Lonely Dogs

Article by Dr Robert Holmes

Lonely dogs may cause a litany of annoyance, anger, frustration, despair, helplessness, bewilderment and guilt. And that is just in their carers. The destruction of the remote control, or the pooping and peeing around the family room are often interpreted as the dog being spiteful and seeking revenge for being left alone. The almost continuous barking for hours on end that drives the neighbours to distraction may be thought of as a protest at being left behind. Escaping from the backyard, just to sit out the front, is simply rather odd.

Commonly received advice about curing loneliness in dogs is to acquire another. The logic is that because dogs are a highly social species that would normally live in packs, canine company will therefore replace the absent human and everybody will live happily ever after. Right? Sorry, but that well-meaning and intuitive advice rarely works with separation distress. Okay, the new arrival may occasionally and temporarily distract the original resident from the carer’s absence by vigorous play, but once the novelty has worn off the original dog usually reverts to the particular behaviour it displayed when alone.

What these lonely dogs really want is their carers’ company. Another dog is not a substitute for an absent carer. Many dogs much prefer to be with people than with dogs. I suppose it makes sense. If dog is man’s best friend then shouldn’t man be dog’s best friend?

When you think about it, however, it really is rather peculiar. Here we have one species, the domestic dog, preferring to be with another species, the human, rather than with its own kind. Having been fully socialised as a puppy, having had its sociability continuously maintained since then, and still being sociable to dogs when the opportunity arises, there are many dogs that prefer people. Even when they have the company of a lifelong canine companion dogs can show separation distress in the absence of their carer. I have seen plenty of cases when littermates have lived together all their lives, yet only one of them shows separation distress. Incidentally, with mixed sexes it is usually the male who shows the problem. Perhaps boys do love their mummies too much.

There is another curious feature of this separation from humans. Typically, but not always, separation distress is solved by the presence of a human. Anybody will do, even in an unfamiliar environment. Carers can be very unflattering about their canine companions on such occasions, often describing them as tarts. Not only are most dogs promiscuous in their affections, but anybody could sit with the dog in the carer’s absence and there would be no separation distress. For somebody who adores their canine companion, it’s tough to admit that their dog is not missing them. We also see similar behaviour with some dogs that are adopted from a shelter. New carers have reported dogs showing attachment within the hour. These dogs know how to get to the heart of a future relationship; their new carers don’t stand a chance.

The orthodox explanation is that the carer has become the attachment object. The dog has formed a social bond in the same way primitive self-protective impulses kept it close to its mother when it was young. Separation leads to protest, despair or detachment. The dramatic signs of barking, howling, escaping, digging or destructiveness can be seen as protest. What we are probably not recognising are the dogs that suffer in silence because of their despair and detachment. In these cases, their stoicism may be hiding their separation distress.

Studies into social bonding offer an explanation for the relationship between noise phobias and separation distress. It has been shown with other species that traumatic experiences during separation can result in fear of being left alone and anticipatory anxiety when they expect they will be left alone. Forty per cent of dogs with noise phobias, such as fear of thunder or fireworks, also show separation-related behaviour. In contrast, only seven per cent of dogs that show separation-related behaviour also show noise phobias. The interpretation being that noise phobias commonly lead to separation distress, but the reverse does not hold true.

Other studies of the social bond have shown that animals sensitised by separations can progress to ‘anxious attachment’. They are vigilant of the carer’s whereabouts and more intent on staying close. This behaviour is typical of many, but not all dogs with separation distress. Unfortunately the social bond theory doesn’t explain why some dogs with raging separation distress will persist in escaping even when their carers are literally standing beside them in the backyard. What exactly is going on here within this renowned if not revered relationship between man and dog? There are a few things about separation distress that just don’t seem to make sense. We need to take a look at some other theories which go further to explaining this behaviour.

Another theory uses the concept of opponent processes for the regulation of emotional states. The processes progressively come into play when there is emotion such as attraction or aversion. An example would be a dog’s attraction to being close to the carer. The first process, called a-process, is initially quickly and strongly aroused but rapidly fades when the emotional stimulation is removed. This would happen when the dog is no longer in the proximity of the carer. The second process, called b-process, shadows and opposes the a-process to restrain extreme emotion. Initially, the b-process is slow and weakly aroused, but following the removal of emotional stimulation is longer lasting than the a-process. However, with repeated stimulation, changes occur in the delay, strength and perseverance of the processes. The a-process gets slower and weaker whereas the b-process gets stronger and more persistent. We can see changes that are consistent with this theory in dogs that progressively develop both anxious attachments to their carers and greater separation distress.

