Separation Anxiety – Can Dogs Tell Time?


A separation anxiety client client recently asked how it’s possible for dogs to have such problems being alone given that they can’t tell time. Her perception was based on the idea that dogs are often overjoyed to greet family members as they come home no matter how short a time they were gone. Call to mind the single frame cartoon of a wiggling / spinning dog dancing around the feet of their best friend who explains gently, “I just went to the mailbox!”

Dog have a keen sense of time

While it can be flattering coming home to our fur-kids who are crazy-glad to see us even if we only stepped out for a moment, we miss the point concluding they have no sense of time. To the contrary, dogs have a keen sense of time, occasionally accurate to within a second or so. It’s just that – to our dogs – some spans of time are more important than others.

Many of us can witness to our dog’s ability to alert us when it’s getting close to dinner time, or when a walk or game of fetch is coming due. Plenty of dogs begin keeping vigil at the window around the time family get home from work or the school bus  rolls up the block. The over-the-moon welcome home isn’t about how long we were gone but rather how glad they are to have us back.

For dogs with separation anxiety (SA), the stakes for marking the passage of time are even higher. Much more than just looking forward to a joyous reunion; being alone – in some cases even for an instant – feels like a matter of life and death. For dogs with SA, being alone is terrifying. When you feel like your life is in danger, every second counts.

How we help

Helping dogs overcome this terror is both science and art. Through a well established training technique called systematic desensitization, we give dogs the experience of being alone – at first ever so briefly and gently – such that the scary part doesn’t happen – not ever. Little by little, a dog sees and hears the signals that alone time is about to happen (and eventually is happening), without expecting to feel terrified.

Their experience becomes ingrained – family always come back soon enough so that being alone never feels scary anymore. After training, SA dogs no longer feel the need to track time to the minute or second as if their life is at stake. They feel safe enough to relax and pass time calmly until their people come back.

Living with dogs who can’t be left alone is exceptionally difficult. Even the briefest trip out the door to take out the recycling or get the paper can be challenging. Certified Separation Anxiety Trainers (CSATs) have studied extensively learning to help dogs and their families overcome the affliction of SA. I enjoy this work immensely, and would be glad for the chance to help you and your best friend get to a better experience where alone time is no big deal, trusting that you’ll be home “soon enough” for comfort.

Bob Ryder, CSAT, PMCT-4, CPDT-KA

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