More often than not you hear the term Separation Anxiety when dealing with separation issues in dogs. In the vast majority of cases and I mean over 99% of them, this expression is incorrect and flawed. It is also incredibly dangerous when used in training methodologies aimed at resolving separation related behaviour in domestic dogs.
This expression lives in the realm of the ignorant or poorly educated dog trainer and as such any person hearing this expression must question this directly and immediately with the trainer before any behavioural work can commence.
Let me explain.
Most dog trainers have very little understanding of training terminology at the best of times. You may remember from an earlier post we discussed the difference between Positive Punishment and Negative Reinforcement. It invariably is the same trainer that does not understand the difference in these that also misunderstands the difference between Separation Distress and Separation Anxiety.
To help clarify the situation,
Anxiety when dealing with dogs relates to the inability of the dog to determine the arrival of an “aversive” or unpleasant stimulus. It is this state of uncertainty that invariably creates a level of anxiety within the dog. Nothing more and certainly nothing less.
This is hardly the case when dealing with separation based issues with your dog. The reason for my annoyance in the misunderstanding of this very simple concept is the direction needed to be taken in the resolution of the inherent residual behaviour.
Let me give you two very clear examples that hopefully will outline the difference.
Scenario 1 - A typical dog say 6mths of age that was brought home at 8 weeks and has spent every single waking moment with its owner, has to a degree developed a deep bond or better yet a direct dependence on and with the owner. Any time spent away from the owner without gradual weaning away from the owner will render the dog in a state of Separation Distress as all the dog wants to do is return back to the owner and be united. This is very typical as dogs are inherently pack animals and as such thrive on company. Isolation of any kind is abnormal and stressful.
Typically as humans we have patterns or habits that dogs pick up on. We have rituals that give the dogs queues for up coming events. At night there will be sequence of activities we follow before putting out our dogs, that’s if they stay out at night. In a similar way, we have rituals that we follow in the morning before we go to work, and so on. All these are predictors of upcoming events that will lead the dog to being left alone. They are able to predict when, they are just not able to control the outcome, hence why they develop a distress response in this environment. The duration is typically predictable. Many trainers label this as Separation Anxiety and it is Incorrect.
Scenario 2 – The same dog as above is sleeping or doing an activity that is random and non threatening. Without any warning the dog is removed from that environment and has no further contact with its owner. Not only this, but the dog is unable to determine when it and the owner will be reunited. Do this once and the dog has little side effect. Do this two times and the dog is now starting to wonder what has happened and what is going to happen. Do this often and in differing situations and the dog is now unable to determine when this aversive event will occur. We now have the beginnings of Separation Anxiety. You will notice that Scenario 2 is extremely rare and as such has little bearing on how dogs in the normal world relate to being left alone.
The vast majority of dogs will experience Scenario 1 at some stage in their life. Very few if any will experience Scenario 2.
The frustration for me as a dog trainer is that the paths I need to follow for the rectification of each of these two Scenarios is vastly different.
In Scenario 1 all we need to do is establish patterns that will facilitate the dog getting used to being left alone. They are simple, effective and of little or no stress to the dog, and most importantly relatively quick to resolve. These will be explained in a future post.
In Scenario 2 we have a very different path to follow. We need to remove the Anxious state that the dog is in and that is not easy given that we need to place the dog in that stressful situation and re-adjust how it perceives the outcome to be. The whole process is very stressful on the dog and is likely to take considerable time to resolve.
It is critical to understand this difference so that the remedial process can be selected without additional stress on the dog.