21 October 2011

Pleeeeease don't leave me!

It's normal for our dogs to want to be close to us and know where we are.  They depend on us for everything, not just food, water and shelter, but company too.  Domestication has seen the dog's natural social partner change from canine to human, and so it's no wonder that most dogs experience some degree of agitation and confusion when we leave them home alone.   

For some dogs, separation is truly unbearable and highly distressing.  The underlying emotion responsible for separation-induced behaviour is panic.  Panic is one of the emotions involved in the dog’s social drive. 

Most separation-induced behaviours occur within the first 10 minutes of the owner leaving the house, with general agitation and stress having already been building for some time beforehand. 

It is incorrect to call it ‘separation anxiety’.  Anxiety is a fear-based emotion and has its root in defence drive, not social drive.  The correct term for separation-induced behaviour is ‘separation distress syndrome’ (SDS) and is defined by the presence of two or more of the following behaviours:

  • Excessive attachment (clingy behaviour).
  • Pre-departure restlessness – pacing, over-activity.
  • Aggression towards owner leaving.
  • Vocalisations – agitated barking, howling, whining.
  • Destructive behaviours – barrier frustration (escape behaviour) evident by aggressive scratching and biting directed at doors, windows, etc, also chewing (often items belonging to owner, furniture, anything other than own chew toys), shredding, digging, and self-injurious/self-mutilation behaviour rooted in excessive grooming (biting, chewing paws, etc).
  • Physiological behaviours – hyper-salivation, panting, trembling.
  • House-soiling – peeing and pooping only when owner leaves.
  • Separation-induced anorexia.
  • Psychogenic vomiting.
  • Searching out items of owner’s clothing or belongings.
  • Excessive greeting behaviour.

There are a number of reasons why some dogs develop SDS.  Sensitisation to social isolation or never having any experience of being left are two possible factors.  Shelter dogs may have had a similar problem before their previous owners gave them up, or maybe the actual experience of abandonment predisposes some dogs to quickly form dependent attachments to their new owners.  Certainly, statistics show that dogs with SDS are 3 times more likely to have come from an animal shelter than are dogs with other behaviour problems.  They are also more likely to be female, of mixed breed, and have been a stray.

Genetic predisposition and temperament type may also be involved with some dogs. 
C-type dogs may display sustained distress as a result of loss and frustration, tending towards barking persistently and scratching aggressively at doors.  S-type dogs rarely show any distress upon separation, but if agitation is evident, these dogs can be easily distracted and quickly comforted with a food-filled toy.  M-type dogs are often highly distressed at separation.  P-types tend to be more restrained in their distress response but may become progressively distressed by longer separation.  S- and C-types tend to bark more than whine, whereas P- and M-types whine more than they bark.  S- and C-types appear to respond better to food, whereas P- and M-types appear to derive more comfort from owner-scented clothing. 

Some dogs have a greater dependency on people and therefore have a tendency to limit their own success by relying only on the presence of people in order to feel secure.  In this respect, failure by these dogs to remain with the people on whom they rely for their survival may play a big part in the development of SDS, so prone or predisposed dogs need to be able to rely on other, predictable events in order to feel secure and confident.  Such dogs really need routine and structure in order to feel secure, and confidence-building leadership goes a long way towards allowing a naturally dependent dog to feel successful and therefore able to rely on itself when the owner is absent.

SDS has nothing to do with a dog thinking or feeling that it needs to keep the pack together because its owner is a ‘weak leader’ and obviously not up to the job, or because it thinks its owner is a ‘puppy’ that needs to be kept close.  Prone, pre-disposed or dependent dogs simply cannot cope with being abandoned because their entire coping strategy is built around remaining close to the people who provide for them.  Certainly these dogs need leadership – not the sort of pseudo-leadership that involves the owner pretending to be some kind of uninterested and aloof, two-legged, person-shaped ‘pack leader’ – but leadership that allows a sense of independence and security to develop, with which comes a more confident and relaxed attitude towards separation and being alone.

It’s important to identify whether behaviours are separation-induced or opportunistic.  Videoing the dog is an essential first step, to see the extent and intensity of the behaviours and when they occur.  As dogs with SDS will show a combination of behaviours, if the main behaviour is barking, establish whether it is prolonged or sporadic.  If prolonged, is it accompanied by pacing, whining, staring at the front door, is it rhythmic (compulsive)  – if so, it’s SDS.  If it’s sporadic with no other noticeable behaviours and on the whole the dog seems able to settle, the barking is much more likely to be in response to noises, either from neighbours or from outside activity, so not separation-related. 

