There are various reasons why dogs develop home alone issues. We often think that we have caused it by the way we treat our dogs. Maybe that’s because we’re constantly being told “you spoil him with so much attention! No wonder he has separation anxiety.”
Is it because I spoiled him? Because I let him sleep on the bed? Maybe it’s because we treat him like a person.
You’ll be relieved to know that you can’t spoil your dog into a panic disorder. In fact, chances are, you haven’t caused this issue at all.
Dogs can develop abandonment anxiety at any age; we work with clients whose dogs are anywhere from 8 weeks of age and fresh from the breeder, all the way up to geriatric onset. Sometimes the anxiety has brewed over time and other times it is more of a sudden change in behaviour – seemingly overnight.
When we assess behaviour challenges in animals, we see two sides of the coin: genetics and environment.
Maybe she’s born with it…
Genetics are fascinating. Not always convenient, but certainly fascinating. Studies are showing that fears, anxieties, phobias can be passed down through DNA and are not necessarily “learned”.
What does this mean? If your dog’s mother or father (or grandparent or great grandparent, etc) was an anxious dog, then chances are, your dog will also be anxious. As for resolution, much like swimming against the current, it can be done, however, not without great effort.
Environment plays an equally important role here!
How many times we have worked with a brand new puppy who can’t be left alone at all at the age of 8 or 9 weeks. Almost every time, we can trace that back to the breeder not having spent a few weeks separating the pups from their mother and from each other for short periods of time, ensuring that by 7-8 weeks of age they are sleeping in their own crates and are comfortable being left alone for a couple hours at a time.
Trauma, illness, and injury – any and all of these can cause a dog to become anxious when separated or isolated. This is quite common; Fido is attacked at a dog park and has to spend a couple nights at the vet clinic after some stitches and medical care. When he returns home to recover, his guardian finds that she’s not even able to shower without Fido howling up a storm and trying to escape the crate, where he has always been comfortable until now. It seems like a dog (much like a child after a trauma or illness/injury) is afraid to be left alone perhaps because they fear experiencing the same trauma, discomfort, or pain again without comfort.
Many of our clients contact us after they have just moved or had a major change happen in their lives, for example – a birth, a death, someone moving in or out, working from home after working away from home previously (or vice versa). Dogs thrive on predictability and when their world changes suddenly, they can easily become anxious. Some dogs are more resilient than others, just like people!
One event that we know is a common cause of anxiety in dogs is a flight in cargo. Many dogs who are flown in cargo come home with a brand new set of noise sensitivities or phobias, and some isolation distress. We generally suggest avoiding flying dogs in cargo unless it is a one-off and absolutely required for this reason.
See? Like I said, chances are, you have not created this monster, so go easy on yourself and give yourself a pat on the back for taking the first step toward understanding your dog, and making such an effort to help them feel safe when you’re not around.