Codependency is a common human behavior whereby two or more parties assign an inappropriate amount of value to a relationship. But it can also happen between human and dog, too. Most dog owners have likely done it at least once. A form of codependent relationship occurs between dogs and their owners typically when separation anxiety causes the dog to act in a needy or clingy manner and the human worsens the problem by anthropomorphising the dog’s behavior, ascribing it human values.
Any behavior on the part of a human that is motivated by meeting the needs -- real or imagined -- of the dog but causes difficulty in his own life may be described as codependent. For example, refusal to leave the house for fear of upsetting the dog is a probable sign of codependency. As is allowing the dog to sleep in the bed at times when doing so is unsuitable. A dog who is part of a codependent relationship typically suffers from separation anxiety. Symptoms of this include restlessness, destructive behavior and distress when being left alone or anticipating impending separation, clingy or attention-seeking behavior when the human is present.
Anthropomorphism is a notable cause of codependency. When a dog owner ascribes human characteristics to the dog, he regularly reacts inappropriately to otherwise harmless scenarios and often causes further problems by confusing the dog. A codependent human may say, “Oh, he looks sad; I'll stay home today,” or “he looks guilty enough already, so there’s no need to correct his behavior,” when he really ought to be leaving the house or correcting naughty behavior. This reinforces the anxious or destructive behavior in the dog, causing a cycle whereby the owner’s efforts to reduce anxiety in the dog actually increase.
Codependency is problematic for both human and dog. A codependent human's lifestyle can end up being completely overhauled in order to pander to the needs of the dog. The codependent human may find that he neglects other relationships in order to focus on the relationship with the pet. For the dog, confusion and anxiety may arise. A dog who is anxious or clingy needs to be taught that being alone is not a bad thing and that reunion is never far away. Instead, the dog learns from the codependent owner that if he whines or acts out, he can avoid being separated.
Veterinary behavior consultant Dr, Wayne Hunthausen recommends introducing small periods of independence so both human and dog can become accustomed to life without the other. He suggests that the human takes regular breaks from the dog in order to wean them off their dependency. This enables the human to get used to being apart from the dog and also teaches the dog that being separated from the human isn’t the horrible drama he may have been anticipating. Hunthausen also recommends that a codependent human train himself to ignore his dog’s pleas for attention and to play down his return after a period of separation.
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