Dogs have a special chemistry with humans and often form an attachment relationship with their caregivers, so it's not surprising that they may feel anxious or experience stress when separated from them.
It may seem like younger dogs are more vulnerable to stress and fear, but the opposite is actually true. Older dogs can have more pronounced stress emotions than younger dogs, but seem to have learned to control them better.
The Strange Situation Test
Recently, researchers at the University of Padua conducted a study that sought to take the "Strange Situation Test" and apply it to dogs. When this test is executed on humans, it involves studying the way children attach emotionally to their caregivers. The study places the child in an unfamiliar environment and encourages a stranger to interact with the child. After a set interval, the stranger leaves the child alone and the caregiver returns. The "Strange Situation Test" found that children gain security from knowing that a caregiver is close by.
These results may not be surprising, but the study found the same thing in senior dogs. This study sought to test adult and senior dogs in distressing situations. The results showed that older dogs behaved in a more passive manner and were less interested in interacting with strangers during separation from their pet parents. Younger adult dogs, on the other hand, stood at the door their pet parent left through and tried to initiate greetings during the period of separation from them. Although the study proved that both adult and senior dogs were very emotionally attached to their human family, it also seemed to indicate that their style of attachment was vastly different.
Older Dogs and Pet Parent Attachment
Based upon the findings, researchers believe that both senior and younger adult dogs feel safer when their pet parents are nearby. The difference with older dogs, however, was discovered when the study tested the saliva of both canine groups after the test was complete. The saliva test revealed that the senior dogs had much higher cortisol (a stress hormone) levels than the younger adult dogs. This could indicate that, although their reactions to the stressful situation were subdued, they actually experienced a much greater degree of anxiety at being separated from their caregivers than younger dogs.
Conclusively, the study seemed to show that, while older dogs may be better at managing their emotions than their younger counterparts, they actually require a higher level of closeness and attachment to their pet parents than younger dogs.
That said, while both senior and younger adult dogs feel more secure in the presence of their pet people, it is clear that this is especially true for senior dogs. Due to the length of relationship most senior dogs have had with their pet parents, as well as the degree to which they find them comforting, senior dogs feel more secure when their caregiver is present. This may explain why some older dogs develop behavioral problems such as separation anxiety.
This study goes to show that while you can't teach an old dog new tricks, you can help him feel more secure by remaining a constant and reassuring presence during stressful situations.
Content reviewed by a veterinarian.