What Causes Separation Anxiety? How Do You Cure It?
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Sublimating the Urge to Bite
Dogs learn to navigate their lives with their owners by sublimating some of their instinctual urges and energies, particularly the urge to bite. Sublimation is a concept borrowed from chemistry where a substance like dry ice, goes directly from solid to a gaseous state without first becoming a liquid the way water does. When used by psychologists, the term refers to the ability that social beings have to change unacceptable behaviors like aggression into more harmonious interactions.
Dogs and wolves are also able to do this because maintaining social harmony is one of Nature’s primary directives for them. However, some dog owners feel that they need to repress their puppy’s urge to bite by punishing the pup for using its teeth. This kind of punishment almost always results in neurotic behaviors in the adult dog. It’s much better to give a puppy a satisfying outlet for his oral urges than to punish or repress them.
However, even when a dog’s urge to bite has been repressed rather than sublimated, as long as the underlying structure of a dog’s social relationship with the owner remains constant and consistent, the dog usually has a pretty good handle on how to “behave himself,” though you may see some cracks in his ability to suppress his urge to bite now and then. This typically manifests through the dog’s “personality.” (I see personality as the sum of all behavioral tendencies that develop in relation to the demands, conscious or unconscious, that the owner puts on the dog, and how the dog learns to adapt his own temperament, breeding history, and natural behavioral tendencies to fit into the human household dynamic).
Then, when that structural dynamic suddenly changes—as when the owner’s daily schedule changes, or the dog and owner move to a new home—it’s like a crack appearing in a dam. The water pressure that’s been kept at a steady state starts to spurt out in little (or not so little) ways.
Another pitfall that dog owners unknowingly create is giving the dog too much physical and emotional attention: we cuddle, and hug and kiss and talk to our dogs too much. The emotional connection between our species originated over 40,000 years ago when dogs first became our hunting partners. That dynamic changed during the Industrial Revolution when the middle-class began keeping dogs as pets. When it comes to forming a true emotional bond with your dog, I think the best approach is to form a hunting partnership with your dog rather than to treat the dog as a cute, loveable child who happens to have four legs and a tail.
So the problem, as I see it, is that the dog’s urge to bite is either punished or repressed during puppyhood, and the dog is also given too much positive attention and affection in lieu of the kind of outdoor play where the dog gets to bite prey objects like balls and tug toys. And so the instinctive energy that’s been kept under wraps since puppyhood, starts to come spurting or flooding out.
Separation Anxiety Is a Panic Disorder
Separation anxiety/distress (SA/D) is said to be related to what evolutionary psychiatrist Jaak Panksepp calls “separation panic,” an instinctive response to go into distress when animals are separated from their group. It has long been thought that SA/D is caused by exaggerated feelings of attachment to the owner.
I believe the opposite may be true. Most dogs don’t go into panic mode when left alone in the house or apartment. They’re perfectly happy on their own. They just go to sleep and wait for their owners to return. Why? Dr. Panksepp’s research would suggest that these dogs don’t panic because they don’t feel separated from their people. They feel a constant emotional connection, even when left alone. So the dog with separation anxiety is essentially incapable of feeling that normal emotional connection. That’s the reason they have exaggerated feelings of attachment to the owner.
So while I agree with the idea that a tired dog is a good dog, and that dogs “need a job,” there has been an unfortunate tendency with certain trainers to talk about giving such a dog “mental stimulation,” which often means giving the dog a puzzle toy of some kind, where the dog has to figure out how to get treats out of an object. But while puzzle toys may occupy some dogs while the owner is present, the last thing a dog with real separation anxiety wants to do when the owner is gone is futz around with a game. He wants desperately to reconnect. And when the owner isn’t there, he goes into a panic state, which can manifest as whining and barking, destructive chewing, pawing obsessively at the front door, and in extreme cases repeatedly throwing his body against a door or window.
So how do we resolve this using the Natural Dog Training philosophy?
Cementing the Emotional Bond
In my view all behavior in dogs is based on a drive to connect, whether it’s the puppy connecting to his littermates through play or through the warmth and comfort of sleeping on top of or next to them, or connecting to objects like toys or rawhides through his teeth, or connecting to other dogs by playing with them, or even by sniffing their urine marks, or connecting to his owners by jumping up on them when they come home. It’s all about the drive to connect. And for dogs—especially when they’re puppies—the most satisfying form of connection comes through biting a prey object in play. That’s the primary release point Nature has designed for the wolf, and it’s been handed down to the dog as well. Biting down hard on a prey object is the ultimate release of tension because it’s the ultimate satisfaction of the dog’s drive to connect.
So when the owner of a dog with separation anxiety is gone, and the dog goes into a panic state, he’s driven to connect, through his teeth, to objects in the environment. In many cases this need to connect couldn’t be clearer. What objects do dogs seek out and glom onto when left alone? Things that we use, touch, and connect to on a daily basis. In other words, he’s desperately trying to connect to you in order to feel connected to his true self, the self that’s been lost because he’s been forced to repress his instinctive needs.
What’s needed is a way for the dog to feel connected to his owner through his teeth, i.e., his urge to bite. That might not help right away because most dogs with separation anxiety/distress have repressed their urge to bite, even in play. So in the beginning, you have to implement some management protocols until you can get your dog to play fetch and tug with you outdoors.
