Ask anyone who owns a dog with separation anxiety and they'll tell you their friends and family are baffled by the whole thing. They either don't understand what separation anxiety is, or they don't know why you're tackling way you are.
For the most part, those closest to us mean well. They want to empathize and to help, but they struggle to stand in our shoes.
From what I’ve seen, friends and family tend to fall into three broad categories:
- Very supportive of you, your dog, and his condition.
- Desperate in trying to empathize but struggling. And often running out of empathy and patience when your dog doesn’t look like he’s recovering.
- Not getting it at all – clueless on what the heck you’re doing and thinking you’re a bit mad.
Not everyone is dismissive or lacking in empathy. Many are supportive of your dog and his condition. And others who are less supportive often lack the right information.
But when the naysayers grind you down, is there anything you can do? Here are my two main approaches:
1. Duck it
This is my favourite! Over the years, I’ve become dispirited trying to convince others I was doing the right thing for my dog or clients'. It always felt like pushing water uphill.
As you’ve no doubt experienced, it’s so hard to convince people to change their minds on anything.
We're often confident we can do so with persuasive, reasoned argument.
But, to get people to change their mind and agree with us, we have to get them to say they were wrong. And none of us finds it easy to admit we’re wrong! Our brains are funny things and studies show evidence rarely changes minds.
Hence, why I gave up trying to win the argument on separation anxiety. It's way better to acknowledge the comment and find a way to bridge to another topic.
2. Tackle it
When friends or family make those unhelpful comments, you might decide not to duck but to debate. If that’s your preferred tactic, here are some responses you might find helpful:
Comment: Leave him, he’ll learn/get over it.
Response: You’re right. We definitely used to think letting them bark it out was the best way to tackle separation anxiety.
In the past, when a dog was acting up when they were alone, we assumed they were being bad. Or they were mad at us for going out.
But now, we know that dogs with separation anxiety have a panic disorder. They have a phobia of being alone. They’re not acting up. They’re in a blind panic.
And leaving them to panic doesn’t make things better. It makes things worse. That’s why I don’t leave him to get on with it.
Comment: You created this/it’s your fault/you spoil him!
Response: I know it can seem like what an owner does causes separation anxiety or make it worse. But that’s not what the experts say. You can take two dogs and treat them in exactly the same way, but one will get separation anxiety and the other won’t.
And letting him sleep on the bed or come onto the sofa isn’t the problem. Lots of dogs who aren’t allowed on beds still get separation anxiety.
Experts do agree, though, that it's easy to make the condition worse by letting a dog cry it out or punishing them for what they get up to when you're out.
Luckily, I know these things don’t do any good. That’s why I’m using this training method. It’s the one thing proven to make a difference to separation anxiety.
Comment: Oh, he still has that! Why isn’t he over it yet?
Response: Separation anxiety training isn’t like training a sit. My dog has a had a severe emotional trauma. Some experts think that his brain chemistry has changed.
Like us getting over deep upset, it doesn’t happen overnight. He currently thinks that being alone is the scariest thing. He’s not going to learn fast that being alone is safe. It takes as long as it takes.
Comment: It’s only a dog/shouldn’t you put him to sleep?
Response: Dogs feel fear and pain like we do. The humane thing to do isn’t to put him to sleep. It’s to help him get over his fear.
It’s very rewarding to see him getting happier every day. And I’ll keep going until he’s completely over it. He didn’t ask to live with me, so he deserves a chance. I can be as patient as he needs me to be.
What are the comments you hear most often? And what’s your approach: duck or tackle? Share your thoughts in the comments. Or join our Facebook group and dive into the discussion there.