Do Dogs Think We Abandoned Them?

Do Dogs Suffer When They Feel Abandoned?

The sad eyes of a dog peering out from behind the bars of an animal shelter cage or waiting by the door for an owner that will never return are heartbreaking images. Many dog owners wonder if dogs feel the same sense of abandonment and loss that humans experience when a loved one disappears from their life. Do canine companions really understand the concept of being left behind? Or do they simply miss the comfortable routine and attention they are accustomed to receiving? This article will examine the emotional capacity of dogs, signs that a dog may be distressed, and how owners can prevent triggering fears of abandonment in their loyal furry friends.

Dogs Form Strong Bonds With Humans

Research shows that dogs have evolved to form strong social bonds with humans. Through the process of domestication over thousands of years, dogs have become dependent on humans for their basic needs and social relationships (Payne, 2015). This interdependency has shaped the psychology and behavior of dogs to easily form attachments with human caregivers.

The bond between dogs and their owners can be understood through attachment theory, which explains how individuals form strong affectional ties. Studies using MRI scans have found that similar regions of the brain activate in both dogs and human infants when interacting with a caregiver figure (Karl, 2020). This helps explain why dogs display distress when separated from an attachment figure, much like human children.

Signs of Separation Anxiety

One of the most common signs of separation anxiety in dogs is destructive behavior. Dogs with separation anxiety may chew up furniture, shoes, door frames or other household objects when left alone or separated from their owners. According to the ASPCA, dogs engage in this behavior to self-soothe. The destructive behavior releases endorphins that calm the dog during bouts of anxiety from separation [1].

Excessive barking and whining are also clear indicators that a dog is suffering from separation anxiety. The barking and whining behaviors reflect the dog’s stress and anxiety from being left alone. They are persistent vocalizations aimed at either getting their owner’s attention or expressing distress at the separation [2].

Some dogs with separation anxiety lose their appetite when their owner leaves. The stress hormone cortisol released during bouts of separation anxiety can suppress a dog’s appetite. Owners dealing with this issue may notice their dog refuses to eat or eats less than usual when left alone [3].

Triggering Abandonment Fears

Some common triggers for abandonment fears in dogs include being left alone for long periods, changes in the owner’s schedule, and moving homes. Dogs are social animals that bond closely with their human families, so being suddenly left alone can cause anxiety and stress. As pack animals, dogs thrive on predictability and routine. When an owner’s schedule changes drastically, such as returning to work after maternity leave, the dog may not understand why their person has “abandoned” them.

Likewise, moving to a new home disrupts a dog’s territory and environment. According to the ASPCA, “Being abandoned, surrendered to a shelter or given to a new guardian or family can trigger the development of separation anxiety.” While dogs don’t comprehend the full complexity of a move, they do understand their familiar home and smells are gone. This disruption can cause stress that leads to signs of separation anxiety when left alone in the new home.

Owners Can Reassure Their Dogs

There are some strategies owners can try to ease their dog’s separation anxiety and feelings of abandonment. One of the most important things is to make departures and returns low key. Getting overly excited or emotional when leaving or returning can reinforce the dog’s anxieties. Owners should try to calmly exit without too much fanfare. Providing a food puzzle toy or long-lasting chew can also help occupy the dog’s mind after owners leave.

Owners can also help build their dog’s independence through gradual training. Starting with short departures and absences, owners can work up to longer periods alone. Making sure the dog is sufficiently exercised before departures helps as well. Rewarding calm behavior and not overly indulging anxious behaviors is also recommended. With time and consistency, owners can reassure dogs that their absence is only temporary. Source 1, Source 2

Seeking Professional Help

In severe cases of separation anxiety in dogs that do not improve with behavior modification techniques, medication may be recommended by a veterinarian. Medications like fluoxetine and clomipramine have been shown to help reduce anxiety in dogs when used alongside behavior modification (source). However, medication should only be used for short periods and with guidance from a vet.

