Coming back to the subject of outdated and dangerous training advice, I thought it would be wise to cover some of these myths and explain why they do not work (or worsen your dog’s anxiety). Firstly Separation anxiety is an umbrella term, it is complex and usually falls under the category “Separation distress” or “isolation distress” Separation is when the dog has a complete panic when they are left without their people, despite being with other people and isolation is when they just need to be in the company of humans/ living animals they are ok as long as they aren’t alone. It is also very important to remember that your dog is not being naughty, your dog has a terrifying phobia of being alone.
Myth number one – it is your fault your dog had separation anxiety. This is false, it is still largely unknown exactly why some dogs are so afraid of being alone, but for some reason they see this as a threat. What is known is that a large proportion of genetics play a role – some breeds are genetically predisposed to suffer with separation anxiety; sometimes early past experiences can influence dogs to have a negative association to being left alone.
Myth number two – Spoiling your dog will make him over reliant on you. Cuddling your dog, allowing him to sleep in your room (or bed), allowing him on the sofa, allowing him to be near you, and comforting him do not cause separation anxiety. There is absolutely no link to any of these behaviours to separation anxiety – your dog is your family member and can be treated in such a way, and I do believe this to be the kinder way of dog ownership. Yes there are things we can do to prevent Separation anxiety, but it is not directly your fault unless the dog has come from a case of neglect.
Myth Number three – Just let him bark it out – he will get over it and learn that he is safe. This is one of the worst pieces of advice and will almost certainly worsen your dog’s anxiety. This advice is telling you that you should literally not do anything to try to fix the issue, and it will magically solve itself. This advice is completely incorrect and has been proven so by science, behaviour experts, it isn’t just a theory it is factually wrong and should never be used as a technique, especially for dogs suffering from anxiety.
Myth number four – He is destroying your house, barking and toileting in the home out of spite/anger/revenge Firstly, dogs do not have the capacity for such deep and complex emotions and are certainly not driven from spite or anger. Your dog is doing these undesirable things because they have become his coping mechanism – they make him feel mildly better. They become stereotypical behaviours in order to attempt to deal with the crippling fear that they currently endure in your absence. Chewing and shredding items relieves stress; toileting in the house is a stress response; barking, whining and howling are a desperate attempt to be heard, to bring you back to make it all better again.
Myth number five – Using bark collars, shock collars will teach him to stop barking, and leaving him shut in a crate will teach him not to become destructive. The biggest problem with these techniques (aside from it adding to your dog’s fear and anxiety) is that it doesn’t teach your dog anything except that now being left is even more frightening. This all too much focuses on the symptoms of the behaviour and not the actual reasoning to the behaviour. It ignores the underlying cause of the problem and adds multiple layers of unnecessary stress to the issue. Think of it this way – if your dog was suffering from a skin condition, but instead of finding the cause of the condition and treating it, you put your dog in a jumper to stop the itching then you are only focusing on the symptom of itching, not the sensation that was causing the itching. Also, the dog would not be cured, but would become incredibly frustrated that the only thing he can do (scratch the itch) has now become impossible, so he now cannot get any relief from the itching. Externally he is no longer itching, and eventually he may stop attempting to; however, this would cause major psychological trauma to him – not only is this unethical, but it is hugely unhelpful and would cause further issues in the future. This is how dogs feel when we only focus on the symptoms of behaviour issues – they no longer feel they can express themselves. They bark because they are scared – a bark collar may take the bark away, but not the crippling fear and the dog will become pent up with no outlet to deal with the stress he is under. If a dog has not been crate trained, or has a negative association to being left in the crate for longer than he can cope with, then leaving him in here can be rather punishing, and actually worsen the anxiety. Trying to fix fear with fear cannot work in any situation. To fix Separation anxiety you need a qualified expert to guide you through the process, this may be a lengthy one but it will be so worth it.