Wednesday April 14th
When the pandemic started and people began to realize the full impact of social isolation, there were multiple news agencies reporting on the surge in the calls for adoptable dogs. Many rescues and breeders simply could not keep up with the high demand of people wanting to add a “furry best friend” to the family. No surprise as dogs are such wonderful companions, and well, no one really wants to be alone. As the number of people receiving the vaccine continues to rise daily, people are leaving their homes again. Office buildings are opening, VRBO and airlines are reporting record numbers of reservations. What does this mean for all of the wonderful dogs who will now suddenly find themselves home alone, possibly for an entire workday? Many, for the first time in their entire lives. It really can be quite the jolt for the dog when their person or people walk out that door, without them and are gone for several hours.
Many dogs will be ok (not happy) but at least ok being alone at home. As we have been breeding dogs for the last several hundred years to be our companions, I do not believe they are ever genuinely happy when we walk out the door, but many are ok. But what about the dogs who are not ok being left alone?
Fear, as defined by the American Psychiatric Association relates to a known or understood threat -whereas anxiety flows from an unknown, unexpected, or poorly defined threat. When a dog is home alone and demonstrating fearful behaviors, we oftentimes label it separation anxiety.
Fear does have value-it can keep us alive. Fear of falling off the side of a cliff keeps us a healthy distance away from the edge thus keeping us alive.
When speaking with clients, many times they will say their dog has been demonstrating fearful behaviors from day one. While the dog may have been experiencing this fear for a long period of time, bottom line, the fear is not healthy for the dog. In fact, it when fear reaches a level of panic, that panic can cause permanent changes to the brain.
When a client reports their dog has separation anxiety, I always ask many questions to get a better understanding of what is happening. There are 2 types of separation anxiety; dogs that cannot be alone and another category, dogs that can’t be without their owner.
As we have discussed previously, all behavior serves a purpose. Oftentimes a dog experiencing the terror of being alone is quite simply doing everything they can to “get to” their people. Other times they are working to self soothe. Think about the nervous person chewing their fingernails to the quick when they are stressed. It does not bring relief from their stress, but it does make the chewer feel better. Some dogs will exhibit similar behaviors when stressed or anxious.
The following are behaviors that we’re most likely to see fearful dogs exhibit: panting, pacing, drooling, salivating, retching, freezing, hypervigilance, whale eyes, frantic destruction, or escape attempts, self-harm (whether accidentally as a result of an escape attempt or deliberate self-harm such as excessive licking), shaking, cowering, vomiting, tail tucking and inappropriate elimination. As a general rule, dogs who persist with excessive behavior are usually driven by fear.
Science tells us fear is easy to condition but exceedingly difficult to overcome once on board. There are 5 ways a dog can become fearful.
1, Genetics – Yes, fear can be genetic.
- Early life environment -things that did not happen, but which could have helped, i.e. socialization.
- Maternal stress during pregnancy
- Maternal behavior after birth
- Bad experiences -experiences that did happen that made things worse.
While it is important to understand why a dog may be fearful, what matters most is the processes that will help a dog feel comfortable being alone.
As a fear free trainer and a separation anxiety specialist my goal is to work with clients, so the dog is never again put in a position to feel that fear. Further, I work to provide experiences to change a dog’s fearful and panicked response to being alone, using gentle, kind, training. Personalized training plans that focus on the people leaving the house safely while keeping the dog under threshold is the number one thing that is going to lead to the dog getting over its fear of being left alone. This process is without question the most humane and effective treatment for dogs suffering from separation anxiety. The dogs begin to learn they are ok when left alone and the people can start to live their lives again.
Now is the time to start planning. Letting a dog “cry it out” is not the answer. Reach out to a certified trainer, one specializing in Separation Anxiety. Be prepared that helping a dog overcome their fear can take quite a bit of time. This is a case where slow and steady wins the race. With time patience and most importantly consistency you can help your dog feel more comfortable being alone. We owe that to our dogs. They helped many of us navigate through this pandemic, they kept us comfortable and provided companionship. Now it is up to us to help our dogs feel comfortable in all situations, including being left alone.
-Kathleen McClure with The Happier Dog is graduate of the Academy for Dog Trainers also known as the Harvard for dog Trainers, where she earned a certificate in dog training and counseling. She is also a Fear Free Certified® dog trainer with a BA in Psychology. She has lived with more dogs in her home at any one time than most people will in their entire lifetime. Kathleen has worked with hundreds of families over the years to help them build the relationships they want with their dogs – and that always starts by realizing challenging or “problem” behaviors’ serve a purpose, pinpointing the purpose and devising a plan that works for both the dog and their human companions. Her life purpose is to create empathy for the positions we put dogs in and work with her clients to create your best ever human-dog bond and relationship.
Kathleen McClure is a Certified Trainer and Counselor and Fear Free Trainer. She lives with her husband and the large menagerie of foster and rescue dogs and cats.