If behaviours are opportunistic in nature as opposed to being separation-induced, so if dog seems relaxed when the owner leaves and once gone, chooses to have some destructive fun ripping up a sofa cushion or going on a fridge or bin raid, or if the behaviours happen well after the owner has left the house or only happen if the dog is left for a second time in the same day, increasing the dog’s daily exercise (physical and psychological), modifying the home environment to reduce the likelihood of opportunistic and destructive behaviours from happening, providing activity toys, using taste aversion if necessary and teaching ‘leave’, should work to dramatically decrease or even cease these behaviours.

If a dog is suffering with SDS, I use the following plan on which to base its behaviour therapy:  



  • Alternative activities.  These should provide acceptable outlets for behaviour as well as forming a positive association with the owner’s departure – food dispenser toys such as Kongs and Dog Pyramids, chew toys, etc.  Association must first be made in a ‘safe place’, e.g. dog’s bed, while the owner is present, to create a rewarding and successful association with the activity.  Many dogs with SDS won’t eat while the owner is absent, so for these dogs to engage with food when alone, the activity has to hold some previously conditioned, positive association.  Giving a dog a frozen stuffed Kong without first doing the groundwork will not work. 
  • Leadership.  NILIF (Nothing In Life Is Free), reward-based training, ‘can do’ behaviours, bringing all attention, affection and interaction under owner guidance so that the dog learns to make successful, predictable choices that have a positive, reliable outcome.  Leadership builds self-confidence and therefore independence.
  • Owner odour.  Once-worn item of clothing (e.g. t-shirt), slept on blanket/towel, as a ‘security blanket’.  Dogs with P- and M-type temperaments respond particularly well to this.
  • Nutrition.  Casein, oleic acid, serotonin, chewing, omega 3.  See my Mood Food article for further information.
  • Exercise.  Daily aerobic exercise to release energy, daily moderate exercise to enhance brain chemistry.  Providing exercise before leaving a dog home alone also provides opportunity for the dog to toilet.

  • Training.  Graduated departures, new leaving routine/ritual that creates a positive association with the owner’s departure, ‘stay’ training (very important, dog learns that ‘stay’ means ‘if I stay here my owner will return’).
  • Identify triggers.  Keys, clothes, bags, shoes, rituals, sounds, etc, can all be triggers for separation-induced behaviour and must be identified and changed and/or desensitised/counter-conditioned.
  • Mask outside noises.  Leave a radio/CD on moderate volume to mask outside noises that may trigger nervous barking.  This will also provide some background noise in an otherwise silent environment – homes are never really silent when we are in them and some dogs may well associate some level of noise with us being present.
  • Environmental modification.  Remove valuables, clear worktops, bolt cupboards, use taste aversion on furniture, doors, etc (this has to be previously primed), provide comfort, limit space (e.g. stair gates, crate), turn phone ringer off, draw curtains/blinds, etc.  As with using food, if using a crate to confine a dog, a positive association with confinement and remaining in the crate has to made before the dog is left alone.  If the groundwork is not put into confinement training, an even bigger problem can be created with the SDS, barrier-frustration-suffering dog trying to break out the crate (as it would doors or windows).  This carries a huge risk of the dog injuring itself in the process.

Even dogs who don’t show full-blown SDS can benefit from some of the elements of the ‘ALONE TIME’ plan.  Many dogs at best only tolerate being alone, and it’s these dogs for whom a sudden change in owner working hours can trigger separation-type behaviour.  It should never be assumed that just because a dog doesn’t bark excessively or rip up the house, it is happy to be left alone, and helping any dog to relax and enjoy being alone is therefore always desirable.  It is quality of life that matters.


Please note that ‘ALONE TIME’ is only an OUTLINE plan for SDS.  If you think that your dog is suffering from SDS, particularly if the behaviours are excessive and injurious, my advice to you is to enlist the help of a reputable dog professional who fully understands the psychology behind separation-induced behaviour and who is equipped with the training knowledge necessary for behaviour therapy to be effective – not someone who thinks that your dog is trying to control your movements by assuming the role of ‘pack leader’ because you haven’t.  Dogs with SDS don’t need us to be 'assertive', ‘pack leaders’ or ‘alphas’, but they do need us to provide leadership and a predictable, reward-based departure routine in order to remove the helplessness from their natural dependency upon us and so rebalance, enhance and strengthen the human-dog bond.

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