There is a new trend in our modern western society to label any dog's concern when left alone as separation anxiety. This disturbing highjacking of a very serious disorder diminishes the potency of the condition, and at the same time, places many more dogs into this category than would otherwise be considered. Furthermore, using the term "separation anxiety" for any behavior associated with not wanting to be alone confuses owners and families interested in learning about disordered separation anxiety in our dog breed.
Potential owners often ask the question, "Does an American Dirus dog suffer from separation anxiety?" People who ask this question are never speaking about normal behaviors and desires to be with the family. They always want to know if our dogs have a disordered reaction to being left alone. Because of this, it is important to make a distinction between exhibiting normal behaviors when left alone and the actual disorder of separation anxiety. These are two different things. Due to this, it is important to define this term accurately so that everyone understands exactly what it means when a dog is labeled with separation anxiety.
All domesticated dogs that have a connection to their family feel a desire to be with their owners. Dogs enjoy being a part of their human family's life as they go about their day. Because of this, dogs seek ways to participate with the family, and when they can't, they signal their displeasure at being left behind with various movements and gestures. When the family leaves their dog for a moment to go to the store for some quick supplies, the dog may scratch at the door, whine and turn in circles, or jump on the couch to look outside, even though it never does these things when the family is home. When the owner walks to the mailbox and back, the dog might rush out the doggie door, run around the side yard, jump on the fence, and bark its desire to go, even though it never barks at the fence under any other circumstances. Dogs are social creatures and want to participate in your life, especially American Dirus dogs. This desire to want to be with the family is typical behavior and should not be considered separation anxiety. Body language using movements and gestures is the natural way dogs communicate. Since dogs can't speak English to explain they want to go with you to the store or the mailbox, they have to show you through their actions.
What is also often labeled as separation anxiety are puppies who show initial anguish at being left alone during crate training. All puppies perform behaviors that look like a desperate attempt to communicate their distress at being left behind in their crate, kennel, or x-pen. Let me repeat that... ALL puppies must go through this learning stage when the family rightly chooses to crate train their puppy. This is not separation anxiety. Instead it is a misunderstanding on the puppy's part of how our human world works. Once they figure out being alone is okay and humans will return, the desperate behaviors in the crate cease.
In the canine world, puppies are never left alone. There are always other puppies, the mother, or humans to share their warmth and provide assurance and protection. Especially in a large litter, puppies grow up with constant interaction from others. Even in sleep, a puppy feels the expanding and contracting of another puppy's breathing and hears the subtle rhythm of another's heartbeat. When a puppy finds itself all alone, it becomes lost and disoriented; the worst possible scenario in which a young puppy can be.
In our human world, puppies find themselves alone for the first time in their lives. All puppies initially feel loss and disorientation at being alone. They desperately want to communicate to their new owners that they are nervous, sad, anxious, upset, emotional, displeased, etc. at being left alone. This is normal puppy behavior for ALL puppies. When you first receive your puppy, you must teach it to understand how to be alone. Because all puppies must go through this learning stage, we feel it is wrong to call this separation anxiety.
We need a new term for normal behavior when a dog wants to be with its owners and doesn't want to be left alone. The confusion that results from using the same language for both normal and disordered behavior is unnecessary. This confusion sure makes a lot of veterinarians, drug company, and dog trainers happy. When all puppies show unwanted behaviors at being alone and/or crated and the average owner can prevent so-called "separation anxiety" in most dogs with proper training techniques, there is something wrong about the over-exaggerated fear associated with the label. Let's agree upon a different term, such as "normal concern", for the expression of typical behaviors that show a dog's desire to be with the family, and leave the clinical term "separation anxiety" for the disordered, atypical, excessive anxiety a dog exhibits outside of the expected developmental level and age.
So, what is true separation anxiety?
Concern for being alone is a natural developmental process and should be considered typical. Separation anxiety is an anxiety disorder in which a dog experiences excessive anxiety regarding separation from home and/or from people to whom the dog has a strong emotional attachment. Separation anxiety disorder is an excessive display of fear and distress when faced with situations of separation and must be atypical for the expected developmental level and age of the dog.
Separation anxiety describes dogs that are overly attached or dependent on their family members. They become extremely anxious when separated from their owners by exhibiting distress behaviors that include: excessive vocalization, destruction, or house soiling. In addition, they may be restless, shake, shiver, salivate, refuse to eat, or become quiet and withdrawn. Dogs with this disorder remain close to their owners, follow them from room to room, and rarely spend time outdoors alone. Dogs with this disorder often display significant anxiety even when their owners make preparations to leave. Many, but not all, dogs with separation anxiety crave a great deal of physical contact and attention from their people. Dogs with separation anxiety are also often extremely excited and aroused when the owner returns.
American Dirus dogs love to be with their owners and do not prefer to be alone; after all the American Dirus is a large breed family companion dog. To date, two American Dirus dogs throughout the years have been reported to possess separation anxiety disorder. One American Dirus dog reported to have separation anxiety was due to a drastic sudden shift in the human's schedule. The American Dirus puppy grew up with the human 24/7 and was never apart. Then, suddenly, when the dog was two years old the human took a job that required her to be gone for nine hours a day. The dog protested this change by whining and barking each day for hours after the human went to work. The dog was eventually rehomed and the behavior ceased completely.
The truly destructive or self-harming behaviors in a dog with separation anxiety disorder have only been reported in one American Dirus dog. This dog anticipates the human's departure by shaking and drooling as the owner gets ready to go. After the owner leaves, this dog tears at the door and wall next to the door in a determined effort to get out. He will also naw on the metal door handle hoping to turn it. Without medication, this dog will work destructively all day to the point of harming itself and the area around it. These issues developed into this drastic scene during the Covid 19 lockdowns. At first the dog was at home with at least one human 24/7. After the lockdowns were over, the owner moved out of her parent's home into an apartment closer to work. She began traveling to work each day leaving the dog completely alone for the first time in its life. The dog panicked almost immediately. Nothing the owner did eliminated the dog's anxiety. Now, the owner must give the dog calming medication to lessen the extreme fear and anxiety its faces while she is away. She has covered her bed with a waterproof blanket because even with the medication, her dog continually drools throughout the day until she returns.
In most cases, separation anxiety disorder can be prevented. That is because what most people call separation anxiety is actually a lack of training on the owner's part. Of course, there are dogs that are predisposed to this excessive fear of being left alone. Those are the truly disabled dogs crippled by fear and anxiety, as is the case in the example above. The majority of dogs showing signs of mild separation anxiety, though, can be trained, which eliminates the symptoms.
Here is how to train your puppy to shape it into a well-rounded, tolerant adult that can be calm when it is home alone.