Can Dogs Feel Your Absence?

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Introduction

Whoever said absence makes the heart grow stronger should have consulted their dog. It may well be that a couple in love find their feelings ignite if they are parted, but your impatient pup might beg to differ. When that front door shuts and a pet mom or dad has vacated the premises many a nervous mutt will feel abandoned and ensure their objection is noted. 

Dogs love our company as we do theirs and a pang is always felt when we leave them to go shopping or to earn a living. Our connections run deep and as we time watch thinking we’ve left them too long, our dogs might be feeling the same!

Signs a Dog is Feeling Their Owner's Absence

It’s a dog life, but when we inform them we're off to the café and will be back soon, not all pups will tell you to have a good time. From the moment you put on your make up to the keys jingling in your hand, Milo your Maltese/Yorkshire Terrier is wearing his disdain. His sad, little face makes you call off the coffee date but that’s been three times so far this week.

You’ve been checking out articles about separation anxiety, which sounds like Milo needs a session with a doggy counselor to help him handle you leaving the home. Last time you slipped out without a word, Milo was heard barking profusely by the guy next door. Luckily, they are a dog owner, so they were not about to ring the authorities or make any waves. Milo had also left the scars of his time alone. Your cool, new boots were in bits on the bathroom floor and the cat was hiding at the top of the wardrobe after being terrorized by a manic Maltese.

While you were away earning a living to keep your adored Morkie in the lap of luxury, he had kindly repaid the favor by chewing the legs on the dining room table, stalking the cat and taking their anxious mood out on your bedding. Yes, Milo had marked his territory on your expensive, new comforter. If a video camera had been installed it would have shown a traumatized pup walking in circles, jumping up at the windows, and scratching the walls.

Coming home from work, the carnage was evident as Milo averted your eyes with his little ears back and tail hung low. They say dogs can’t feel the emotion of guilt, but right now this mischievous Morkie is doing a good impression of remorse by whimpering and nervously scratching his left ear.

Looks like this Morkie is a pup with a problem who needs help. Imagine the fireball of feelings this pooch endures whenever their pet-mom leaves. It would be so overwhelming and hard to control as they act out the terror of being alone by trying to escape through the cat door or chew on their paws till they bleed. This may sound dramatic, but it’s a fact some dogs lose the plot when they feel the absence of their guardian.

Milo was advertised in the local paper by an owner who had to move away and you had wanted to adopt a pup, so this was a hopeful union. The moment you saw him, it was love at first sight and he seemed happy to see you until you left him at home.

Clearly, being given away had impacted on this Morkie's sense of security as he thought you were also going to leave or give him away. Dogs that are handed from owner to owner can suffer the effects of separation anxiety.

If this were a two-year-old child, chances are they would wet the bed and freak every time they were separated from their new mom. In time, they would become aware that mom is coming back, but it's a lot harder for a wee pup to understand this.

Body Language

Signs a pooch has separation anxiety are:
  • Barking
  • Chewing
  • Jumping up
  • Scratching
  • Low tail carriage
  • Whimpering
  • Averting eyes

Other Signs

More signs your dog does not like being left alone include:
  • Urinating in the house
  • Trying to escape
  • Walking in circles
  • Chasing other animals
  • Chewing on their paws
  • Destructive behaviour
  • Self harming

History of Dogs Coping with Absence

Dogs have been part of the human landscape since man and wolf got together and created a new evolutionary tale. If wolves had not been under threat or joined forces with humans, the world today might be quite different. 

The author of The Invaders: Humans and Their Dogs Drove Neanderthals to Extinction believes the union between man and wolf created a first-rate hunting team. The tamed wolf or dog had a master-sense of smell and immense speed for tracking prey, while the humans were equipped with bows and arrows to finally bring the quarry down. The deadly combination was a terminator style of force on an evolving planet.

From the moment wolves integrated with the species called "man", an interesting relationship was formed and one that would be unique for all time. Dogs were not only helpful in the guarding of livestock but they became inseparable companions living in our homes and becoming an integral part of the family.

Think Fun informs us a neuroscientist from Emory University has studied the closeness between man and dog and believes woofers are hyper-social with us and connect on a deeper level with their human friends than any other animal.

