sleep on the bed or couch, give them lots of treats and in general love on their dog in multiple ways, is high! (By the way, if you aren’t doing at least a few of those things with your dog, you not only have my permission to do so but also have my encouragement in most all cases.)
If spoiling a dog through treats, sleeping arrangements, snuggles, and cuddles were a cause of separation anxiety in dogs, the percentage of dogs with this condition would unquestionably be far higher than the currently reported figures. This is supported by McCrave’s study (1991) in which it was found that there was no significant difference between the two groups (SA and non-SA) in how owners interacted with their dogs. If you are saying “phew” to yourself, I’m so glad! If you are still wondering if you are causing your dog’s separation anxiety, please carefully read on.
I have worked with countless numbers of separation anxiety dogs since 2001, and I gave each client permission to continue to show those dogs the affection they desired. This includes sleeping in bed with them and other practices that are often deemed as spoiling habits. When you read the suggestion that a client should remove affection from their dog, please reconsider following such advice.
Not only is excluding love-giving behavior not effective in reducing or eliminating separation anxiety, but it can also increase a dog’s anxiety, as they are deprived of such affection, particularly if they have become accustomed to it already. Yes, this statement is potentially going to be debated by some professionals, and I welcome that. I hope that you use your personal critical thinking abilities to make your own decision about the accuracy of this declaration.
Extensive studies in children show that an environment where they are deprived of physical and emotional kindness and affection can lead to detrimental results, such as having poor social, coping, and problem-solving skills. When a child receives compassion and love, they are far better equipped to be a well-balanced and confident individual.
It appears to be no different with our dogs. Please remember that bestowing generous amounts of love on your dog is different than being behaviorally indulgent or permissive. Dogs (like children) do need to be taught about the general house rules, but that does not require the absence of kindheartedness or the inclusion of punishment. When clients contact us for help with their dog’s separation anxiety, it is entirely too common to witness them blaming themselves for their dog’s issue. I spend a lot of time listening to tears and hearing people’s heartbreak over criticizing statements they have heeded from people who were likely well-intentioned. But separation anxiety is seldom a result of a client’s mismanagement. Every owner of a separation anxiety dog must be told that the problem they are facing is not their fault.
This lack of blame should be very clearly understood, and all gu from the teachings in the book, I hope that this notion is understood and widely shared by trainers, veterinarians, and dog guardians. Quite frankly, even if clients were somehow blameworthy, what good would it do to dwell on that and impose condemnation anyway? We should be focusing on implementing a positive plan for resolving the separation anxiety moving forward. The process of including patience and compassion through gradual training has been successful for client upon client. Elements of our training plans are specifically designed to help the clients on their journey. You may be wondering why this compassion is so critical.
It is with this compassion that clients can maintain patience through the gradual and often challenging separation anxiety training. To give a little further evidence about the lack of owner liability in separation anxiety cases, I’d like to touch on the genetics of separation anxiety. There has been mounting research in the past years that indicates separation anxiety may likely have a genetic component. I have reviewed several studies that discuss separation anxiety genetic linkages, including an identified haplotype (Rooy et al., 2016; Mervis et al., 2012).
As a non-geneticist, reading the research was challenging for me, but the gist of the findings is exciting. Do recognize, though, that while the potential heritability is profound help from the standpoint of removing owner blame, it does not mean that separation anxiety is any less treatable.
Provided by my Mentor and Teachers Book….DeMartini-Price CTC, Malena. Separation Anxiety in Dogs: Next Generation Treatment Protocols and Practices (pp. 21-22).