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Velcro Dogs & Separation Anxiety

Signs of a Velcro dog

I sit on the couch, and Whimsy sits next to me. Sometimes it’s not next to me, but rather draped on top of me. I get up to get something from the kitchen and she jumps off the couch and follows. She’s allowed on the bed and always has to nestle against me. So much so, that it’s not uncommon for me to wake up and discover she’s nudged me far enough that I’m left with only 12 inches of my queen sized bed. This is a 23 pound dog!

Dog next to computer

Whimsy is what the dog world would call as “Velcro dog”, a clingy dog who feels an intense desire to be by her person. A Velcro dog follows their owner almost everywhere, and tends to want to snuggle during down time. Is a Velcro dog more likely to develop separation anxiety? Do a Google search and you’ll find websites stating that Velcro dogs are more at risk of developing dog separation anxiety. But is that true?

Velcro dogs separation anxiety tendencies?

If you’re looking on the internet you’ll get conflicting answers on this very question. Some websites, many of which belong to dog trainers or veterinarians, state that clingy dogs, or “hyper-attached” dogs are more at risk of developing separation anxiety.

Part of this is conjecture and myth spread by word of mouth. Until fairly recently dog training and canine behavior was more or less about professional experience and trial and error. Dog trainers were typically trained by other dog trainers without basis of any research or formal evaluation of methods and supposition. Knowledge gained through years of working with dogs was passed down to trainers starting out.

Separation anxiety research

Another reason we see that Velcro dogs are more likely to develop separation anxiety is based on a 2001 study “Risk factors and behaviors associated with separation anxiety in dogs”. This study reviewed the medical records of 400 dogs, 200 diagnosed with separation anxiety and 200 without.

dog laying next to person

One conclusion of the study was that “Several factors associated with hyperattachment to the owner were significantly associated with separation anxiety.” I could not find the entire study without paying for it, and the summaries I was able to locate did not expand on this statement.

I am not a scientist, nor do I have a background in research. I believe a 400 dog sample size is pretty significant, but question how thorough the medical records were that were reviewed by the researchers in this study. A veterinarian getting history on a dog with a behavioral issue such as separation anxiety would ask owners for significantly more detailed behavior information, than would owners with dogs that aren’t presenting with any problems.

As I could not review the whole study I don’t know if the medical records for each group of dogs contained similar information, or if the records were more thorough with one group over the other. I know that studies that review medical records and surveys are considered to be valid ways to research. However, when relying on responses to questions from owners there is always the risk that perception and reality are not the same.

Did the owners of the dogs with separation anxiety see the clinginess as extremely significant and symptomatic of their dog’s disorder? And did the owners of the dogs that were not diagnosed with separation anxiety think their dogs were merely affectionate and loving and didn’t see that same behavior as being clingy or hyper-attached because there weren’t any problems?

Separation anxiety research paper

A different study was done to answer the specific question of the correlation between hyper-attached dogs and separation anxiety. This separation anxiety research paper is titled “Relationship between attachment to owners and separation anxiety in pet dogs (Canis lupus familiaris)”, and was published in 2006 in the Journal of Veterinary Behavior.

One of the hypotheses of the study was that dogs with separation anxiety (SA) would have different attachment behaviors than dogs without (Non SA). It was thought that SA dogs would spend less time exploring the research facility in favor of sticking with the owner, and that when the owner left the room and returned. The dogs with separation anxiety would spend more time with their owners than dogs that do not suffer from separation anxiety.

Another hypothesis of the study was that at home SA dogs would spend more time by the door after the owner exited than the non SA dogs. The theory was that SA dogs would continue to stay as close to the owner as they could even when the owner was absent.

The study used 75 dogs total, with questionnaires filled out by the owner in order to identify the dogs experiencing separation anxiety. 31 of the dogs were identified as suffering from separation anxiety.

Pug standing on owner's shoes

The first part of the test was held at a research facility and involved observing and scoring behavior of the dog with the owner as they spent 5 minutes acclimating to a room. Researchers then observed a series of events, each lasting 2 minutes: a stranger entered the room while the owner was present, the owner left the dog was alone and returned, the owner left and a stranger entered and left after which the owner returned. And that sequence was repeated with another stranger.

The results of this test showed no difference in proximity to the owner at the facility between the two groups of dogs. This was regardless of the situation; stranger in the room, owners return from an absence, and owner returning after the dog was alone with the stranger. Both groups of dogs behaved in a similar manner.

Dogs were also evaluated at home by camera for 30 minutes after the departure of the owner. The researchers found that dogs with SA didn’t spend any more time at the doorway than non SA dogs. They also evaluated how often the dogs followed their owner from room to room, and again found no significant differences between the two groups.

This is just one study with a small sample size. However I think it serves to remind us that we cannot jump to conclusions about the behavior of dogs experiencing separation anxiety when the owner is present. Velcro dogs and separation anxiety are not necessarily linked.

As a matter of fact I have had clients without an over attached dog when the owner was home, and the dog preferred to keep to their own space a lot of the time. But when the owner walked out the door these dogs fell apart and started to display signs of panic.

The best way to identify dogs with separation anxiety is by their behavior when the owner leaves them alone. The dog barks when home alone, howls, paces, performs destructive behavior and eliminates only when home alone are common symptoms.

If your dog displays any signs of being stressed when alone I’d love to help!

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