Sitting in my friend’s living room, I was astounded to see how her dog (Heidi) responded when she left the room to go and make a cup of tea. As the living room door was closed Heidi rushed up to the door and began jumping up and whining. Within a couple of minutes, she was panting, running backwards and forwards in between jumping at the door. She was clearly very distressed. As my friend returned with two cups of tea, Heidi began jumping at her hysterically; the relief of seeing her owner again was overwhelming. My friend had only been out of the room for around 5 minutes but Heidi’s reaction to her leaving was extreme. When I asked how my friend felt about Heidi’s behaviour, she said that she liked the fact that Heidi was so dependent upon her and that it showed that she meant everything to Heidi.
There are many dogs which become over attached to their human companions. Sometimes the attachment is to all members of the family, but some dogs become over attached to just one person and can become extremely anxious and distressed when that person is absent, even if there is another person in the house, just like Heidi.
Certain breeds tend to become over attached (those breeds which have been selectively bred to work together with a human, such as herding and working types), but some dogs become over attached via experience. Dogs which have been relinquished to rescue organisations may, when they are re-homed, become overly dependent, which is often reinforced by their new owner who wants to make sure that they can ‘right the wrongs’ and make their new dog very secure. Over attachment can be taught by owners. Constantly cuddling, talking to and stroking their dog can make the dog become a Velcro dog: needing to be close to their owner, always. There are also some human personality traits which can contribute a dog’s extreme emotional attachment to their owners.
Although some dogs appear to be very clingy to their owner, not all of them become distressed when their owner is absent. Very often they are relaxed when left. However, other dogs can become very stressed and anxious or extremely frustrated when their owner is not present.
So, what can we do?
If a person lives alone and their dog cannot cope without them, it is probably better to seek professional advice from a veterinary surgeon or a qualified animal behaviourist as there are some medications and products which may help whilst embarking on a behaviour modification plan.
The first thing to do is to rule out any underlying medical conditions. For example, dogs with failing sight, hearing or cognitive dysfunction can become very insecure and excessively clingy and distressed when left alone.
Start desensitising your dog to your movements. It is likely that he is sensitive to any of your muscle movements. Begin by standing up and sitting down again. Once your dog realises that these movements are irrelevant you can begin progressing to leaving the room and doing something which your dog cannot be involved in, such as washing the dishes. In time, your dog will become accustomed to you moving around the house and not be overly concerned.
Share activities with other household members, get them to take on the job of walking, feeding and play times. This way you will become less of a critical resource for your dog as his attachments will be shared with the whole household.
Prevent your dog from following you all over the house. Shut the bathroom door when you go to the toilet. Use baby gates to create barriers so that your dog can see you but is not in direct contact with you.
Provide a safe den for your dog and, when you are out of sight, make sure he has something interesting to focus on – such as a stuffed kong, or an activity ball – but remember to remove these when you return.
Make sure your dog is getting enough mental and physical activity. A bored, under stimulated dog will become more dependent on other vital resources such as social contact and company.
Remember that dogs are social animals and they need to be educated to cope with being alone. Make sure you take your time and be consistent with every step and in time your dog will be able to cope without you!!