Helping Dogs Who Are Too Attached to Their Owners
Dogs That Are Too Attached to Their Owners
There are two kinds of separation anxiety in dogs. You have those who get stressed when the owners are away, but if they are with somebody, they are able to cope. Then there are those who get hyper-attached to just one person and no matter who they are with, they will be stressed and unable to effectively cope with the separation.
This article is about this latter category, those "one-person" dogs who bond completely to just one individual. The bond they form for their human can be compared to that of Velcro. When these dogs are left, they will still be stressed no matter what, even if there is another person they know well in the home.
What Dogs Are Prone to Velcro Attachment and What Causes It?
There are certain breeds that tend to over-attach to only one person and remain aloof towards others. In general, those in the herding and working category may be prone to this quality, as several have a history of being selectively bred to work with a human, like herding dogs, who often develop a unique bond with the shepherd from whom they take commands. You will often see German and Australian Shepherds and Australian cattle dogs bond with one special person. Akitas, Chow Chow, Shiba Inu, and Jindos, all breeds with an ancient Asian descent, have a predisposition for this as well. The Dalmatian is another Velcro breed that attaches strongly to only one person, and so is the great Pyrenees. And of course any other dog, including mixed breeds, can develop separation anxiety.
But natural predisposition is not the only culprit. Some become Velcro dogs through learning or negative experiences. Those who were abandoned, who lost their owners and were then re-homed, may live in fear of abandonment and may therefore develop an over-attachment. Others learn to become clingy because their owners, often unknowingly, reward clingy behaviors. Many owners are flattered by these anxiety displays, as they feel it's a sign of loyalty and proof that they mean the whole world to their pet.
Still, it must be remembered that these dogs are truly suffering, and one of the kindest things to do is to encourage more independence and help them increase confidence.
How to Help Alleviate Stress from Over-Attachment
There are several steps that can be taken to make their lives less miserable. Acknowledging that there is a problem is the first step. Over-attachment is dysfunctional when the dog gets anxious and exhibits signs of stress when a particular owner is away. They are like half dogs who are lost because their owner is their other half. They feel as if the owner is their anchor, their security blanket, and the only thing that lets them feel safe and secure. Without the owner they most likely won't eat, play, or do anything that normal, healthy, confident dogs do. They will likely mimic whiny vocalizations from puppyhood, manifest barrier frustration by destroying points of exit, and perhaps eliminate (pee or poop in random places) from distress. Here are some tips to help:
- Rule out Medical Conditions: Sometimes, excessively clingy behaviors may be caused by an underlying medical condition. Some dogs may lose hearing or eyesight as they age and this may cause insecurity which causes them to depend too much on their owners. Cognitive dysfunction in elderly pets may also create behavior changes. It's important to get a check-up to rule out medical causes.
- Become Less Valuable: If you have other people in your household, let them bond more with your dog. Give others the tasks of feeding, training, playing with, and walking. Let them pamper your pet with cuddles and let them become a source of high-value treats during training. Have others give rewards of praise and treats.
- Ignore Attention-Seeking Behaviors: Most likely, your dog will often approach you during the day asking for cuddles and attention. Ignore these requests. If it barks or whines for attention, ignore this as well. This doesn't mean you shouldn't cuddle him, it just means that it will be on your terms. Call your dog to you and pet him—afterward, signal that the interaction is done by saying something like "that's enough," and withdrawing your hands.
- Prevent Excess Monitoring: Most likely, your hyper-attached pet will constantly try to monitor every movement you make. He'll likely want to sleep by your feet so he is always aware of your movements. It helps to encourage the dog to sleep at a distance from you. Also, using baby gates can help teach him that even if he doesn't follow, you'll be back. Teach him to be patient when you go in another room and close the door. Don't come back when he is whining, otherwise you will reinforce the behavior. Wait till he stops and reward him with your return. If you are walking towards him and he whines, go back out of sight. Advance in his direction only when he is quiet. Also, train the "stay command." For more tips, read How to Stop a Dog from Following You Around the House.
- Reduce the Contrast Between Your Presence and Absence: If you are always showering your dog with attention, there will be a very big difference the moment you leave home. This is true especially if you make a big show of attention and affection when you are about to leave and when you come back home after being away. These contrasts feed separation anxiety. Make greetings very low-key when you come home and don't make a big deal about going out. Keep the radio on when you are home and leave it on when you leave (if you only put the radio on when you are leaving, or if you always turn it off when you leave, it will just become another cue signaling your departure). The book Behaviour Problems in Small Animals: Practical Advice for the Veterinary Team by Jon Bowen and Sarah Heath refers to this lack of contrasts as "homeostasis."
- Desensitize and Counter-Condition to Your Departures: Most likely, your observant pet gets anxious when you grab the keys, as it signals you are about to leave. Start working on making grabbing keys, putting your coat on, or tying your shoes irrelevant by performing these actions every few minutes and then sitting on the couch. Work on counterconditioning by making great things happen when you perform these actions. Disconnect the trigger from the fear: For instance, grab your keys, toss a high value treat, and then close the door and leave for one second. After awhile, you can gradually increase that amount of time. At some point your dog will no longer respond to these triggers. See video below for a program on desensitizing and counterconditioning your departures through clicker training.
- Promote Self-Rewarding Activities: Give the dog something to do while you're away. Teach him to enjoy solving puzzles on his own. (For a list of suggestions, see my article on dog foraging.)
- Use Calming Aids: Over-the-counter DAP diffusers (dog-appeasing pheromones which you can spray) may help those who are quite anxious, but some may need veterinarian-prescribed drugs to help them learn how to better cope with their anxiety. These drugs should be accompanied by behavior modification employed by a knowledgeable trainer or behavior consultant. This leads to the last tip, which is:
- Consult with a Behavior Expert: A behavior consultant who is knowledgeable in cases of separation anxiety can prove helpful. He or she will help you implement behavior modification correctly so that you can up your chances for success.
For Further Reading
- Why is My Elderly Dog Suffering From Sudden Separation Anxiety?
Owners often believe that separation stress is a condition that only affects dogs when they are young, and therefore, they assume that their elderly dog is spared from such condition. But this isn't true.
This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. It is not meant to substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, or formal and individualized advice from a veterinary medical professional. Animals exhibiting signs and symptoms of distress should be seen by a veterinarian immediately.