There are a number of reasons why dogs may develop separation anxiety but the most common is that they never learn that it OK to be on their own. That may sound strange, but dogs are a naturally social species, and it is ‘normal’ for them to retain contact with their social group. They need to specifically learn that being alone is an OK part of their daily routine.
When a puppy is first separated from its mother and litter mates, his or her normal response will be to whine, whimper or bark to try and make contact again. They may also scrabble about and try to physically get back to its family. Unless the puppy specifically learns to be calm when alone, these responses can be retained right into adulthood.
Taking a “puppies’ point of view” of being left alone for the first time is perhaps the best way to consider this.
A dogs point of view
Let’s use the example of ‘Frodo’ a Jack Russell terrier: imagine him arriving for the first time in his new home at 10 weeks of age. He has just been picked up from the breeder’s house and brought home to his new family. He has settled in pretty well considering the complete change in his world, and has started to learn about his new social group – the members of the Mitchell family. He has been with the family all afternoon and enjoyed all the attention, but now it is bedtime, and Frodo is settled into an indoor kennel in the kitchen and left alone. This is the first time he has ever been all alone, having always been with littermates or mum before. He is worried, and reacts by scrabbling about at the door of his kennel and crying loudly. Mr Mitchell hears his cries and comes back to settle him down again. Frodo settles down when he has company, but when Mr Mitchell heads off to bed again, he starts to cry straight away, bringing his owner back to the kitchen.
In this first scenario, Frodo finds being alone new and scary, but also learns that crying works really well to get contact again. He has not learnt to be OK on his own, but has learnt a way of reacting that works for him. As time moves on in this example, Mr Mitchell may get fed up of coming down and reassuring his new puppy, and stay in bed with ear plugs in. Because crying has always worked before, Frodo may carry on crying for a long time, and maybe also start howling. He will become more and more anxious, waiting for someone to come. Eventually Mrs Mitchell might wake up and come to settle him down. So Frodo learns that even if he has to cry for a long time, it will eventually work – in other words it is worth persisting with crying even if it doesn’t work immediately. Frodo is already well on the way to developing active separation anxiety. He may go through life always being anxious about being left alone, persistently crying and howling in an attempt to resolve his distress – because he has learnt that, at least sometimes, this will work to get back with his social group.
Imagine now, in a parallel universe (scenario 2), that Frodo managed to get the door of his indoor kennel to ping open by scrabbling at it on that first occasion he was left alone, enabling him to run into another room to find his human family. Because scrabbling worked to resolve his situation, he would be more likely to scrabble at the door the next time he was put in the kennel – and if the door fixing was still dodgy, he might get out again. In this scenario, Frodo might develop an active destructive response to being left alone which persists throughout life.
Because the behaviours shown by Frodo in these first two examples (howling and destruction) – are a nuisance for owners, advice in the past was often to focus on not ‘giving in’ to crying or scrabbling, but leaving the puppy alone to make sure that these responses were not rewarded by owner return. This approach meant that these behaviours would not become ‘successful’ and less likely to become an active separation anxiety. That is true, but there is a serious problem with this approach. The behavioural signs may not be so obvious, but nothing has been done to stop the puppy being anxious about being left alone.
To understand this, now imagine Frodo in his kennel in yet another parallel universe (scenario 3). This time his owners have heard that they should completely ignore Frodo whatever he does. The family go off and leave Frodo in his kennel, they all put in earplugs and go off to sleep. He is terrified, trapped in his kennel. He cries and cries, and scrabbles and scrabbles, but nobody comes. He tries again, crying and scrabbling. He gets so anxious that he toilets in his bed. He gets exhausted after a time, and gives up trying to get out or to get attention – finding that whatever he does there is no way of controlling his situation or resolving the cause of his anxiety. He goes quiet, terrified and shivering in his wet bed and waits…and waits…
In this scenario, no actual ‘problem’ behaviours are reinforced, but Frodo is still very anxious about being left – possibly more so as he has nothing he can ‘do’ to try and deal with the situation. Although Frodo may not have an obvious ‘behaviour problem’ as he grows up, he is very likely to still be anxious when left alone – and may remain so for life. He is may be anxious about being left every day of his life, but it is never noticed.
Perhaps we should finish by leaving poor Frodo in a more positive universe. This time (scenario 4), his owners went to Dogs Trust Dog School with Frodo, and have trained him slowly to be comfortable in his indoor kennel from the time that he first arrived. They made sure they were at home for the first couple of weeks after Frodo arrived, and used this time to teach him very gradually to tolerate being on his own in the indoor kennel, before they went back to work. On the first night they put the kennel close to them in their bedroom, and over the following days they gradually moved the kennel slightly further away, in small increments, as long as Frodo remained settled. By the fifth night he was calmly sleeping in the hallway. Things are heading in the right direction for a separation anxiety free future!