8 separation anxiety “alternative facts” you need to challenge. Part 1.

If you don’t recognize any of these “alt-facts” you need to tell me your secret. How have you managed to dodge these words of wisdom? How? I'm going to assume you've been living on a desert island. With your anxious dog. That's the only way you could be oblivious to them.

Most owners of a dog with separation anxiety will have heard these gems. It takes a steel will to block out other people's advice when everyone seems to have a view. Most of the advice is well-meaning, but of a lot of it is plain wrong.

I’ve compiled a list of some of the stickiest separation anxiety alternative tall tales. This week we look at numbers 1 to 4. How many of these have you come across?

#1 You caused your dog’s anxiety

Nobody knows what causes separation anxiety. There is lots of research, but the results aren’t conclusive. The experts don’t agree on what causes separation anxiety. So how can we say something you did caused your dog’s separation anxiety?

And, the owner blaming is even less reasonable if we factor in that separation anxiety may be genetic. Or that it could be the result of what happened to the pup before he came home with you.

Your dog’s separation anxiety could have been caused by any number of things. Nobody knows.

But what do we know? Well, we know leaving a separation anxiety dog can make his condition worse. We also know life changes can have a big impact.

There’s not a lot you can do about the latter. I don't expect you'll hold off moving house in case your dog develops separation anxiety! That said, you can manage absences, and we know this does help dogs with home alone distress.

#2 Getting another dog will help

This seems like an obvious solution. He’s lonely and needs company. Unfortunately, for the vast majority of dogs, getting another dog doesn’t help.

Another dog in the house might even make things worse. Your new dog might alarm bark to protect the house and trigger your separation anxiety dog. And what a mess if the two didn't get along and you couldn't confine them in the same space.

Getting a new dog is a huge decision, so before you add a new member of the family, talk to a behaviour expert.

Getting another dog might not be the best idea.


# 3 “I know he understands he did something wrong because when I got back he looked guilty.”

We used to think that “sneaky” look your dog has when you come home to destruction was the sign of a guilty dog. And it can seem like guilt. But if your dog is cowering with his ears back, his tail tucked, that's fear not guilt.

Why fear? Well, dogs are world champions at making associations. The last time your dog damaged something, you walked through the door and got mad. So this time, he thinks the same thing is going to happen. Your dog has no idea why you’re mad! You walking through the door sometimes means you’re angry.

Alexander Horowitz, the canine cognition scientist, conducted an experiment on “that guilty look”. She demonstrated people see “guilt” in a dog’s body language when they think the dog has done something wrong. In the test, it didn’t matter whether the dog had done something. What mattered was the owner thought it had.

Dr. Horowitz explains this is understandable. She says we’re programmed to see human emotions in dogs. And she adds often our thinking is off when we do so.

So the think bubble in an owner’s head might be something like this “I know he’s been up to something. And look at him, all slinky and sneaky looking. He knows he’s been bad. He’s definitely been up to no good.”

But remember, it’s not guilt, it’s fear.

So next time you come through the door to a mess, try not to scold your dog. He didn’t do it to be bad. He’s not mad at you. He panicked when you left. That’s all.

#4 Using a crate will fix it

We all used to think crating a dog would help home alone anxiety. But here’s the thing: many of dogs with separation anxiety also have a phobia of crates. For these dogs, crating adds to the panic.

But if you have a dog who’s chewing the walls or ripping up the floorboards, a crate can feel like the only answer. And it will stop the damage to your house. But you risk severe physical and psychological damage to your dog. Panicking dogs will harm themselves trying to escape. And the memory of the panic is lasting.

So what can you do to protect furniture, walls and your dog? There are a couple of things:

  • Try a confinement area using baby gates and room dividers. Then, video your dog when you’re out. Some dogs improve just because they are no longer in a crate.
  • Manage his alone time so you don’t leave your dog long enough for him to go into a panic. That may sound daunting, but it’s more doable than you think. Remember, this doesn’t mean you have to stay with the dog. It means you need to make sure someone – anyone – is there.

More to come in part two next week

These four are but a few of the separation anxiety myths you will hear. There are plenty more. In part two we’ll cover barking, puppies, and when to use food toys. And we’ll also look at whether your dog’s separation anxiety is his way of getting back at you for going out. Spoiler alert: it’s not.

Have you come across any of these myths and “alt-facts”? Tell us more.