When Are You Coming Home…?

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“Attachment is a deep and enduring emotional bond that connects one person to another across time and space.”
~ Bowlby & Ainsworth

“It’s tearing my world apart.”, said Kim, speaking about her 2 year old pit-bull mix, Tank.  “I can’t leave the house to go to work without coming home to a disaster.”  “I don’t really care about the stuff he destroys, I’m just worried that he’ll injure himself again.”  “I’ve had him to the vet several times because he’s cut his paws and mouth on stuff, and I’m afraid for his safety.”

This is an all too common scenario I’ve encountered over the years.  Separation Anxiety Disorder (SAD), is a frustrating and potentially dangerous problem that adversely effects relationships between Humans and Dogs.  The ironic thing is that the problem itself is relational, and prone to the snowball effect: the more troubled the relationship, the more SAD is experienced, the more SAD is experienced, the more troubled the relationship.  

According to the DSM, “Separation anxiety disorder is the inappropriate and excessive display of fear and distress when faced with situations of separation from the home or from a specific attachment figure.”  And while the DSM addresses issues involving Humans, this definition is equally relevant with our Dogs.  It often manifests itself in destructive behaviors, such as scratching or biting at doors and windows, tearing up shoes, pillows, books, carpets… really any object that may have an association to the Human.  It can also manifest itself in depression, which can display as the refusal to take treats or toys or to acknowledge petting and other signs of affection.  And it can show itself as excessive “neediness”, where the Dog cannot seem to get enough attention and is constantly asking for more.

Popular methods to help with this issue have been focused on distraction, such as filling a toy with peanut butter.  Another way is confinement and caging. Other methods utilize calming devices such as compression shirts and essential oils, and there is even the pharmacological approach, using drugs such as such as alprazolam (Xanax), fluoxetine (Prozak), clomipramine (Clomicalm) or, more recently, cannabis extracts.  While these methods have had some success, they fail to get to the root of the problem, which is relational.

Rather than approaching this issue from a behavioral perspective, I have found far greater success when I have used a theory from evolutionary psychology, called “attachment theory”.  Attachment theory originated In the late 1950’s from the work of  Dr. John Bowlby and was expanded in the 1970’s by Dr. Mary Ainsworth.  They both successfully disputed and contradicted the popular behavioristic theories that attachment is simply a learned behavior, which states that a child becomes attached to the mother simply because she feeds the infant.  Bowlby showed that attachment can be understood within an evolutionary context, in that the caregiver provides safety and security for the child.  A secure attachment increases the child’s chances of survival.  As this applies to our Dogs, when we develop a relationship with them, they become dependent on us for survival and need to develop secure attachments with us as well.  Separation anxiety is often caused by insecure attachments. Creating a friendship that is a secure base (as Bowlby stated) is the best way to permanently help this situation.

When we use a behavioristic approach, such as distraction, we are trying to substitute a solid and secure friendship with a treat-filled toy.  When we use confinement, that only serves to bring about a state of “learned helplessness”, where our Dogs essentially just give up, or often exacerbates the situation by stacking one stressful situation on top of another. Compression shirts are a poor substitute for a genuine physical connection, and are reminiscent of the controversial experiments done by Harry Harlow with Rhesus monkeys.  And finally, drugs will calm your Dog down, but as in all of these other behavioristic approaches, it serves only to temporarily alleviate the symptoms, and never gets to the root of the problem.  The root of the problem, as I have stated, is relational.  We need to develop a secure friendship with our Dogs to help them feel safe when we are not with them.

There are a few ways to prevent and heal the disconnect with our Dogs that leads to separation anxiety:

First:

Never make your love contingent on good behavior.  This is something that I see so many trainers do, and it makes me furious!  In a traditional Skinnerian behavioristic approach, we are told to only reinforce “good” behavior with petting, affection and treats, and to ignore “bad” behavior.  In other words, what these trainers are suggesting is that we tell our Dogs,  “I’ll only love you if…”, If you behave the way I want you to, if you stop acting like a Dog, if you conform to arbitrary standards and become a “good citizen”, etc.  When we dole out our love as if it were a commodity that our Dogs are only worthy of if they behave in a particular way, then we are driving a wedge between us, creating an insecure base where our Dogs live in a world of uncertainty and doubt.  This makes them always anxious about doing the “right” thing.  Techniques that use “love withdrawal” as motivation are holding our Dog’s hearts and souls hostage, and will greatly damage the relationship.

The best way to create a secure base and have our dogs never doubt that they are safe in our friendship with them is to love them unconditionally.  This means we show them that we love them, regardless of how they are acting.  We may want to change their behavior, but that should be an act of compassion and guidance without using our love as a bargaining chip.

Second:

Use calming exercises to help with anxiety.  One way is to use Shared Mindfulness and other calming exercises, which connects you and your Dog on a deep level.  Another way is to massage your dog.  There is an abundance of information out there on various techniques that can help.  My only suggestion is that you do this with your Dog, and don’t send him to someone else.  This is a bonding and calming experience between the two of you, and it loses that value when someone else is doing it.  Of course, for therapeutic massage to help with physical ailments, it’s always best to see a specialist.

Finally:

Practice Stay, not Wait.  Many people confuse these two different exercises we try to teach our Dogs, and all too often its the Wait that is emphasized.  I witness trainers and behaviorists teaching Dogs to stay by using a treat, telling them “Stay”, and after a few minutes releasing them where the Dog runs back to the person and gets a treat.  This is a classic example a tension building exercise.  The longer your Dog “stays” in this situation, the more tension and stress is created.  This is akin to stopping at a red light a block before your final destination.  When you’re at the red light, you are “staying” there, but what happens as that red light drags on?  Do you feel more relaxed, or more tense and anxious to continue?  The answer is obvious.  

When we work with our Dogs in Stay, the message should be clear: “Stay here and relax until I come back for you.”  The more our Dogs understand this, the more secure they will be when we are absent, and the better they will be able to relax when they are by themselves.  In order to communicate this to our Dogs, we have to refrain from any extrinsic motivation such as a food reward, or punishment.  It is a matter of gently and persistently helping our Dogs to relax (using one of the techniques above), telling them Stay, and moving away from them.  Then, coming back to them to show them that it’s ok to be without us for a moment.  As we gradually increase the time and distance, they will become confident that although we are gone, they are safe.  This creates a secure connection and safe attachment.  This can then easily translate into “staying” at home securely when we leave, and waiting confidently for us to return.

Helping our Dogs overcome the anxiety and stress they feel when they are home alone is never an easy task.  It takes time, patience and commitment to the friendship to ensure success.  Fortunately, when we create a secure attachment with each other, and a deep and connected friendship, our Dogs and ourselves will never feel alone, even when we are miles apart.