Actionable 18 Steps to Treating Separation Anxiety
Treating Separation Anxiety in Dogs—An Overview
The main ingredient for successful treatment of separation anxiety is unwavering and compassionate support from a skilled trainer. Remember, owners of a separation anxiety dog will know nothing about how to overcome the problem. They have no frame of reference, no prior experience (most likely) and no behavior modification protocols to refer to. They find it inconceivable that the one- or two-minute absences you will ask them to work on could ever translate into the dog being able to cope with four-hour absences. The gradual process of this type of protocol is difficult for most owners and, without strong guidance from a trainer, few can stay the course successfully.
The treatment protocols I recommend are time-intensive and require the owners to make the commitment of a substantial period of time, usually several weeks, during which they are asked to not leave their dogs alone. So, for separation anxiety treatment to be successful, you must be not only patient, but willing to work closely with owners without getting frustrated with them or with the training process itself. You have to cheerlead, empathize, support and encourage your clients while finding new and creative ways to explain and approach problems to break through plateaus, as well as being able to discover and point out the incremental progress made so the owner’s motivation doesn’t falter. You must be hands-on with your clients, because a program like this can’t simply be handed over to the owners without support. If you do, they won’t succeed.
I work with my owners several days a week via phone, email and live web sessions to make sure they stay on track and to keep them motivated. I suggest you maintain this level of contact as well. But be honest with yourself. Is this is a good fit for your training skills and temperament? If not, refer separation anxiety clients to another trainer. Plenty of dogs with other issues need your help.
To guide the owners and the dog through the twists and turns of the separation anxiety treatment roadmap, the training plans I recommend are divided into phases. You won’t progress to the next phase until the dog is truly successful in the previous one. This is necessitated by the sheer variety of separation anxiety displays you might come across, which means there’s no cookie-cutter solution that works with all dogs. But by using the phases, you can work with all the different types of cases and reach the important benchmarks without moving too quickly. For example, if a dog can’t successfully stay behind a baby gate for a few minutes while Mom is out of view (in Phase Three), you can’t advance to the next phase. This ensures that you won’t impede progress by moving too quickly and can keep the clients within the proper parameters.
Some key training terminology
There are a variety of terms that will be used throughout this book that many trainers will already know. However, for novice trainers or less experienced owners reading this book, I have included a few terms here that you may not be familiar with which will come up frequently during the course of the book, especially when creating a separation anxiety protocol:
Cue: A cue is a word or action that is used to communicate to a dog what you want him to do. For instance the verbal cue “Sit” informs the dog that you want him to put his bottom on the ground. The word itself has absolutely no meaning until we have trained that the cue has a behavior associated with it. Therefore you could train the cue “Banana” to mean “Stay” instead of using the word “Stay.” The same concept also applies to hand signals or an action such as rattling a set of keys to let your dog know, for example, to come and sit at the door.
Threshold: We are going to be referring to a dog’s threshold often. The term threshold is used in separation anxiety treatment to indicate when a dog is starting to display signs of anxiety and stress related to being left alone. It is our job in a separation anxiety protocol to watch the dog’s body language carefully to keep him below his anxiety threshold. If you are able to keep him relatively calm and relaxed, his condition would be labeled “sub-threshold.”
Criteria: In dog training, the term criteria means what the owner/trainer expects the dog to do when asked at a given time while training or modifying behavior. If, for example, you are just beginning to teach a recall to a dog, your initial criterion might be just a glance in your direction when you call him. Once he does that, you might boost your criteria to include the dog moving in your direction. When creating steps for a separation anxiety protocol, we will often refer to criteria setting, for example seeing if a dog can remain calm for 30 seconds when left alone, then 60 seconds. Setting criteria helps you to decide whether or not you are moving too fast and makes it more likely that the dog will make progress without going over threshold. You will also see that I refer to “splits” in criteria. This means that when the criteria you set are too difficult for the dog, you must figure out a way to split your new criteria between the level the dog could handle previously and the new level that has proven to be too hard. Dividing steps into levels of minutia is often necessary, so instead of raising your time alone criteria from 30 to 60 seconds, you might choose 45 seconds instead.
Desensitization and counter-conditioning: Much of your work with owners during the treatment phase includes desensitization and counter-conditioning. The dog needs to be desensitized to being left alone and he needs to learn that being left alone in the confinement area can actually be a pleasant experience. It is the process of desensitizing and counter-conditioning that takes such a long time in most separation anxiety cases. During desensitization the scary stimulus (being left alone in this case) is introduced at whatever level the dog can handle without producing anxiety. It is then gradually increased while keeping the dog below his anxiety threshold, always building upon success. Counter-conditioning is a process where the scary stimulus (say the confinement area) is coupled with something fabulous like stuffed food toys, thereby changing the emotional response from a bad one to a terrific one.
Variable schedule: When using a desensitization protocol for separation anxiety training it is important to vary the times in which you are gone. Rather than move in a straight line where the time gets longer and longer with each repetition, it is important to vary the duration of your absences. Some absences should be shorter, some longer and some medium in length, always with the goal in mind that you are trying to increase the duration overall. Think about keeping the durations on a constantly fluctuating schedule so that the dog not only isn’t getting anxious about the fact that the absences seem to be getting longer and longer each time, but also is not anticipating a pattern to the absences and does not know whether the next one will be long, short or medium in duration.