When wolves entered the human realm, what began was a chaotic breeding program where people with no knowledge of genetics used guesswork to create the perfect herd and hunting mutt. Dogs like Dachshunds were bred to crawl into holes and flush out badgers while Bull Mastiffs were once feared dogs of war. Dalmatians were stylized to run beside coaches of the rich and the pristine Poodle was spawned to dive into muddy ponds and retrieve birds. Each breed had a purpose and as the world matured, our dogs were divided into working woofers and companion mutts.

It’s no wonder a little Morkie whose been given away would be feeling insecure when their new owner appears to leave them alone. Imagine a wolf giving its pups to a complete new set of parents. How would they react?

The Science of Dogs Feeling Absense

A dog feeling concerned at the absence of their owner is like a child who holds on tight to their mother's coat as she’s going out to work. There’s likely to be toddler tantrums with screams and tears as they feel suddenly abandoned by their primary caregiver. That’s how Milo’s feeling with the added paranoia of already being left before.

 The panic button is pressed as the glucocorticoid hormones, including cortisol, and adrenaline, are released - making matters even worse. It’s a “fight or flight” feeling for MiIo as he tears around the house not knowing how to deal with his stress. Martina Scholz and Clarissa von Reinhardt, authors of Stress in Dogs, refer to this mode as eustress.

Ironically, when Milo is in this physical state, he is exhibiting the maximum potential to hunt or escape from a predator. His basic instincts are blasting on all cylinders even though there is no immediate threat.

Dogs can suffer this disorder if they have experienced early trauma, abandonment, or noise phobia. The reasons a dog exhibits separation anxiety are varied. Hyper-attachment to their owner could be a factor as could be changes to the family line-up. It could be a divorce or a move to a new home. A dog can be unsettled and experience increased anxiety when left alone. Scars run deep and like people your woofer may not be able to cope.

Malena de Martini, the author of Treating Separation Anxiety in Dogs, tells the story of Watson, a good-looking mixed breed who was adopted and observed as a discerning guy who liked his space and the amount of affection given. It came as a surprise he suffered separation anxiety and his owner contacted the author for help. Dogs of all breeds and circumstances can feel the absence of their owners in a terrifying way.

Training Dogs Who Feel Their Owners Absence

Milo’s separation anxiety is concerning his guardian, who knows something has to be done to help ease his absence pain - not to mention the noise being generated by her melancholy Morkie to the neighbors. She’s been looking for ideas everywhere and found varying opinions about how to counteract the problem.

Cesar Milan, a popular dog trainer, informs Milo’s pet-mom that all dogs are part of a pack and are often bored or acting out what they were originally bred to do. The Maltese side of Milo was not only a companion and smaller guard dog for royalty but a robust rat-catcher. Perhaps that’s why he’s been in pursuit of the cat and barking the house down. The Yorkshire Terrier version of Milo's genetic make-up was created to eradicate mines of rats plus wriggle down burrows to find badgers. That might also be why Milo’s been attempting to dig a hole in your kitchen floor while you were away.

Cesar, from Cesar’s Way, has a mantra, which depicts exercise as firstly important, next discipline, and then, affection! He also believes obedience training and asserting yourself as pack leader is the key to curing separation anxiety. He says teaching your dog to go in a crate will provide a place where they will feel safe and if they bark excessively then try using a bark collar.

As you leave the house, do not interact with your dog. Then come back inside. If your dog is jumping at the crate, the advice is to ignore them. Keep going in and out until your dog is quiet. He also suggests you take note of what triggers your dog to feel anxious. If it’s the coat you put on, change that coat, or if you go out the front door with car keys rustling in your hand, put the keys in your bag and use another door to exit.

Victoria Stilwell, of It’s Me or the Dog fame, shares a similar philosophy when it comes to addressing the triggers that make your dog stress out but is not a fan of doggy discipline.  Her dog training mantra is positive reinforcement and in the case of separation anxiety she suggests (if possible) taking your pooch to a local doggy day care center or have a dog walker or sitter spend time with your anxious pup. It might also pay to talk to Milo’s vet if the problem persists. They may advise medication. Victoria Stilwell is not an advocate for bark or shock collars as this can make a stressed dog worse. 

How to React When Your Dog has Separation Anxiety:

  • Work on the triggers that make your pooch anxious.
  • Talk to your vet.
  • If you can, get a dog sitter or walker.
  • Try taking your pooch to doggy daycare.
  • Never punish them for feeling fear.
  • Make sure they get plenty of exercise.
  • Change your going-out routine.
  • Read articles about how other dog owners dealt with the issue.

Tell Us How Your Pooch Reacts When You Leave the Home!