Actionable 18 Steps to Treating Separation Anxiety
As noted in the Introduction, the treatment of separation anxiety generally takes a long time, and the cooperation of the owners is needed to comply with whatever treatment plan you recommend. Since my protocol relies upon not leaving the dog alone (suspending absences) until he shows he can tolerate it, owners are likely going to have to make changes in their lives for at least a few weeks. So before you actually begin treating the dog, you must secure the buy-in of the owners.
A contract with the dog
There are many opinions about the treatment of separation anxiety and you can find numerous suggestions on approaches that even include leaving the untreated dog alone on a regular basis when necessary. Many trainers are really shocked when I discuss the fact that, in order to treat separation anxiety successfully, the dog must not be left alone during the treatment until such time as he is ready. Now wait, don’t stop here and toss the book out just yet. Hear me out. This is really doable. I do it with my clients every day, all the time, and I will show you how to find solutions later in the book. What I am talking about here is essentially creating a contract between you, the owners and the dog. “Max, I will not leave you for longer than you can handle without getting anxious.” That may be just one second on day one, but with training that one second of today will be 30 seconds by the end of the week and then a few minutes several days later and, before you know it, it is 26 minutes, then 42, then 97 and then four hours. It will be your job as the skilled professional to explain to the owner why this is so important. If you leave the dog alone to experience regular absences filled with panic, he will not be able to learn that absences are safe. In Chapter 5 you will see all of the different management tools available to help suspend absences.
Working with owners (no sugar-coating!)
Another important reason separation anxiety treatment often is ineffective is that follow-through by the owners is so poor. Often owners set out treating the disorder with great enthusiasm and work on exercises diligently for a few weeks, only to give up within the first month because they don’t see the results they expect (I call this the Week 3 Blues). We trainers must accept our fair share of responsibility for this. Clearly, we need to manage our clients’ expectations better. No, they won’t be putting on their dancing shoes by next weekend—or in three weeks—unless they have a dog sitter.
Even a mild separation anxiety case is difficult to address if the owners have no time, patience or financial resources. The treatment program can be frustrating, particularly for those owners with little or no knowledge of training or behavior. In such cases, you can’t expect them to understand the level of involvement that will be required of them. Through gentle guidance and discussion about the process, you need to assess whether they are willing and able to maintain a treatment program. While empathy and diplomacy are keys to successful consultations with distressed owners, sugar-coating the problem or the process involved is a bad idea. The treatment might take several weeks, a few months or even longer, and much will depend on both the dog’s rate of learning and the owners’ rate of learning and commitment level. This means you can’t put a definitive time line on the resolution of the problem. But owners naturally want an answer, right now, to the question of how long it’s going to take. As greatly as you may empathize with your clients—I know I do—don’t fall for the temptation to guess. Too many variables are at play to do so.
Let me lay it on the line for you. Mild cases take on average six to twelve weeks to resolve and moderate-to-severe cases can take four to six months or more. I don’t quote these numbers so you will spout them off to your clients—and they may not be accurate for the particular case you are working on—but so you know what kind of time commitment these cases usually demand.
An owner has to want to pursue treatment because she wants her dog to get better so both she and the dog can live happier, more peaceful lives. Wanting your dog to stop barking or destroying the furniture is legitimate, sure, but a client with a hard and fast deadline in mind is a recipe for disaster.
Time and finances are factors in another way, too. I wish this wasn’t the case, but for a lot of people, it is. If an owner works 40+ hours a week and has a newborn baby, there may not be enough time to practice exercises. If an owner doesn’t have the funds to use a daycare or dog walker or sitter when necessary, the dog will likely face stretches of alone time that are unacceptable for treatment. In either case, the prognosis is bleak. At the beginning of a treatment plan, one or two 30-minute sessions per day can be enough, but as the program moves forward, it’s necessary to train owner absences of longer duration. To make this happen, an owner needs to have the time to train or the financial resources to pay for day training.
Obviously, your assessment of the owner’s ability to work a treatment program is important. So is the need for you to explain how it can be done, to encourage the owners through the confusion of information and to support them through the emotional rollercoaster a separation anxiety treatment program can be.
