Case Study: Separation Distress, Insecurity and Panic When Away from His Owner

Darcy watches his lady owner all the time. When she’s out of sight he pants and he paces. Even when left at home with his male owner, he whines and stresses. Separation specifically and only from the lady owner freaks him out. Strangely, he shows no sign of being possessive of her. The daughter can hug her and she can hold the baby without Darcy doing more than continue to watch her.

Suffers separation distress when away form the lady
Darcy finds it hard to cope when his female owner is out of sight © Theo Stewart

Darcy is 9-year-old of mixed breed, probably Patterdale and Labrador. After a bad first year which he came out of extremely fearful, he has lived the past eight years in a very loving home with a retired couple.

From the start he has had to cope with separation from his owner. More recently she had an operation and had to leave him for five days. Perhaps that made his separation distress worse.

Two things happened towards the end of my visit that brought Darcy’s behaviour into focus. The first was when he jumped and started to run for cover when the man moved. The chair had made a sudden noise, that’s all.

Licking his lips and nose

The second was observing Darcy watching his owner when she saw me off. He was quietly behind her, licking his lips and nose continuously. Very worried and anxious, fearing the possible brief separation if she went out of the door. They hadn’t realised what this licking meant. See this: What your dog is desperately trying to tell you!

Darcy is quickly reactive in an instinctive survival way to sudden sounds. His reactions, being automatic, can’t be controlled beyond helping his stress levels so he feels as calm and settled as possible. In a permanent state of worry and stress, he will naturally be a lot more reactive, just as we ourselves would be.

Daily, Darcy constantly worries and watches over his owner. Daily, he goes into a meltdown when the postman walks up the path and pushes mail through the door. He seems more indifferent to the male owner although he walks and feeds him. He seems to feel more secure with him and for some reason his fear of separation from his owner is causing acute insecurity which he doesn’t feel with the man. He will run to the man for protection when alarmed.

I don’t believe this is a matter of Darcy being ‘the lady’s dog’ as they say, or of his loving her more than the man. It’s more that the lady is ‘Darcy’s human’! He watches and worries over her constantly like she’s his responsibility.

I came to see them because he had bitten the same child in the face, twice. He had bitten adult family members a couple of times also, most likely around a sudden action and possibly involving food.

Lightening his burden

Lightening some of his burden and reducing his stress levels in every way possible should brighten Darcy up a bit. This will include installing an outside letterbox to spare him that daily panic. In a calmer and more confident state of mind he will be much less reactive.

Biting the little girl will have caused considerable fallout for Darcy as well as the child. No doubt the easily scared dog will have been scolded and banished. There will have been a general panic that will have freaked him out. This could well have resulted in his being wary of children – or little girls in particular – leading to the second bite.

It is very probable that the child had put her face in his while he was keeping his usual wary eye on the lady. Constantly fearing separation, his state of mind would make him react instinctively. If he had really wanted to damage her it would have been multiple bites.

In a more secure state of mind however, the previous instances of his snapping or biting may not have happened.

In a calmer and generally more confident state of mind he should now also be able to cope better with the very gradual, systematic and brief separations the lady will be working on. Whenever a door is shut on him, she will drop food. Fortunately he’s very food motivated – perhaps the Labrador in him!

We can’t ever ‘cure’ the biting but we can make it a lot less likely.

Protecting baby and Darcy from himself

If someone isn’t constantly watching for Darcy displaying signs of unease, young children and Darcy should be physically kept apart, either with a lead or baby gate. Just being in the same room isn’t sufficient. They have a one-year-old grandson who is now crawling. Why just supervising dogs and children doesn’t work.

Poor Darcy. The gentleman takes him for a nice walk each morning and he doesn’t want to go. Even though he must know after all these years that he will come back home to her, he doesn’t want the separation from the lady. If popped in the car and taken further afield he feels better, so that’s what will happen now for a while.

One thing they aren’t making use of is food. The gentleman frequently shares his own food but the dog never earns it. This will now change. He will have some fun hunting for and working for his food.

Food will be used to make him feel better about things when he’s worried. The man can use food on walks to motivate him. Food puts a positive association to events and makes the brain produce endorphins – happy hormones.

NB: For the sake of the story and for confidentiality also, this isn’t a complete ‘report’. If you listen to ‘other people’ or find instructions on the internet or TV that are inaccurate, outdated, aversive or not tailored to your own dog it can do more harm than good. Click here to find a force-free Pet Professional Guild trainer/behavior consultant in North America. Click here to find a force-free Pet Professional Guild trainer/behavior consultant in the British Isles and Europe.

About Theo Stewart

I work as a canine behaviour trainer - a sort of dog supernanny! I am a VSPDT (Victoria Stilwell Positively Dog Trainer) and a member of the Institute of Modern Dog Trainers amongst many other things. I was originally involved in 'old-school' dog training and am a cross-over (I'm no spring chicken sadly). The advantages of having personally experienced both force and force-free methods is that I have proved over and over how much more effective and permanent positive methods are.

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