By Julie Naismith
“Is it my fault my dog has separation anxiety?” That’s the most common question dog owners have when they first find out their dog has separation anxiety.
It can be hard to ignore the suggestion that you caused your dog’s separation anxiety. But, I’m here to tell you that you didn’t cause your dog to develop a panic disorder. Neither you nor your dog are at fault.
As if it weren’t enough that your life is turned upside down by your separation anxiety dog, you had better be prepared to deal with the guilt of causing your dog’s anxiety in the first place.
Yes, that’s right, hang your head in shame. Your failure as an owner, your lack of leadership, has caused your dog immeasurable suffering. Or at least, that’s what common dog training myths would have us believe.
Owner-blaming seems to come from our need to determine why dogs have separation anxiety, despite no one really knowing why. Pinning the blame on owners is too simplistic. And there’s a good chance it leaves you with a bucketload of unwarranted guilt.
Our need to know why
Psychologists say avoiding uncertainty is one of the biggest drivers of human behaviour. When we don’t have answers, we zero in on getting a concrete explanation. And if we can’t get an explanation, our brains are programmed to fill the void.
Maria Konnikova Ph.D., Author of “Think Like Sherlock Holmes”, puts it like this:
“The human mind is incredibly averse to uncertainty and ambiguity; from an early age, we respond to uncertainty or lack of clarity by spontaneously generating plausible explanations. What’s more, we hold on to these invented explanations as having an intrinsic value of their own. Once we have them, we don’t like to let them go.”
We have a wealth of evidence-based information about dog behaviour, but science doesn’t give us all the answers. Sometimes, the answer is: “We just don’t know.”
More questions than answers
When it comes to separation anxiety, it’s not surprising you want answers. Your dog is going bonkers when you even so much as think of leaving, while all your friends’ dogs settle happily at home. If only we knew why, we’d be able to fix it.
Since we can’t ask the dog what caused his separation anxiety, we come up with our own ideas. Lots of these notions are theories we can neither prove nor disprove and so, they take on a life of their own, forever cemented in popular dog culture.
We love these concepts because they give us answers and perhaps, most significantly, they seem to put the solution within our grasp.
“If I don’t let my dog follow me to the bathroom, then he won’t be as clingy and won’t get upset when I leave.” Or “If I’m less stressed, my dog will be calmer.”
I find these seemingly straightforward solutions crushing. They are just too simple and set owners up for failure while dishing out a large side serving of guilt.
What we do know about the causes of separation anxiety
We can’t ask the dogs why they have separation anxiety, but we can study them to get more information about what might be going on. There has been a reasonable amount of research on the factors that lie behind separation anxiety.
Here’s the long and the short of it.
- There’s conflicting evidence about:
- Early life experience
- Owner attachment
- The dog’s sex
- The impact of being surrendered to a shelter.
In other words, there’s no conclusive evidence that what you did when your dog was a puppy or how you currently relate to your dog caused its separation anxiety.
There’s a little more consistency in the research about:
- How big life changes can impact a dog’s separation anxiety. But, that said, what are you going to do? Not move house? Never change jobs? Not start a new relationship?
- Dogs who are adopted at an older age being more prone to separation anxiety. Although, the verdict is still out on whether this is cause or coincidence.
If you didn’t cause it, can you cure it?
The good news is while we don’t have a definitive answer as to what causes separation anxiety, we do know how to fix it. Study after study shows that carefully getting the dog used to graduated departures is the best way to treat separation anxiety. This method works even better when you use anti-anxiety medications alongside the training. You can find an overview of this process here.
If you spend time soul searching about whether you caused your dog’s separation anxiety, you might be missing out on valuable time that could be spent fixing it.
Solving separation anxiety is totally within your control. That could feel like an immense pressure, but with the right help and support, I’m hoping you’ll feel empowered and optimistic.
So please stop feeling guilty – you do not need to, and it’s not good for you or your dog.
Instead, be your dog’s hero and seek help to alleviate his separation anxiety.