And you thought you were training dogs!
How long will it take?
Of 100 owners whose dogs suffer from separation anxiety, 99 will ask the same question: How long will it take before my dog is better? An entirely reasonable question. More and more, we expect immediate results in all areas of our lives. We used to call ours a microwave society, but even that sounds archaic now with cell phones, texting, wireless Internet access and instant messaging. But our dogs run on analog as we race forward on digital. Separation anxiety training doesn’t fit neatly into the fast-paced lives we have become comfortable with, it forces us to slow down and work at a pace that may seem excruciating.
Try to get your clients to embrace the process without focusing too much on the initial results. However much you might wish to, you can’t predict how fast progress will happen. The only thing you can say is that getting to a better place won’t happen unless the work is undertaken.
Five key treatment components
There are five key components of separation anxiety treatment, all of which will be reviewed in more detail later in this book. They are:
For some separation anxiety dogs, you will need just one or a couple of the five components; for most, however, you’ll need every single one.
Medication/Supplements: Pharmacological help can be incredibly useful with separation anxiety dogs. In some cases, dogs suffer from anxiety not just when left alone but constantly, and these dogs need help to lower their anxiety levels before they can respond to the training. We trainers, of course, neither can nor should prescribe medications, nor should we be advising clients on the topic—rather, we should be referring them to a qualified veterinarian. The section I’m including later in this book about the medications and supplements available for separation anxiety dogs is meant only as education.
Management: This is another foundational component of separation anxiety training, one that no treatment plan for separation anxiety can do without. By “management,” I mean setting things up to avoid premature absences during the treatment process. In other words, if you have reached the point where you can leave the dog alone for 30 minutes, you must have someone look after the dog if you are going to need to leave for a longer period of time. Planning an absence longer than 30 minutes in this case would be premature. A dog experiencing premature absences on a regular basis won’t learn to relax and will fear being alone during absences of any length. Such absences are called “super-threshold” absences because the dog is beyond his anxiety threshold. This must be avoided at all costs. Management options may include a crate or a baby gate in the house used during training sessions, the use of daycare or an all-day dog sitter/walker, friends or neighbors to watch over the dog and other types of coverage for absences. Whatever options you and your client end up choosing, managing a dog’s anxiety level is crucial to treatment success.
Technology: It’s a brave new high-tech world, and technological advancements have made treatment of separation anxiety easier and more accurate than just a decade ago. When I first started treating separation anxiety, I would lug my video camera to every client appointment and then go back to pick up the tapes at the end of the week for review so I could see how the dog was doing and set my criteria accordingly. Sometimes I would find we were accidentally pushing the dog too quickly, and other times I realized we could have pushed the dog further and had missed an opportunity to progress. Now we have webcams and smartphones and can watch the dog in real time and adjust our criteria then and there. This has dramatically expedited the treatment process. While technology use is not a must, most separation anxiety cases benefit from it. In addition, the use of webcams allows for the trainer to set up sessions with the client in order to check in frequently without having to do in-person consults. The majority of my client sessions are done online; I rarely have to meet with clients frequently in person anymore.
Toys/Games/Equipment: A whole section about toys? Definitely. Toys and games can be surprisingly effective at helping dogs with separation anxiety create positive associations with being left alone. Many clients ask about this. Given that separation anxiety dogs often won’t eat or play when left alone, why use toys or food at all? Toys, games and food are most effective in the early stages when the dog is getting used to the confinement area behind a baby gate while the owner is home. An early goal is to get the dog to love the heck out of that confinement area and to build a pleasurable association between the owner hanging out with the dog in the vicinity while he enjoys his toys, games and food.
Training and Behavior Modification: Almost all separation anxiety dogs need a behavior modification plan to get better. Training will include gradual desensitization to absences and often takes considerable time and patience to implement. Absence desensitization is the foundation piece of any separation anxiety dog’s improvement even though using the other four components is important as well. With some lucky dogs, you can get resolution through modest amounts of training combined with management and toys. But most need the whole enchilada.