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It is the prevailing opinion that dogs with separation anxiety have an over-attachment to their people, but evidence indicates otherwise. If you talk to your friends, colleagues and neighbours with dogs that don’t have separation anxiety, you will discover that many of their dogs also follow them from room to room. In fact, if we really look into it, this ‘following thing’ is more of a dog thing than a separation anxiety thing.

Does your dog cling to you everywhere you go?   I tell my clients that I have not been to the bathroom alone in years. If I stand up and walk away from my desk, my three dogs, who are usually sleeping nearby, get up and follow.  As soon as I stop, one will come up right beside me, one will plop down on the floor outside, and the other will find the nearest comfy spot and settle in.  This is how it is every time I move.  None of my dogs have separation anxiety (SA).

What does the research say?

Research conducted supports the fact that non-SA dogs and SA dogs alike have similar behaviour when it comes to an attachment test. The research showed that dogs with separation anxiety spent no more time in contact with or in proximity to their owners than dogs without separation anxiety [1]. In the same study, it was shown that 65% of the dogs without separation anxiety were reported to follow their people from room to room.

Why on earth does this matter? First of all, it is important to realize that over-attachment is not a reliable assessment criterion for separation anxiety — other indicators must be present to confirm that separation anxiety is the issue. Secondly, since over-attachment is not a singular factor in separation anxiety, we don’t focus on that aspect for training.

The only time I worry about following is when it is an indicator of increasing anxiety.  If a dog who is inclined to follow then begins to show other signs that they are becoming anxious, then the following may be a predictor of separation anxiety.  But for many for my clients who do display separation anxiety symptoms, following is not in their repertoire.

Why the bond between the human and the dog matters?

One of the most difficult cases I had was with a dog who had extreme separation anxiety. This dog couldn’t be left. However when at home, the dog didn’t hang around the family at all.  The dog would routinely settle in another completely separate part of the house seemingly unbothered by the fact that its family was elsewhere. This was extremely hard on the family. It seemed to them that the dog could not be left alone without panicking but when at home the dog didn’t want to be around them.  The lack of attachment between the dog and the family made the resolution of the dog’s separation anxiety extremely challenging. In most of my cases, it is the strong attachment between the human and the dog that keeps the humans moving forward, working to resolve the anxiety for both their’s and their dog’s sake.

Ignoring your dog

Many trainers talk about using a training technique called “Nothing in Life for Free (NILIF)” with separation anxiety dogs. Families are told to ignore their dogs — particularly when they are displaying any behaviours that are engaging in social contact. NILIF used to be in vogue, but isn’t advocated for the way it used to be. We want boundaries for our dogs – a free for all isn’t great either, but across the board ignoring the dog isn’t the answer. Google separation anxiety and you will invariably be told to ignore your dog.  I personally think this is kind of rude.  Imagine arriving home and ignoring your partner.  It won’t go over well.  I think the same applies to our dogs. While they are unlikely to feel slighted in the same way, I expect they are confused by this behaviour. In stead of ignoring your dog, try toning down your greetings.  Be normal, natural and neutral.  Don’t make a big deal about your comings and goings.  Don’t fuss or have long protracted good byes.  And on your return, be natural and low-key. Saying a casual ‘hi dog’ or giving them a little scratch under the chin, is definitely not going to derail your training.

Obedience training – stay cue vs the settle or place cue

In addition to ignoring the dog, it is sometimes suggested that training a strong stay cue is the way to go. There is certainly nothing wrong with training a stay cue.  It can be helpful in some situations, although I personally use my stay cue very seldomly. Obedience cues like the stay do help overall with having a nicely behaved dog, provide mental stimulation, and can enrich the dog’s life. However, there is scant evidence that having these obedience skills in place helps with separation anxiety.

Let’s examine the stay cue and its benefit to separation anxiety training. The stay cue may help the dog learn that the coming and goings from room to room is not reason to follow. Once left alone the ability to stay does nothing to help. Having a stay cue does not override the sense of panic that your dog is feeling.  The dog doesn’t miraculously go from not being able to be alone to being okay to be alone just because they have been instructed to stay.  And yet, this is common advice. Imagine a human equivalent.  You are afraid of snakes.  Does your fear of snakes go away just because you have been instructed to sit still in a room with a snake in it?  I doubt it.  Expecting your dog to ‘stay’ in one place while you leave is unrealistic. I would never recommend that anyone teach a dog to ‘stay’ and then actually leave the house for any length of time.

For some of us, myself included, we enjoy having our dogs joining as we move around. Maybe they want to be with me, or maybe they are betting something good maybe coming their way. A big part of why I share my life with dogs is that I want to spend time with them. It makes me happy when my little tribe of dog companions plods around after me. I think dogs being the social animals that they are, just are happier when they are with the rest of their family group. Since we know following is not predictive of separation anxiety, there isn’t an advantage to have a stay cue in place to address separation anxiety.

I do sometimes advocate for teaching a place cue or a settle cue for when you are home.  This skill can be helpful for dogs to learn to settle away from you while you move around the house.  But it is not necessary for the treatment of separation anxiety.  Teaching the dog to relax on their bed or a mat is helpful. And not just for separation anxiety dogs.  All dogs benefit from this skill whether it is knowing how to settle at a friends house or at a cafe, it doesn’t matter. The ability for the dog to settle easily in different locations, means the dog gets to go more places. That’s a good thing.

For some dogs, who get distressed when left alone, teaching them to relax and breathe is a useful skill.  Some dogs will get very distressed even when separated from their owner behind a shower door. However, I personally don’t find having a place or relax cue is the answer for this situation and it is certainly not my go to approach.  What does work is the generalization of the dog learning to accept that being left alone isn’t scary.

So, what does help?

Desensitization training. Teaching the dog through gradual steps that being home alone is not a scary thing. Desensitization training is used with animals of every species (including humans) to help overcome fears and phobias. As the dog learns that being left alone isn’t something to be worried about, this gradually creeps into other areas of the dog’s life.  I have lost count of the number of clients who exclaim that their dog in now chilling in another room or their dog walked away from them and settled in another part of the house. To me this is the dog learning that being alone is nothing to be afraid of and more importantly that the desensitization training is taking hold.  This is a very good thing.


[1] Valli Parthasarathy MS, PhD, DVM – Sharon L. Crowell-Davis DVM, PhD, Dipl. ACVB Relationship Between attachment to owners and separation anxiety in pet dogs (Canis lupus familiaris)

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