However, it’s also important to recognize the ways that you might have overstimulated your dog’s social needs, given him too much attention, too much hugging and kissing, etc. If that’s the case you have to learn how to stop using your dog to fulfill your own emotional needs, and put the dog (and yourself) on an attention diet.
Am I being a bit harsh? Yes, but it's important!
What else can you do?
To Crate or Not to Crate
The answer is “to crate.” You can either use a plastic airline crate or a sturdy metal crate. I like the metal crates, but I recommend covering the sides and back with light blue sheets or bed covers so that it feels more denlike. The floor of the crate should have a cushion of some sort, but since the dog may be feeling destructive when left alone, it’s best to use old sheets or blankets instead of an actual cushion.
If you dog wasn’t crated as a puppy you’ll have to spend some time acclimating him to this new arrangement. For instance, you’ll want to put his water dish just inside the door of his crate for a few days so that he gets used to going inside to drink. And make sure the door is secured so it won’t accidentally close on him. If he’s too frightened to go inside, leave the dish just outside the crate door for a few days, and then move it into the crate. Then, over a period of time, keep moving it further and further inside. (You could also put his food bowl inside but I prefer to feed the SA/D dog all his meals outdoors, using “The Pushing Exercise.”)
As a few days go by you can put the dish further and further inside the crate. Once the dog has no problem going inside the crate to drink his water, you can begin leaving him alone inside for brief periods of time. Do not leave any toys, particularly puzzle toys, inside the crate. I wouldn’t leave marrow bones or other chewable objects inside the crate either, at least not until the dog is capable of spending some of his time relaxing rather than whining, screaming and barking to be let out.
Oh, yeah. I forgot to mention that, didn’t I?
Yes, if your dog has a serious case of SA/D he will spend most of his time vocalizing, biting the bars of the crate, and scratching furiously at the floor. When you come home, you have to wait until the dog shows some sign of calmness. If you’re like me part of you will want to let him out right away, praise him and play with him. No. You have to wait him out. I wait not only until the dog lies down and has stopped vocalizing, but until he stops panting, and gives out a heavy sigh. This can take some time, so be prepared. I’ll sometimes sit next to the crate with a book in hand, or even lie down next to it with my hand ready to unlatch the crate door as soon as I hear that relaxed sighing sound.
It helps if your dog knows the down command, so you can tell him how you want him to behave instead of waiting him out. And it really, really helps if he knows how to hold a long down/stay. If not, you can work on that during your walks and outdoor training sessions.
Once the dog is calm you can let him out, refill his water dish if necessary, then take him outside to relieve himself and, of course, play with him and do some pushing.
There are a few books on treating separation anxiety—particularly Don't Leave Me by Nicole Wilde and I'll Be Home Soon by Patricia McConnell—that might be helpful. But I think they rely too much on conditioning techniques, which are notoriously ineffective at solving serious behavioral problems. That’s why the most common treatments for SA/D involve medications like Prozac. However, in some cases naturapathic or homeopathic treatments, like Bach Flower Remedies, may help a little. Some dogs seem to respond well to the dog-appeasement pheromone. Most don’t. But I’ve found there are only two things that can really cure separation anxiety: biting toys in play and learning to hold a long down/stay.
Satisfying Oral Impulses + Impulse Control = Success
With that in mind, hard vigorous outdoor play, where the dog is able to bite a ball or tug toy as hard as he can, twice a day for at least 20 - 30 minutes, is the first step. If your dog won’t play with you outdoors you’ll need to do “The Pushing” and “Collecting” excercises. [See the videos found here.] They should help loosen up your dog’s inhibitions.
The second step is teaching the “eyes” exercise, which is the emotional foundation for learning to stay on command. (And by the way, though they may seem to be exactly alike, the “eyes” exercise is dramatically different from the “watch me” game.)
Then you need to work slowly through all 7 levels of the stay. These are my names for these various levels, but descriptions of how to do them can be found in any good training book (though Natural Dog Training is the best).
1) The Eyes Exercise.
2) The Step Away Stay (where you take a giant step away from the dog while holding the leash taut above his head).
3) The Circle Stay (where you move around the dog in a tight circle, while holding the leash taut above his head).
4) The Tug-and-Wiggle (tug on the leash and wiggle it while reminding the dog to stay).
5) The Stay With Dancing Master (where you jump up and down, from side to side, run at the dog, run away from, while holding the leash and reminding the dog to stay).
6) The Peek-a-Boo Stay (where you tell the dog to stay, then disappear briefly behind a tree or fence, and quickly re-appear).
7) The Stay With Ultimate Distraction (holding the stay while other dogs race by, while you throw the dogs favorite toy past his nose, etc.).
The first 5 stays and even the 7th should be taught in brief, 2-3 minute sessions, followed by playing games like “chase me” and tug-of-war.
The Peek-a-Boo Stay should start with very short increments, less than 10 seconds initially. Then slowly build up to the point where the dog can hold a down/stay for 20 - 30 minutes even when he can’t see you.
Once a dog can learn to hold a down/stay for 30 minutes, he’s usually not bothered by being left alone in the house. (But he still needs a good 20 minutes of hard, vigorous outdoor play twice a day, every day.)
“Life Is an Adventure—Where Will Your Dog Take You?”