Separation Anxiety within Dogs
The "Linus Complex"
I asked the question "Do Dogs Suffer From Anxiety Attacks?", and received some very good answers. I was asking this on behalf of one of my dogs, Tinkerbelle, who seems to have some separation anxiety when it comes to one of her toys. Thanks for the input!
Tinkerbelle is 5 years old. She is a mixed breed Lab and Australian Shepherd, though she mostly resembles a small black lab. At a young age, she formed an attachment to a tennis ball that never went away.
It was always cute to watch her. She could never go outside to poop or pee unless she had her ball with her. As much as she loves to go outside and run in the woods, she will not leave the house until she has found her ball, and out of several that she has, it has to be the "right" ball. She will carry the ball with her while exploring, chasing rabbits or running with her siblings and will only put it down long enough to drink or eat.
She uses her ball to communicate to the other dogs. At feeding time, when I pour the food into the bowls that each one of the dogs have, she will mark which bowl she plans on eating from that day by placing the ball in it after the food is poured. If another dog has claimed the bowl she wants, that dog backs away once the ball is dropped. It is a respected form of communication among her doggie peers.
When I come home at night from work, Tinkerbelle hears my truck before I make it up the driveway. She is there at the fence, dropping her ball through the links so it rolls into my path, and I am forced to get out and take it to her so she can be acknowledged. When I am on my riding mower, she will drop her ball in my path for the same reason. She will play fetch for hours, even on the hottest day.
I have come to use the ball as a training aid for her. She has an excellent sense of smell, and her searching instincts are incredible. While covering her eyes, I will throw the ball deep into the woods or brush and tell her to find it. She has developed a "circle/zig-zag search" method of locating the scent and will always find It in just a matter of minutes, even on a rainy or snowy day. She has a 100% record.
But I noticed lately that she is becoming more obsessed with the ball. If she is in her pen or in the yard, and she lets the ball slip out of the fencing and no one is there to get it for her, she gets very anxious, and will risk injuring herself to get it back. One night recently I had fed her and the others, and her ball was outside the fence. She panicked fiercely and cried and howled because her ball was not with her as she ate her dinner and she refused to eat. The ball had to be in her bowl as she ate.
I decided to try some experiments with her. I took all of her balls away from her. At first she was upset and cried. Then she became quiet and moping around, followed by staying in her bed for long periods of time without coming out. These changes took place over a period of just 2 days. It reminded me of my childhood and the "Peanuts" cartoons. I remembered a series of cartoons where Lucy took Linus' blanket away from him in order to break him of the habit. Linus became depressed, sad, dizzy, passed out a lot and lost his appetite. As comical as that was then, it is sorrowful to see one of your pets suffer from this sort of anxiety. These tennis balls have become Tinkerbelle's "security blanket".
Tinkerbelle is very smart. Her memory is very keen and she has exhibited to me that she can make plans and carry these plans out. She has created contingencies for herself, as she has a few tennis balls hidden around the yard and she knows where each one is "for any emergency". Good for her.
But as many of you who answered my question pointed out, animals have similar tendencies to humans as far as anxiety and stress go. As pet owners, we have to be able to recognize these emotions to try to resolve the issues that our pets are experiencing. If you leave your pet at home when you leave, only to come home to destruction...then your pet has some issues. Perhaps taking your pet out more often will help, perhaps not. Too much attention can cause problems also.
I have found that it helps to relate to your pets as you were relating to another human. Talk across to them, not down. Talk in a conversational tone, not a tone of authority. Be firm, yet respectful, and always take the time your pet asks of you. Don't push them away when they want a hug. They are like children and need attention and acknowledgement. I can calmly say "everybody in the house", and they will all run for the door.
If you have the right relationship with your pet, they will be your lifelong friend. They will comfort you, play with you, make you laugh and will even protect you. You can't go wrong.