It’s important to find qualified professionals to assist in treating separation anxiety. Dog owners can ask their veterinarian for a referral to a certified applied animal behaviorist or a board-certified veterinary behaviorist. These experts have advanced training in treating anxiety disorders in pets. Dog trainers or behaviorists may also have expertise in separation anxiety treatment using desensitization, counterconditioning and positive reinforcement techniques (source). With consistent training from a qualified professional, most dogs with separation distress can learn to be comfortable alone.

Preventing Separation Distress

Socialization as a puppy is key to preventing separation distress later in a dog’s life. Puppies that are regularly exposed to new people, animals, places, and experiences from a young age learn not to become overly anxious when their owner leaves for periods of time. It’s important to socialize puppies in a positive and controlled manner, associating new experiences with rewards and affection. This teaches puppies that the world is full of novel and interesting things, not fearful things, when their owner is away.

Another critical technique for preventing separation distress is to teach puppies early on to be comfortable being alone even for brief periods. Puppies should be slowly introduced to short spans of time alone in their crate or puppy-proofed area. Start with just a few minutes at a time, providing lots of praise and treats when the puppy relaxes on its own. As the puppy masters being alone for short stints, gradually increase the time up to a few hours. Implementing this method consistently from a young age acclimates puppies to occasional alone time without developing separation anxiety.

With proper socialization and short alone time training as a puppy, separation distress can often be avoided. However, some dogs may still experience anxiety when left due to their genetics and personality. In these cases, anxiety treatment methods may be required. But starting prevention early gives most puppies the skills to feel secure on their own. Close bonds with owners do not have to equate to abandonment issues if pups learn independence.

Humans Personify Dogs

It’s natural for humans to assume dogs experience emotions similarly to us. However, research shows dogs don’t think the same way people do[1]. Dogs tend to live in the moment rather than dwelling on the past or worrying about the future[2]. The notion of being abandoned requires the mental capacity to think about future events, which dogs lack.

Dogs form strong attachments and can certainly feel anxious when separated from their owners. However, assuming they feel something as complex as abandonment may be anthropomorphizing normal canine anxiety. Their distress is better understood as separation anxiety, not the cognitive idea of being abandoned.

A Complex Emotional State

While we can’t get inside a dog’s mind, research shows that dogs do experience real distress when left alone for long periods of time. Signs like destructive behavior, barking, and elimination indicate that dogs feel anxious without their human companions present (Correia-Caeiro, 2023). However, we can’t know for certain if dogs actually feel abandoned or if they have an understanding of that complex emotion. It’s possible their coping mechanisms in response to isolation are more instinctual than cognitive.

Unlike humans who can rationalize situations, call a friend, or distract themselves when alone, dogs have limited methods for managing difficult emotions. While some may learn to self-soothe by resting or playing with a toy, others struggle immensely without human interaction. So while we can’t attribute complex emotions like abandonment to our canine companions, it’s clear that separation from their human families takes a real emotional and physical toll.

Keeping Dogs’ Best Interests in Mind

When considering separation anxiety in dogs, it’s important to keep their best interests in mind. As pack animals, dogs naturally form strong bonds with their human families. Being left alone can violate their social needs. However, there are humane ways to make dogs feel more secure when alone:

First, make them feel safe in their environment. Leave them in a familiar place with their bed, toys, and other comforts. Playing soft music or keeping the TV on can help them feel less isolated.

Second, see separation from their perspective. What we consider a short errand may feel like an eternity to a dog. Keep comings and goings low-key and avoid emotional departures.

Finally, remember dogs are quick to forgive. Reunions should be calm without lavish apologies. Go for a walk, play a game, or share a favorite snack. Show them everything is normal again.

With patience and care, separation distress can be overcome. Never scold anxious behaviors. Instead, build their confidence when alone through gradual training. And above all, make sure they feel fully loved when the pack is together.

Scroll to Top