The start of 2020 has been a tough time for us all, and we hope you are all staying safe. One of the few benefits the lockdown has brought is being able to spend more time with our four-legged friends. It seems like our dogs are constantly following us round the house. The number of canine faces popping up to say ‘hello’ on Zoom meetings is at an all-time high! No doubt dogs up and down the country are praying lockdown will continue forever, so that every day is a play-day! However, as things slowly return to normal and we start heading back to school, studies and work, our dogs may be left feeling a little confused as to why we are leaving all of a sudden. Today, we will be asking the question: ‘why does my dog follow me everywhere?’ and discuss how this can lead to separation anxiety in some dogs.
You’ve Got a Friend in Me
Even before the lockdown, you may have noticed a dog-shaped shadow following you around the house. Trying to go into your room when you are busy, or constantly staring up at you. So why is this? First we should debunk one of the biggest theories. The idea that dogs think of us as fellow dogs, and the alpha dog at that, so they follow the leader. This is false; dogs are smart enough to realise that we aren’t dogs. The belief that dogs have a strong pack structure has been disproven. Rather, wild dogs live in loose social structures, and although there is an alpha pair, they are not in charge like wolf alphas are.
Instead, dogs follow us for a number of other potential reasons. One may be a learned habit. If you regularly get up off the sofa to fetch a toy, their lead for a walk, or make them some dinner, they may associate all getting up with these. Simply getting up to use the loo may scream ‘WALKIES’ or ‘DINNER’ to your pooch. Another reason may be due to imprinting as a puppy. Although dogs do not have as strong an imprinting instinct as ducks, for example, they will cling to their ‘mother’ well after weaning. If you have had your dog since a puppy, they may still be acting like a clingy puppy and want to stay close.
Genetics can actually play a role in your dog following you around too. Certain breeds have been bred to naturally live and work around people very closely. Often termed ‘velcro dogs’ (can you guess why?), these breeds will be especially close to their owners. They tend to prefer staying in the same room. Common breeds include Labradors, Maltese Poodles, Golden Retrievers, Sheepdogs, German Shepherds, Pugs, Italian Greyhounds and Vizlas. In a similar vein, all dogs, not just the breeds mentioned above, may just naturally want to spend time with their owner! This is probably the closest comparison we can make to us wanting to spend time with people we like. Our dogs like us, so they want to be with us! Very precious.
Don’t Go Breaking My Heart
For most dogs and most owners, being stuck at the hip ranges from the best thing in the world to a minor annoyance! And, of course, in most cases, it is a perfectly normal and healthy behaviour for dogs to show. However, for some dogs, being apart from their owners, even for short periods of time, can lead to anxiety, stress and behavioural issues. We call this separation anxiety. Separation anxiety is worst right after the person they are most attached to leaves; they may start barking, salivating, breathing heavily, have an increased heart rate, be destructive, have toileting accidents, or show fear. Some may eventually settle, others may remain like this until the person is back. In either case, this period of heightened stress can lead to long-term physical and psychological health issues.
In some sad cases, the problem is unmanageable, and the dog may have to be given to a shelter. This only makes the problem worse. Separation anxiety is especially topical for the dogs used to us being around 24/7 during the lockdown. Now having to face normality again as we go back to work. While we would love to be able to stay home and play with our dog all day, the reality is most owners will have to leave their dogs alone for a few hours here and there. Dogs should be able to cope with this. So for dogs that don’t, what can be done?
Should I Stay or Should I Go?
The simplest answer is to, of course, stay home. A dog with separation anxiety will not show anxiety if you are not separated. However, as we mentioned above, this is obviously not practical for many people. Better options include leaving them something to serve as a distraction. This could be a treat stuffed toy that you only use when you leave (don’t use it regularly. Try and associate this good reward with leaving the house), turning on the radio or TV for noise. Try reducing outside stimulation by keeping windows covered. When you are at home, try and break habits that cause them to be more stressed when you aren’t there. Don’t make such a big fuss over them constantly, particularly when you are leaving the house. Allow them time on their own to relax and understand being alone isn’t scary. The same is true for coming home. Try not to give them lots of attention when you walk through the door. This acts as a reward, and may indicate to your dog that bad behaviour eventually leads to a reward (attention!). Above all, never punish your dog for bad behaviour while you were away; aside from the fact negative reinforcement behaviour can be cruel, is not as effective. As positive as most dogs will not connect their bad behaviour with receiving a punishment hours later.
In extreme cases where little changes like those above aren’t working, a dog sitter may be necessary. You could also talk to your vet about the problem – there are some drugs designed to reduce anxiety in dogs which may help. They can also recommend behavioural therapists or behaviour classes that may benefit.
Ultimately, the best way to treat separation anxiety is to prevent it in the first place – most separation anxiety behaviour is learned as a puppy, so addressing it early is key. This involves getting them used to being left alone for short periods of time. You can do this even without leaving the house, by going to another room they cannot get to. As mentioned previously, do not make a fuss of them before or after, so they can see it is a normal thing to happen. It is a good idea to keep the area you leave them in consistent, so they associate it with normality. And again, reward good (calm) and do not punish bad (anxiety).
Stair gates are a great way to practise, as they can be physically left alone, but can still see, hear and smell you. Start for only a moment or two, reward them for staying behind the gate with no bad behaviour, and open it again; gradually repeat this for longer and longer periods of time, until your puppy can be left behind the gate with no issues. Speak to your vet about puppy training, and how you can help prevent separation anxiety.
Never Gonna Give You Up
We know that dogs are man’s best friend, and it certainly can feel like it sometimes. Whether your pet simply likes to follow you around the house, or gets terrified at the prospect of you going to work, understanding the reasons why your dog acts like they do is important. And if this becomes a problem, especially as working life in the UK starts to return to normal, you can make small changes now that will benefit you and your dog’s relationship in the long run. Just be careful not to step on any tails!