Monday, January 14, 2013

Separation Anxiety/Distress: Its Causes & Cures

Here's a little insight into what causes and cures separation anxiety.

Dogs learn to navigate their lives with their owners by suppressing some of their instinctual urges and energies, the urge to bite in particular. Dogs do this because maintaining social harmony is one of Nature's primary directives for canines. Some puppies are forced to repress their urge to bite by their owners. This almost always results in neurotic behaviors in the adult dog. It's better to give a puppy a satisfying outlet for these urges than to repress them.

Even when the 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. 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 temperament, breeding history, and natural behavioral tendencies to fit into the human household dynamic).

However, when the structural dynamic suddenly changes 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.

So the problem, as I see it, is essentially that the dog's instinctive energies, that have been kept under wraps since puppyhood, start to come spurting, and in some cases, flooding out.

Separation anxiety/distress (SA/D) is said to be related to what evolutionary psychiatrist Jaak Panksepp calls "separation panic," an instinctive response in all social mammals to go into distress when they're separated from their group. It has long been thought that SA/D is caused by exaggerated feelings of attachment to the owner[1]. 

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 not? 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 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 food 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 such a game. He wants to reconnect to his owner. And when the owner isn't there to reconnect to, 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?

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 the most satisfying form of connection comes through biting a prey object. 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? The TV remote. Shoes. Books and magazines. 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 of the repression of his instinctive needs.

With all due respect to positive trainers, this is why I think the idea of giving a dog mental stimulation may some send people barking up the wrong tree. What's really needed is a way for the dog to feel connected to his owner through his teeth, i.e., the urge to bite.

With that in mind, hard vigorous outdoor play, where the dog is encouraged 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.

The second step is teaching the "eyes" exercise, which is the emotional foundation for learning to stay on command. (And the "eyes" exercise is dramatically different from the "watch me" game.)

Then you need to slowly work 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 there is).

1) The Eyes

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 (where you 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 the dog, while holding the leash and reminding the dog to hold the 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 stay 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 - 30 minutes of hard, vigorous outdoor play twice a day, every day.)



1) "Are Dogs With Separation Anxiety Overly Attached To Their Owners?"
Daniel Q. Estep, Ph.D. and Suzanne Hetts, Ph.D, 2009, Issue 3 (p.19), Colorado Veterinary Medical Association. 

 It has long been assumed that separation anxiety is caused by an attachment problem between the animal and person. The reason is that separation anxiety in dogs looks very similar in its symptoms and the circumstances to separation anxiety experienced by human children. What goes wrong with the attachment that leads to separation anxiety in dogs is unknown. Some have argued that separation anxiety is due to a hyper-attachment of the dog to the person. 

In support of this hypothesis is that observation that many of these dogs follow their owners around and are reluctant to let them out of their sight. Someone once referred to these dogs as “Velcro® dogs.” But is it truly an over-attachment problem or something else that has gone wrong with the relationship? A recent study by Parthasarathy and Crowell-Davis compared dogs with separation anxiety and those without in a standardized attachment test and when at home but separated from their owners. The attachment test looked at the behavior of the dog when the owner comes and goes from an unfamiliar room and when strangers come and go from the room. It’s a test that has proved valuable in studying attachments in children and their parents.

In the study of dogs and their owners, Parthasarathy and Crowell-Davis found no differences between dogs with separation anxiety and those without the problem, either in the attachment test or in their behavior after the owners were gone from home. It’s always difficult to interpret studies that find no differences between conditions, but the data suggest that the problem may not be an over-attachment problem.