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Am I causing my dog’s separation anxiety?

If your dog experiences anxiety when left alone, you are probably contributing to his anxiety in some way.

Separation anxiety in dogs is a serious problem and often requires months of consistency to overcome. I’m not at all suggesting there is a quick fix.

But there is one piece of the puzzle that gets overlooked – the human’s anxiety.

Sometimes a dog’s owner is actually the direct cause of the dog’s anxiety.

What if the dog owner is actually the one with separation anxiety?

Black lab mix lying on a dog bed

I received an email from a reader who was thinking about cancelling her vacation because she couldn’t stand the thought of leaving her dog at a kennel – not just any kennel, but a dog resort with “suites” that included TVs and lamb cots. She said:

… I have worked myself up that I have been crying for two days! I have it in my head he will be depressed, or he will die there without me (yes I am obsessive with my dog:). My husband does deserve a vacation as I do too, so I don’t want to ruin it for him …

She asked me for my advice.

So I told her that she owed it to her husband to go on this vacation, and that she and her husband better enjoy themselves. And that her dog would be just fine. I told her to stop crying and worrying, because it would only make her dog feel anxious as well!

This may seem like an extreme example, but many of us feel anxious about leaving our dogs and that only makes our dogs feel anxious, too. Of course, some amount of anxiety is a part of life, but we often turn a small problem into a much larger problem.

I’ve left my own dog Ace at boarding kennels, and I’ve seen how my own attitude directly affects him.

If I feel guilty about dropping Ace off at a kennel, he acts accordingly. He goes in with his tail and head held low. He tries to follow me out the door when I leave. He crouches low to the ground and drools.

But if I go in there thinking about what a great time my dog will have and how lucky he is to stay at Chasing Tails where they will play ball and fill up the pool, then my dog walks in there appearing more confident and excited.

Dogs without separation anxiety – not a coincidence

Leaving our dogs at a kennel is not the problem for most of us. The more difficult problem is leaving the dog home alone during the day if he has separation anxiety.

My parents are a good example because I have seen them raise four dogs from puppies, and they have never had a dog that had a problem being left home alone. You can read more about their dogs on my mom’s blog here.

Four dogs. No separation anxiety.

I believe this is directly related to my parents feeling absolutely no guilt when leaving the dogs home alone in their crates or confined to a small room.

I’ve never seen my mom or my dad hesitate at the door before leaving and say something like, “Well, do you think we should leave a radio on for them?” I have never heard or seen them carry out a drawn-out goodbye. At most, it might be “Be good!” or “See ya!”

There is absolutely no drama. Why should there be? Leaving is a part of everyday life. Their dogs know this, and it makes life much less stressful for them.

Don’t feel bad when you leave your dog to go to work

I know I spend too much time pining over my dog before I leave the house. When I feel guilty about leaving Ace, he looks at me with “sad” eyes. He might even whine a bit or follow me to the door. On the other hand, if I ignore him and consciously choose not to feel guilty he’ll most likely be snoring on his bed in a corner somewhere. He might not even notice when I leave.

This is why any dog trainer will tell you to ignore your dog when you leave and also when you return. You do not want to make a big deal out of departures or homecomings. It’s better to ignore your dog than to hug him and kiss him and repeat over and over “It’s OK. It’s OK, baby. Mommy will be home soon.”

If you are feeling anxious about leaving your dog home alone for eight hours a day, think of it this way:

Who has to slave away at a demanding job? Who has to get up early and be to work on time?  Who has to deal with a difficult boss?

And … who gets to lounge around all day on a couch or dog bed? Who gets to take a nap, play with some toys or maybe chew on a bone?

Still feeling guilty?

What if you adopted a dog with existing separation anxiety?

I’m not saying that if your recently adopted dog has anxiety it’s entirely your fault. Your dog probably had anxiety issues before you adopted him, and that might be why he ended up with a rescue group in the first place.

What I am saying is that no matter how your dog’s anxiety came about, you can help your dog by remaining collected, calm and anxiety free.

Easier said than done, I know. I’ve had to stop fostering quite a few dogs because their anxiety when left alone was too much of a problem in my townhome environment.

Still, if I have a new foster dog, and I’m bent out of shape over whether or not he’s going to bark when I leave him home alone in his crate, guess who’s going to bark?

But, if I’m truly relaxed and I truly let go of my worries and anxiety, that dog will have an easier time calming down.

When dog separation anxiety is really human separation anxiety – a final example

I want to share a final example of a dog walking customer I had a while back and how her anxiety was the direct cause of her dog’s issues. I have changed her name and her dog’s name and breed.

“Julie” had a dachshund mix named “Scruffy” with severe separation anxiety. She called me up wondering if I could come walk the dog.

Within seconds of meeting Julie and Scruffy, I knew I would not be able to help. The problem was the owner. No amount of exercise would help Scruffy.

Scruffy had caused all kinds of damage when left alone. Mainly, she had destroyed a set of blinds and injured herself in the process. Julie had videotaped Scruffy, and the dog would howl and pace and whine the entire time she was alone.

Julie refused to leave Scruffy in a crate as she just “couldn’t do that to her.” She did try a citronella spray collar once to stop the barking but felt tremendous guilt. “It killed me to do such a thing,” she said.

Julie was extremely nervous about hiring me and trusting someone to care for Scruffy. She would likely leave her video camera on when I was there.

We came to the agreement that I would walk Scruffy every day starting the next day.

That never happened.

I received about 20 text messages from Julie over the next 12 hours with various questions. Would I give Scruffy water? Would I be careful not to let her run out the front door? Would I be walking any “aggressive breeds”?

Oh, boy.

Unfortunately I had to “fire” that customer. My services and attitude towards dogs were not a good fit for her.

I sincerely hope the dog is doing better these days, but I doubt it.

Hopefully this example will help a few others consider their own behavior.

I do know my dog experiences anxiety whenever I am feeling anxious, and I can help him by remaining calm. That is almost always my goal.

If it seems like your dog’s separation anxiety won’t stop, consider your own emotions and feelings not only when you have to leave your dog but whenever you are around your dog. It will go a long way.

Does your dog have separation anxiety? How have you contributed to your dog’s anxiety?

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