The emotional, the empathic and the needy: separation anxiety

On Sunday, I visited my client, Fletcher.  Fletcher is a German Shepherd mix. He’s big and beautiful.

I sat down on the floor next to him, and scratched his belly, and at first he was all right with that. But then I felt his energy cut off and he left the room.

I had misread our social engagement.  I had committed a doggy faux pas.

I said, “Hey, sorry.”

He said, “You seem kind of needy. I know dogs are supposed to like that in people, but I’m not that kind of dog.”

I had been having an emotionally difficult day, but I thought I was doing a fine job keeping it to myself. I apologized again.

I pulled my energy way back. I sat in the room with his mom, while he sat in another room. I asked my questions formally, at a distance, and then he was quite comfortable talking with me.

I told his mom about how he had told me that I seemed needy. He mentioned that he very much appreciated that she let him have space.

She said, “I used to cry when he was a puppy because I’d want to love on him, and he’d grump about it and get up and move to the other room.”

Fletcher is a great dog. He loves his people, but if you need a dog for an emotional hit, he’s not the dog for you.

He reminded me of that Rilke quote about marriage being two people sitting together and looking outward.

Is your dog needy?

It’s rare that there are dogs like Fletcher. Most dogs are a little emotional. They’re empathic. They pick up on our energy and well, they just love us so much.

To be apart from us is a painful experience. Where do I stop? Where does my owner start? What is the boundary of me? a dog might ask. They go to work and I’m alone, and half of me feels gone.

This feeling of incompleteness leads to the behaviors of separation anxiety.

Behaviors like:

-Excessive vocalization- whining, howling, barking and carrying on.
– Going potty in the house (but being perfectly housebroken when you are home)
– Destroying your stuff, especially things that smell like you (shoes, clothes, etc.)
-Obsessive licking (licking to the point of a sore spot)
– Depression
– Exceedingly excited greeting upon your return, whether you are gone for 10 minutes or 10 days.
– Psychosomatic responses: panting, pacing, drooling, waiting by the window all day

My Experience

I have two dogs that suffer from separation anxiety. They manifest their symptoms in dramatically different ways.  If you didn’t know a lot about separation anxiety, you probably wouldn’t notice the more severe case in my home.

My big black dog, Benitio Del Perro will not eat if I’m not home.  If I leave him for a day, and return, I will have a shadow for the rest of the week.  I just came home from coffee with a friend, and this guy will not leave my side. 

Benny

However, he won’t cry and vocalize. He doesn’t carry on, and he never destroys things.  He’s very quiet and rather anxious.  I know that he’s suffering from it, but as an introverted dog, nobody else knows.

The reason why I bring this up is that I hope you don’t mistake an introverted dog for a happy dog. Some introverted dogs are happy. Some aren’t. Just because your dog isn’t causing you a problem doesn’t mean that there isn’t a problem.

Olive the wonder pitty also has separation anxiety.  She barks. She destroys plastic bottles that she steals from the recycling box. When I leave, I get the very anxious sad eyes. She also won’t eat if I’m not home.  Her case is pretty mild, but she leaves more noise and damage in her wake than Benny.

Where does separation anxiety come from?

Sometimes, it is genetic. Certain breeds are classic sufferers of separation anxiety. Weimaraners,  daschhunds, goldens, pugs and pitbulls are just a few that can have these anxious tendencies.

Having said that, any breed of dog can have un-confident tendencies.

Some of it is environmental.  Just like children, if you don’t set your dog up for confidence and success, they may not grow that way. Or perhaps you didn’t have the luxury of knowing your pet from puppyhood. Maybe somebody else had your pet first, and raised him or her in ways with which you don’t agree.

Sigh.

Benny’s separation anxiety is both genetic and environmental. He’s a deeply empathic shepherd/lab. He’s got a lot of feelings in him. He was also abandoned as a puppy, and spent a couple of months on the street. He was skin and bones when animal control picked him up.  He’s never quite let go the idea that we too might ditch him somewhere.

Olive’s are probably a combination of environment and genetics too.

Solving or Lessening Separation Anxiety

Ugh. It’s tough. However, there is a lot you can to resolve this problem.

1. Have an emotionally appropriate relationship with your dog.
Okay, I bring this up because there are people in the world who treat their dogs like their soul mates, like their bestest friends, like the loves of their lives, like their therapists. There are dogs who can handle this and dogs who can’t. If your dog exhibits signs of separation anxiety, you need to lighten their emotional load.
This does not mean putting on a fake happy face. Dogs are not stupid. This means getting the emotional help and connection somewhere away from your pet.
On Sunday, prior to my appointment with Fletcher, I was sitting on the floor in my living room, lighting the first fire of the season. I was a little bummed out, I must admit. Olive decided that she needed to fix this for me. So she licked my face. She tapped my repeatedly on the shoulder with her paw. She gave me big sad eyes. She wanted to be my therapist. Olive loves playing therapist.
Hey, I said. I’m okay. Can you just sit with me? I don’t need to burden you with my problem.
I went for a walk later and thought through my issue and felt better. I talked things over with my partner, who is the other adult in my home. I emotionally took care of myself.

All of us have moments when we are not happy. We need to watch out for the empathic dogs in our lives who want to soak up our pain. Some can handle it. Some are made for it. Therapy dogs, for example, do well. Some want to handle our pain, but can’t. Our boundaries cross. We get enmeshed. Please consider your relationship with your pets.

2. Teach them how to be confident
Take your dog to a positive trainer. Teach them ways to be in new situations. Socialize your dog.

3. No big deal their life.
When you leave and they carry on, say “Hey, you’re okay. This is no big deal.” Don’t buy into their hype with your emotions. If you act anxious and sad because they are anxious and sad, you simply are tossing a ball of anxiousness between the two of you. Your pet will think, “Oh my dog! They’re anxious too! I must have lots to be anxious about now!” The anxiety will lessen if you don’t freak out about it.
This is especially important with a new dog. If you act anxious, even a little when they leave, then they will pick up on it.
When you come home and they greet you excitedly say, “Hey I’m home, no big deal.” And pet them a little bit and then get on with your life. Do not turn your comings and goings into the last act of a long sad opera.
Over time, you will convince them that your comings and goings are not big deals.

4. Security Blanket + Job = Less Anxious Dog
Give them something that they take comfort in. Olive gets a toy that she likes. It comes out when I leave. It has become her security blanket. Some people turn the radio on to a soothing station.

Olive and her toy

Some people use a safe word. I wish people had come up with a better name for it than that. Basically, a safe word is a phrase that you say when you are leaving. Just say, “I’ll be back.” You can tell them when you’re coming back too.
Also, give them a job to do. Benny’s job is to keep the mice out (Shh…we don’t have mice…but it keeps him busy looking for them). Just think of a job that they could do while you are gone. Hold down the couch. Look out the windows. Something simple that they can accomplish. When you come home, thank them for a job well done.

Sometimes, a conversation can help too. That’s where I come in.

Dogs aren’t the only ones

Horses and pigs have separation anxiety too. Heck, I even know a cat that has it. And don’t get me started on people!

I hope this helps!

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