What is separation anxiety?
Separation anxiety in a dog is the equivalent of a full-blown panic attack in a human being due to the anxiety and fear of being left alone. The severity of the panic attack and the way each dog manifests and displays it may be different, but the physiological basics are the same. Fear and anxiety are best friends, and the hormonal and neuro-chemical processes that happen when these emotions are triggered are not under simple mind control, certainly not by dogs (and generally not by humans, either). We can’t explain to our dogs that we will be home soon so they should just “get a grip.” A house-trained dog doesn’t pee on the carpet when an owner is gone because he is angry; rather, he is so panicked that he pees himself. Urination, defecation, salivation, howling, barking, destruction and self-mutilation are just some of the outward displays of this internal anxiety and fear. The symptoms are horribly inconvenient or disturbing to the owners, and may cause expensive damage, complaints by neighbors and just plain general misery. Our job as trainers or owners is not simply to stop the outward display of symptoms, but rather to treat the underlying problem.
One problem you may encounter with a new clients is that their focus is on halting the symptoms—barking, house soiling, chewing and the like. While the owners may need the barking to stop out of fear of eviction, the focus must be on stopping the anxiety to end the dog’s daily suffering that leads to constant barking. The outward symptoms stop when the internal suffering ends, never the other way around. Separation anxiety is simply a fear (mind you, a big one) of being left alone. Separation anxiety can develop for many reasons, but regardless of the onset, treatment can be quite successful.
When it is and when it’s not
Most trainers can easily diagnose a dog with moderate-to-severe separation anxiety. In mild cases, however, you often have to use a process of exclusion. There’s a possibility the dog has been improperly house-trained, is under-stimulated and/or under-exercised or is simply too young to have unsupervised access to larger areas of the house. When something as simple as confining the dog to an area where he can’t see the street diminishes his barking dramatically when left alone, the behavior has little or nothing to do with separation anxiety.
With mild-to-moderate scenarios, it can be more difficult to tell whether separation anxiety is causing the problematic behavior(s). Dogs who haven’t been properly desensitized to a crate or are crate averse (for various reasons) may vocalize and paw in their crates when left alone, but may very quickly learn to be alone when left in a more open confinement area. Dogs who have a propensity for demand barking can also be tough to diagnose, particularly if they have been rewarded often for the behavior. A dog who barks to be let out of his confinement area and gets his way regularly can look very similar to a dog vocalizing from anxiety. Being able to tell the difference between demand barking and anxiety barking in these types of cases is key.
The cases most commonly misinterpreted by owners are those of the under-stimulated and/or under-exercised dog. The owner returns home to garbage strewn around the house, socks tossed about the living room along with other wreckage, and then understandably judges the debris as the evidence of separation anxiety. In reality, many of these dogs are just bored and need vigorous exercise and a proper “job” to do during absences
It can be hard to tell at first glance whether this is separation anxiety or boredom. This dog is suffering from separation anxiety with symptoms of destruction, vocalization and hyper-vigilant scanning for her owner to return.
In the vast majority of separation anxiety cases I have worked on, one or more of the following contributing factors was apparent:
Multiple instances of re-homing (or sometimes just one rehoming).
Illness or malnutrition (particularly severe) during puppyhood.
Singleton puppies (only one in the litter).
Never being left alone then suddenly being left alone.
Death of a family member (animal or human).
Introduction of a new family member (animal or human).
Moving to a new home/apartment.
Change in schedules or return to work after long time off.
Removal from litter too young.
Air shipping in cargo particularly during puppyhood.
A traumatic event such as a tornado or a robbery.
Noise phobia (co-morbid with separation anxiety).
Old age and/or pain-related onset.
Airline shipping in cargo during puppyhood can be a contributing factor to separation anxiety.
In the hundreds of cases I have treated, only a tiny percentage of the dogs appeared to have no contributing reason for their separation anxiety. In these rare cases there were no siblings or parents with separation anxiety or other fear disorder, they weren’t singleton puppies, they weren’t air shipped at a young age, weren’t removed from the litter at too young an age and didn’t experience any illness during early development or young puppyhood. Some dogs do appear to have a strong genetic predisposition for separation anxiety, although nobody really knows for sure. I have worked with numerous puppies who displayed separation anxiety-like traits and it’s tempting to label those genetic. But even young puppies can create profound learning experiences from perceived trauma, so in the absence of in-depth scientific studies and hard data, who can tell? I hope to do such a study someday—or that someone else does.
In addition to the factors listed above, early or improper weaning and a variety of other early puppy raising practices can contribute greatly to separation anxiety. Therefore it’s important to raise awareness of the risks involved to dog fanciers, the breeding community and among those who will be purchasing or adopting dogs. Trainers who work with puppies, for example, can do a great deal of good by helping owners prevent separation anxiety from occurring in the first place. Naturally, puppy trainers can’t change history, say if a dog has already been air shipped, but they can help tremendously by having owners set the puppy up to not be coddled for weeks on end and then suddenly be left alone.
I mention this here because the length of time a dog has been experiencing separation anxiety has a bearing on the prognosis. A dog presenting with a sudden onset of separation anxiety, say after moving to a new house, will generally respond to the treatment protocol much more quickly than a five-year-old dog who was air shipped as a seven-week-old puppy and has had separation anxiety since then.