Many of the separation anxiety facts we believe to be true, may not actually be so. Why then do we hold onto them so passionately?
Have you ever dug your heels in something you’re 100% committed to? Been very vocal in defending it in the face of contradictory evidence? Let’s face it. We all have!
Psychologists have a nifty little term for this behaviour: cognitive dissonance. Ok, not so little. And not so nifty. But in a nutshell, it’s self-delusion, particularly involving conflicting thoughts.
If we agree that a new way of doing things is right, we have to accept that the old way is wrong. And our brains aren’t comfortable with that.
The bigger the belief to start with, the more likely we will hold onto it in the face of new evidence.
Why do we cling on it? Because the bigger the belief the sillier we feel when we find out it’s not true. And none of us likes to feel that way.
We get fed lots of incorrect information about separation anxiety. This means many of us come to separation anxiety training with old notions we need to let go off. I know I did when I first started out.
Here are few of the ones I've heard most often.
1. “But I thought he’d do better in a crate”.
I’m not anti-crates. Far from it. I think all dogs should be condition-trained to love their crates. Crating a dog who's been positively conditioned to his crate, isn't cruel.
I have crates all over my house. I’d say my dogs elect to spend at least 50% of their day chilling in a crate. They take themselves off to their chosen crate. Then they come out, do a swap, and go back to sleep in another one. It's like their own, voluntary, self-directed version of crate-and-rotate!
My former separation anxiety dog is no exception. He'll happily take himself off to his crate. And he can be found there doing the snoring dead-bug quite often too.
But I could never leave him in a crate when we went out. He would freak. As do most separation anxiety dogs when crated at home alone.
Some anxious dogs do love their crates, though. Dogs who run away from things that frighten them, such as thunder, benefit from having a crate to go to. The crate seems to act as a place of refuge, somewhere to hide away.
While they may run to their crates, these thunder-phobic dogs are in a panic. They can switch from wanting to hide to attempting to flee. So their crates need to be open.
Dogs with separation anxiety aren't hiding, though. They’re freaking out at being in the house alone and if they could escape and find you, they would.
Can you see the difference? In one scenario, the crate is a refuge from something scary. In the other, it’s a (non-padded) cell.
So if someone told you crating your dog will fix separation anxiety, you've been misled. It won’t. All it will do is contain your dog and limit any damage he might do to the house.
There’s a good chance he’ll get even more upset, and potentially do himself some harm.
If you’re worried about damage to your home, then you need to keep your dog under a threshold at all times. He destroys because he’s panicking and over his anxiety threshold.
2. “Someone told me he will grow out of it, and he’d get over it in time”
It can seem like it’s a case of him needing to settle, can’t it? Or because he needs to get used to a routine?
Sadly, dogs with separation anxiety don’t recover on their own. They need help. In fact not doing anything can make their condition worse.
The way to get your dog over separation anxiety is to use a combination of gradual exposure to being left, and medication. A trip to your vet should be your first action.
3. “He’s so mad at me for going and he gets his revenge by destroying the walls and doors. And he looks so guilty when I come home”
I know, it does seem like he’s angry with you. You come home, the house is a mess, and your door is chewed up. On top of that, he has a slinky, guilty look, just like you see in those “bad dog” memes on social media.
But he destroyed the door because panic took over. And it's not guilt you think you see when you walk through the door, it’s fear.
Lots of people think home alone dogs act up out of spite. But dogs don’t do spite. They’re much less complicated than us. He’s not being mean. He’s scared. And don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.
4. “My friend said a bark collar would work. I’ve tried the collar, but it’s not helping”
Lots of people have heard this one: a bark collar will fix separation anxiety.
I’m sorry if you’ve received this advice. It’s outdated and unhelpful. A bark collar gives the dog an electric shock with the aim of scaring your dog into being quiet. It does nothing to address the separation anxiety.
In fact, because the bark collar uses fear to suppress behaviour it can make your dog’s anxiety worse.
Think about it: you go out, your dog, who panics at home alone, gets a painful electric shock each time he barks.
Is he going to feel better or worse about being alone now?
If a child started crying because he is scared of the dentist, would you punish him until he is quiet?
The best way to stop your dog barking (or chewing, destroying, or peeing) is to stop his anxiety. You can do that by gradually getting him comfortable with being home alone.
If you’re ever unsure about the advice you got on separation anxiety, have a look at my Frequently Asked Questions. And if you’re still unsure, jump into my free Facebook support group and get advice there.