Like dogs, humans can experience separation anxiety, although usually for rational reasons. People generally don’t feel anxiety because their spouse went to work or their kid went to school. But it’s normal to feel it if your spouse works as a firefighter, or it’s your kid’s first day at a new school; worse if your kid is a teen who just got their license.
The Power Of Love
There is one irrational reason humans will have separation anxiety, though. That happens when we fall in love. When the object of our affections isn’t around, nothing feels right in the world. If you have experienced it (or are now), you know exactly what it’s like — a general sense of anxiety and restlessness.
If you’ve felt that, then you know what a dog feels when it has separation anxiety.
Now, when people fall in love, they wind up causing each other to produce a chemical in their brains called oxytocin. While it’s been wrongly called the “love hormone,” it actually does a lot of other things, but one of those things it does is to cause two people to bond.
It does this by affecting the pleasure centers of the brain, much like other psychoactive chemicals do. It’s the same process that makes some chemicals, like alcohol and heroin, so addicting — and yes, love can be an addiction as well. Keep in mind, too, that I’m referring to all kinds of love, including romantic, familial, and platonic.
The Power Of Brain Chemicals
But I’m bringing up human neurochemistry because, as it turns out, the exact same thing happens with our dogs. Studies have shown that we give each other oxytocin rushes, especially when exchanging eye contact. That’s right: We may love our dogs, but our dogs are, at least chemically, in love with us as well.
Now, if you have a healthy, balanced, and trusting relationship with your dog, they’re probably not going to freak out when you leave them alone. Even though it’s totally unnatural for the leader to leave the pack behind in nature, if you create stability and a safe den for your dog, they’re going to be okay if you leave them alone on a regular schedule.
What causes the dog to starts having problems is when the schedule is unpredictable, or the relationship is not calm and balanced in the first place. In those cases, when the human leaves they’re taking that oxytocin rush with them and bringing the dog down from those happy feelings. It’s really not that different than yanking the drugs out of an addict’s hands — or cutting a kite’s string on a really windy day.
Of course, the best way to keep your dog from feeling this way in the first place is to make sure that they are balanced, but it’s even possible to cause a balanced dog to feel separation anxiety, and that has everything to do with how you treat the separation.
Be Aware of Your Actions and Habits
It may seem counter-intuitive, but the best way to leave and return to your dog is to not say a word to them. Don’t make a big deal out of leaving, and do not come back home acting excited to see them again, even if you do — and we all know we do, right?
Adding excitement to the situation before you go will leave your dog with excess energy, which is going to channel right into anxiety. They’ll wind up either pacing around in a nervous state, or resorting to random destruction. And you’re not just adding excitement — you’re giving attention, which builds up the oxytocin, which enhances that same effect of being separated from a loved one that humans can feel.
You’ve probably heard the expression “Absence makes the heart grow fonder,” and it’s certainly true among humans. But, for some dogs, this expression might better be “Absence makes the mind grow frantic.” As a Pack Leader, it’s your job to do the counterintuitive for the well-being of your dogs.
In the case of separation anxiety, this means don’t fuel the fire — and do not feel guilty about ignoring your dog when you come and go. There’s plenty of time for affection when you’re going to be around and after your dog is exercised. She can’t put it into words, but she’ll definitely show her appreciation if you never give her any reason to be anxious about your departures.
Stay calm, and keep your dog balanced!