Dogs are sociable creatures, just like us. So it stands to reason that a dog might experience loneliness, just like we do. But what does that mean and how might it look?
Maslow’s pyramid of needs shows us that friendship, family and intimacy are right bang in the middle when it comes to a dogs needs. This means that they value safety and physiological needs above it. But, if those needs are satisfied, it is more important to them than achievement and learning.
Loneliness is not the same as being alone. You can be in a room full of people and still feel lonely. It is the emotional connection to our friends and family that relieves us of feelings of loneliness. A dog in rescue might be surrounded by people and dogs, but if they have no relationship with any of them, they may still feel lonely. We need to feel loved to feel safe.
People often feel lonely when they are living away from home. Students and immigrants will naturally gravitate towards each other and form meaningful relationships. Spending time with people that are going through a similar experience to you, or speak the same language as you, can relieve loneliness in people. I imagine the same is true for our dogs. And, spending time with their own kind, is equally as important to their mental health as it is ours.
What causes it?
There are a number of reasons dogs may have feelings of loneliness. I talk about trauma a lot as it is the catalyst for many behavioural difficulties, and loneliness is no different. A traumatic experience can seriously affect a dogs ability to relax and trust, and therefore they won’t be able to form relationships in the same way.
The absence of a care giver, a lack of meaningful socialisation, and poor care from mum can all contribute. Not knowing how to communicate effectively will prevent a dog from being able to make friendships with others too.
Even when these things aren’t factors, a dog needs a good, and trustworthy, role model in their life. A good caregiver will make them feel safe, take care of all their needs and respect their limits. Unkind training techniques are a massive contributor to the erosion of a caregiver relationship, and therefore increase feelings of loneliness and ultimately separation type distress.
Blame the parents!
Early experiences with mum can have a long lasting impact too. We know that a close and loving parental relationship can have a positive affect on a dogs (and humans) ability to bond with others, for life.
Mother milk is important too. The same molecule that releases breast milk also reduces the panic response. A similar molecule that forms part of the breast milk production, is equally effective at reducing overall separation distress. So we can see how important mothers milk can be in improving a dogs resilience to separation later on in life. Supplements like Zylkene are effective in reducing stress from separation as they use proteins found in the mother milk to boost this resilience.
It’s just one of those things
And, of course, some dogs are just more vulnerable to it! Every dog is built differently, some are more prone to anxiety and loneliness than others, and even with the best start and the best care, they still need a boost!
What does loneliness in dogs look like?
There is a spectrum of loneliness, so it’s not always very obvious. And sometimes it disguises itself as an underlying issue to other problems, especially anxiety and separation related issues. But, if he suffers with an overall lack of enthusiasm, mood swings, frustration, and reactive behaviours, he could also be lonely to some degree.
Hugs trump loneliness!
Jaak Panksepp, a neuroscientist and psychobiologist, (aka The Rat Tickler) teaches us that animals have seven main emotional systems; Seeking, Rage, Fear, Lust, Care, Panic and Play.
The panic system is the one that generates feelings of loneliness and sadness. Research shows us that we can counteract these feelings (in humans and dogs) by activating the opposite care system. This has proved really useful in the development of treatments for depression, loneliness and suicidal feelings in humans. But, it’s just as relevant to our dogs.
Meaningful contact stimulates Oxytocin – the anti-loneliness hormone! Or, put another way – Hugs prevent loneliness! And it is for this exact reason that healthy attachment can not be linked to separation anxiety. It is simply not true that we must reduce the bond we have with our dogs to fix separation anxiety, in fact, we must strengthen it!
The seeking system also counteracts the panic system which is why a lack of enthusiasm is often an indicator of loneliness. I spend a lot of time watching dogs on remote cameras as part of my work and I love to see dogs seeking out food and toys when they are recovering from separation anxiety. This is a clear sign that their enthusiasm is returning at a time they were previously stressed.
Seeking counteracts Panic!
How can we help?
Social bonding is addictive! It provides us with the security that everything is right in the world. So, do more things with your dog that connects and bonds you both. Learn and play together. Cuddle up on the sofa together. Go for coffee together, or take up a sport.
Also, be their mum or dad. Show them that you’ll always respond to their needs, and you’ll keep them safe in a world they don’t understand. Create a predictable routine so they know what to expect in life, and when.
We know that forming relationships with others is the best anti-depressant nature can offer. So don’t stop with you and your other dogs. Help them make friends with new dogs and people – and as many as possible. You can’t overdo this!
Could your dog be struggling to socialise?
Private Dog Behaviour Consultations are currently available in the Dundee area and beyond. If you are looking for help solving your dogs behaviour and training problems, then please get in touch!