Actionable 18 Steps to Treating Separation Anxiety
Treatment Protocol: Phase Five
You know the dog is ready for Phase Five when the owners have built up to 30-minute out-of-house absences that include locking the front door. Based on the variables of the house, they should also have incorporated any relevant cues like garage doors, main apartment building doors, etc. and worked on any serious triggers like shoes, for those dogs who are particularly sensitive to them (see Chapter 13). The frequent use of relax/stay and go to mat should be business as usual in the household. Now you are ready to push the out-of-house absences up to four or five hours.
Goal for Phase Five:
Getting some real headway with longer absences. Work to build up out-of-house absences of four to five hours by moving forward in larger time increments.
Tasks for Phase Five:
Continuing the non-following routine.
Using technology to set criteria and monitor the dog.
Increasing absences in larger increments up to four or five hours.
Non-following and technology
I won’t bore you with yet another section on the importance of the non-following routine and of using technology. Suffice it to say that both can mean the difference between a cured dog and one who never progresses beyond the one-hour mark—or even regresses to earlier patterns of anxiety. With that said, let’s skip ahead to how—and why—to continue the program to two-hour absences and beyond.
Increasing absences in larger increments
Under your supervision, the owners have built up to 30-minute absences. Now you have a clear path to increasing the duration in larger increments. You no longer need to tell the owners to move forward by mere moments; they can advance to minutes or chunks of five minutes or more. But be sure to still use a variable schedule at this juncture. Keep some absences longer, some briefer, and always avoid a straight succession of increasing duration each time.
If the dog shows anxiety as you increase duration, back up a bit and tell the owners to stay at shorter durations for a brief while until the dog is comfortable there, then try again. And remember that hiccups are inevitable, so be prepared for them. A dog might be fine at 30 minutes, at 40 minutes, at 50 minutes, and then suddenly, at 55 minutes, things go south. Don’t panic. Just work at the 50 to 53 minute duration for a while and the dog will eventually desensitize to that amount of time and be ready to move forward. You won’t run into setbacks every time, but when you do, know that they are perfectly normal.
As you and the owners march forward with the absences in this phase and find you can make significant jumps forward, please don’t make the mistake of calling the dog cured. Yes, the literature says dogs that can get through the 30 minute mark can get through anything. And yes, reaching this landmark is a good indicator of future success, but it doesn’t mean the owners can just start leaving the dog altogether. For long-term success, you must desensitize the dog up to a two- to five-hour duration. Again, the owners don’t need to do this one minute at a time, but do tell them to schedule time to practice these absences and to stick to the criteria at hand.
When to stop
Why two to five hours? My personal view is that for separation anxiety dogs anything above five hours is gravy at best. It is certainly possible to desensitize a dog to longer absences, but these dogs fare so much better if they get some relief, for example from a dog walker, at the four- or five-hour mark. After considerable time of rehearsing four- or five-hour absences, you could potentially introduce longer absences, but most dogs could use a potty break at that point anyway. However, I know many trainers and owners strongly object to this time limitation, so I do qualify that it’s my personal opinion.
Some separation anxiety dogs respond very well to treatment and learn to handle one absence per day—but never progress to two absences. To the owners, that means leaving for lunch and a movie on Saturday afternoon is fine, as long as they don’t also make dinner plans. Sorry! Why this happens remains a mystery, but I have seen it often enough to know that it does happen.
Maintenance and owner anxiety
Once the dog can be alone for four or five hours, you need to make certain the owners are on board with the maintenance program. The good news here is that few owners have a problem with this. They have put in so much time and effort already that stuffing Kongs, filling treat balls, playing the Find it game, using the Treat & Train or leaving behind bully sticks are second nature. Interestingly, the bigger hurdle is often dealing with the owners’ version of separation anxiety.
Most owners who go through this process with you have spent so much time talking to you, emailing you, adjusting criteria, adjusting their schedule, and generally working their lives around their dog’s training program that they develop some anxiety themselves around leaving the dog alone—and leaving you. And let’s be fair, they have every reason to be anxious about breaking away from the process that has been such a big part of their lives for many weeks or months. Help them through this time until they regain confidence in being able to leave. It’s just as important for them to feel comfortable as it is for their dog. Let them know that if they stick to the maintenance protocol their dog will continue to thrive, and that absences are part of this protocol. Not to mention that it’s high time they get to enjoy what they have worked so hard for.