Hyper-attachment and Separation Anxiety
Updated: Nov 28, 2022
Laura and Tom’s dog Baxter had separation anxiety. Unlike typical cases in which the dog is ok as long as he is with a person, Baxter would become extremely anxious and panic anytime Laura left, even if Tom was with him.
Luckily Laura worked from home, and so Baxter was very rarely without her. However, Laura felt like a prisoner who didn’t have the freedom to run errands, meet friends for lunch, or even go for a hair-cut. Baxter’s severe anxiety was causing Laura and Tom a tremendous amount of stress.
The way most people define separation anxiety is that the dog cannot be alone without a human with them. This is how most cases of separation anxiety present, which means that the owner has options for their dog so that the dog is never left alone. Being able to leave the dog with other people allows for a limited amount of freedom. But these cases are really technically isolation distress, since the dog is anxious about being isolated alone.
True separation anxiety is when a dog is so hyper-bonded to a person, and panics when that specific person/people aren’t there, even if others are. These cases impact owners much more because the dog cannot be left with family members, dog sitters or left at doggy daycare without experiencing severe anxiety and panic. It means that owners are even more tied down and limited in being able to experience the freedom to run errands or have a dog free social life.
Increase the dog's social circle
These cases are also much more difficult to resolve, and require more treatment than just desensitization. Getting the dog comfortable being left with others is an important part of the process, in addition to learning good coping skills when left alone.
Because Tom went to work each day, and Laura worked from home, Laura became Baxter’s primary caretaker. Laura was the one who walked him each day, fed him his meals, and took breaks from work to play and snuggle with him. Because of this, Baxter not only became extremely attached to Laura, but felt safe and secure when she was with him.
The first step in this case was to make sure that Laura backed away from Baxter’s care when Tom was around. Tom needed to be the one to feed Baxter his two meals a day. He also needed to spend more time playing with Baxter and snuggling with him. And when Tom was home Laura needed to make an effort not to actively engage with Baxter. That’s not to say that she would ignore him, she just wouldn’t go out of her way to interact with him.
Taking Baxter for a walk was a little bit trickier. Tom couldn’t take Baxter for a walk without Laura, or Baxter would completely freak out. So initially the walks would happen with both Tom and Laura, although Tom would be the one holding the leash, and giving Baxter treats as they went.
During these walks, Laura and Tom also worked on helping Baxter learn to let Laura move farther and farther away. They did this by Tom giving treats to Baxter as Laura took a few steps away and then stopping the treats as Laura came back. Every time they practiced this Laura went a little bit farther. After a few weeks Laura and Tom could take Baxter for a walk, and then after a block Laura could leave them and go back home while Tom continued the walk alone with Baxter.
At the point where Laura could leave Baxter home alone with Tom she immediately gained more freedom. And it was easier to start the desensitization training used to treat separation anxiety.
With separation anxiety cases where the dog cannot be left alone with anyone other than “their people”, its’ important that you help the dog expand the number of humans that they see as “their people”. Finding others willing to be regular caregivers when you can’t be there is the first step, but then spending time with those people along with the dog, and letting the dog build a bond with them is the next step.
Taking the time to allow the dog to build a bond is extremely important. Leaving a dog that is hyper-attached to one person in the care of somebody they aren’t comfortable with will cause anxiety, and is no different than leaving that dog home alone to panic.
Other things that can help a hyper-attached dog
Another thing that can help is teaching the dog to be independent of their person. Oftentimes these hyper-attached dogs are very clingy, and cannot entertain themselves.
Teaching your dog to go settle on a mat by themselves is one thing that can help a great deal. With the dog who gets anxious with even a little bit space separating them from “their person”, you can start out by having the mat very close to the person they’re attached to, and then gradually increase the distance. Make sure really great things happen on the mat in the way of treats being tossed, and special chew toys or stuffed Kongs.
Training your dog skills that require independent thinking can also be beneficial. Nosework in particular is an activity that is self-directed on your dog’s part since your sense of smell is not nearly as good as your dogs! Teaching your dog to find a particular scent is something that they need to do on their own, uses their natural behavior, and helps develop confidence.
We also know that dogs with separation anxiety have experienced chronic stress. Studies show that chronic stress causes change and rewiring in the brain. The damage to the brain makes it harder to decrease fear in an animal, and can also make them more susceptible to fear.
Anti-anxiety medication for any separation anxiety case is extremely helpful as it allows the dog to calm down and that in turn allows for learning to take place. For cases like Baxter, in which the dog is hyper-attached to one person, anti-anxiety medication is even more important since the dog has even more situations that trigger the anxiety.
Although separation anxiety in which the dog is hyper-attached to one or two caretakers is much more difficult to resolve, there are things we can do to help families gain independence. With a good treatment plan and motivation on the part of owners, progress can definitely be made.