Does your dog have separation anxiety or over dependence?

While separation anxiety is a well known behaviour trait in dogs, over dependence was something I’d never heard of until I sought professional help recently for Frankie’s lockdown issues.

We’d been invited to our friends’ wedding and needed to be dog-free for two days. So I messaged Freya’s carer, who we hadn’t seen for nearly two years, to see if they were still operating. I was delighted to discover they’d survived lockdown! 

Having written a couple of articles on separation anxiety, I was really concerned that Frankie might struggle if we left her with strangers (to her at least) so I booked her in for a one-to-one session with a local animal behaviour specialist.

Separation anxiety or over dependence

Frankie’s Story

Unlike Freya, who came from a recommended breeder, Frankie was home bred to enable her Mum to have pups before she was spayed. Frankie was the smallest of the litter – two female and three males – and we think may have had to fight for her place, especially when it came to feeding from Mum. The puppies were also fed kibble from one large bowl – the significance of this comes later. However, Frankie came from good breeding stock and had been beautifully cared for by her owner before we adopted her full time at 11 weeks.

We collected Frankie the day before the very first lockdown descended on the UK. As a result, she missed out on any formal puppy or teenage training. Freya, being my first dog, was taken (occasionally dragged) from Kennel Club Puppy Socialisation right through to Gold. She eventually became a school therapy dog, listening to reluctant readers with her gentle grace and patience.

Time for some training

So I set about re-reading everything we’d covered during Freya’s training and attempted to replicate this with Frankie, although I must admit without the same measure of success. Frankie’s a completely different character. She is super affectionate with a crazy, but fun personality. Hilariously, she has the concentration of a gnat – super anxious to please, but getting it all wrong in her haste to achieve the reward treat. 

Over dependence means a puppy never leaves your side

Signs of anxiety

Anyone following Freya and Frankie on Instagram will know they were both well travelled during the ‘open’ spells of lockdown. We holidayed at hotels, self catering cottages and with friends, so we’d had no problem with Frankie settling away from home. However, Frankie had never been left with anyone she didn’t know and my concern was whether she would cope with being left with a complete stranger for two nights. There were so many signs of what I thought were anxiety issues.

Behaviour observations

  • If I left the house, she’d sit looking out of the office window until my return;
  • Getting up close and personal every time I sat down, literally draping herself over me and even pushing Freya out of the way if she came looking for cuddle;
  • Typical velcro behaviour following me from room to room;
  • Anticipating when I’m about to get up – even when I thought she was fast asleep she’d leap up to search me out;
  • Barking continuously at any animal, whether on TV or in the street. Occasionally people too, especially those in black or wearing a hat. Obviously missed that bit of training!

Frankie would also gobble her food as fast as she could and then spending 15 to 20 minutes post feed keeping eye contact as best she could to remind me she hadn’t had her post meal snack. I felt the food obsession related to being the smallest of the litter and having to fight former food. The paw would also come out to remind me it was five o’clock (she may have learnt this little trick from Freya);

Even Freya has become more clingy, and is really worried to go out in the dark now the winter nights have begun. It was time for some expert help!

Meeting the behaviourist: discovering over dependence

I booked an hour long session to have Frankie assessed, with Freya accompanying her. First issue wasn’t Frankie, but Freya who refused to come into the room as she thought the behaviourist – wearing a branded sweatshirt –was a vet! After much persuasion, Freya hid curled up underneath my chair in typical ‘anxious bagel’ fashion, only appearing towards the end of the session if she thought there were treats to be had.

White board notes on over dependence training by the behaviourist

Frankie meanwhile went though a series of exercises with the behaviourist, happily trotting by his side through various fences, going into rooms, being led along and regularly treat rewarded. He asked me loads of questions and filled his white board with notes.

Separation anxiety - dog waits by the window for owner to return

So not separation anxiety after all

The behaviourist very soon established that what Frankie had was an over dependence on me. Apparently, this is a common trait if you have followed (what he considered to be) old fashioned ‘top dog’ training, whereby one person is in charge of feeding and caring for a dog so simulating the pack leader. The behaviourist advised this form of discipline training is no longer appropriate, and considered out dated and poor. He even used the word cruel at one point, which made me feel super guilty. 

However, the outcome was brilliant news for both me and for Frankie as apparently separation anxiety takes a long time to deal with, while over dependence needs just a short change of direction. The behaviourist explained that if Frankie suffered from separation anxiety, she would panic every time she was away from me. Frankie just wants to be close to me and therefore it was a case of teaching her to be more independent.

Behaviourist’s Top Ten Tips on reducing over dependence

  1. Either, chose a trainer who doesn’t use dominance as behaviour control, or restart training personally using the five rewards: Touch, Voice, Food, Play (toy/ball), Release.

  2. Build trust without dominance: Go back to basics, ie, teach sit, stand, down, wait, watch. Keep lessons short, no anger and reward immediately.

  3. Change association with whoever holds the over dependence: share the care. Give the responsibility of feeding, walking and caring to a partner, family member, or friend for a couple of weeks so that they don’t rely on you for their survival.

  4. Allow others to give treats as reward for good behaviour.

  5. Move the sofa: this was in reference to Frankie’s anxiety barking. Looking out of the office window upstairs wasn’t an issue as it was easy to reassure her. However, she’d taken to sitting on top of the sofa in the evening cat watching and making us jump out of our skin when she barked. We didn’t move the sofa, we just closed the curtains in the evening and she soon forgot the habit.

  6. Encourage your dog to approach people and other dogs in a friendly way and welcome anyone who approaches them.

  7. Fear of abandonment: Frankie was afraid if she left me she wouldn’t get fed, so back to the feeding issue.

  8. Don’t encourage demanding behaviour by rewarding with affection, ie, wining or scratching at the door – give plenty affection when they’re not being demanding. Once a reasurring cuddle’s been given, say that’s enough – don’t prolong the affection.

  9. Don’t reward velcro behaviour, encourage independence it’s kinder to increase confidence. Encourage separation when you leave the room, get them to sit in their bed, use the stay command so they understand you will come back after you’ve shut the door (this training is a gradual increase in length of time away).

  10. Desensitise your dog to you leaving the house (see How to prevent separation anxiety – Departure Routines).

But be warned

I really felt bereft when Frankie’s dependence on me began to lessen while retraining. My lovely little shadow started to share the love – which is naturally the whole point – but although it eased my conscience, it did make me sad. However, I’m delighted to say both Freya and Frankie were totally happy for the two days with their carer and, more importantly, had a wonderful time.

Further reading

Leaving your puppy home alone – how to prevent separation anxiety
Separation anxiety – taking back control
Separation anxiety – leaving your dog with a carer
Adopting a puppy during lockdown – behaviour issues