In line with the opponent process theory, experimental studies show that the most intense distress is caused, among other things, by repeated separations and reunions. Some dogs apparently tolerate their carer’s daytime absence, but all hell breaks loose if they go off again in the evening. The double whammy of two separations in the one day seems to be too much for them. Repeated separations can even lead to distress on reunion where it’s thought that the b-process overwhelms the a-process. This can account for the dog that escapes from the backyard even when the carer is beside them.

The other cause of the most intense distress is separation after prolonged contact. The weakened a-process and the stronger b-process could account for the phenomenon of dogs getting more distressed after prolonged periods with their carers during holidays, sickness or unemployment.

Another possible explanation for separation distress involves the concept of a ‘supernormal stimulus’. This was created by one of the grandfathers of ethology who pioneered the zoological approach to the study of animal behaviour. Niko Tinbergen found that the bigger a herring gull’s egg the more likely the gull was to retrieve it from outside the nest. This occurred even with model eggs that were far larger than natural ones. He showed that certain stimuli that were abnormally greater than normal could produce greater responses than normal. A human example is the inordinate interest, call it infatuation if you like, shown by adult males for adult females with breasts so enlarged with silicone that they are a physical liability. This notion can be applied to dogs with separation distress by suggesting that people can become supernormal stimuli for dogs. In these cases, separation distress would then be an abnormally greater response.

This suggestion leads to a comparison between the experiences of domestic dogs and their natural-living ancestors. Under the open sky of the wild the wolf puppy would naturally be exposed to a gradually increasing range of threats and needs that wean it from dependency on its mother and pack mates. Hunting and pack dynamics are a tough school for learning that there are continuously changing challenges. The consequences are significant and require finely tuned behaviour for success. The domestic dog, however, typically has abrupt changes in environment at weaning, but then very little need for independent action in social interaction, feeding, sheltering, predation, sexual competition or territorial defence. Shouldn’t we therefore expect it be dependent? And isn’t dependency fundamental to the act of caring? This domestication dependency theory has its attractions and can be extended by the next suggestion, which is based on the observation that in domestication we have favoured dogs as companions that remain juvenile in behaviour and appearance for as long as possible.

Juvenile play and dependency are particularly attractive, as is the juvenile face that appears flattened because of the domed forehead and shortened nose. Who can resist that puppy appearance? It has been suggested that this immaturity increases the likelihood under duress of care-seeking, whining or yelping, mouthing things and loss of bowel or bladder control. In other words, the adult dog with separation distress readily reverts to being a puppy.

Some experimental work on the stress of being isolated in familiar or unfamiliar areas with or without canine or human companionship provides another important insight. The stress of being isolated in an unfamiliar area is more greatly reduced when a dog has a human companion than when it has a canine companion. That ties in nicely with the ‘dogs are tarts’ remark. It is also consistent with another frequent behaviour. The trigger for the onset or sudden increase in severity of separation distress is often when the carer first leaves the dog alone after moving house.

So what can we extract from all this compulsive hypothesising? While different theories may help explain the different nature of each case of separation distress, there is certainly no ‘single theory for everything’. We can at least say that dogs have individual personalities based on genetic differences that have been modified by a variety of experiences, which are expressed in unique environments. Therefore each dog needs to be assessed and treated as an individual.

Although we may not always understand the causes, we can still treat the symptoms if the need arises. We can modify social and physical environments, carry out simple acts of deception, use medication, perform desensitisation and independence training and generally relax dogs by keeping them busier. (Next issue, we’ll look at the treatments available.) It may not always be rational veterinary medicine but we do have a range of strategies that have helped many dogs, their carers and neighbours. What would be really helpful is to have a coherent model for the problem. Then we could start talking about the best cure of all: prevention.

This man–dog thing has been going for about 113,000 years. It is incredible that we have such a poor understanding of the dynamics of this relationship. It sounds like marriage to me. But what would I know? I am just a mere male.

Dr Robert Holmes is a leading animal behaviourist with unique insight into the psychology of animals. A gentleman and a scholar, he can be found at http://animalbehaviour.com/

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