Actionable 18 Steps to Treating Separation Anxiety
Separation anxiety is generally so debilitating a disorder that management options during the treatment process are absolutely necessary. As mentioned earlier, management strategies alone are often successful in cases that at first glance look like separation anxiety but in fact are just boredom or house-training issues. Only rarely will management alone solve a true separation anxiety case. While some owners might be tempted to employ management strategies exclusively, if you are hired to treat a dog, the options discussed below are to be used to supplement—not replace—your behavior modification efforts, and should focus on creative ways to making sure the dog is not left alone during the early portions of the treatment plan.
A little help with absences
The suspension of absences is crucial to a separation anxiety protocol. It is your job as the trainer to help owners find a way to accomplish it. I know through experience that it is possible for motivated owners to do so. Have the owners pull out their schedule, look at every day and find where they need coverage and create a master calendar. Then become their voice if need be. Ask them to pull up a list of email addresses for friends and family, and if necessary you can write an email detailing times and dates of coverage needed. Many people will come out of the woodwork to care for a friend or family member’s dog in need if the email is composed correctly. Many owners wouldn’t ask these people themselves, but if the email comes from you, that’s different.
Next, post a picture of the dog with a heartfelt note about his condition and need for care to the owners’ Facebook pages and ask for “likes” and “shares.” You just may be surprised what comes of those posts, even if it’s not from the direct friend or acquaintance. Be creative, find solutions. College campus postings, ads put up at the local church for inexpensive dog sitting help, community circulars, the list goes on.
Daycare and dog walkers
The training protocol I employ (see Chapters 10–14) requires the owners to be able to spend enough time at home that the dog can remain under threshold during brief (and then longer) absences by the owners. If the owners have to be gone for longer periods of time than the dog can handle, i.e., the dog cannot remain under threshold, then some means of ensuring that the dog is not left alone during the training phase, such as using a daycare or a dog walker, may need to be employed. Such are the demands of work and family. There’s nothing wrong with such a choice as long as the dog remains under threshold and the owners have enough time when they are home to work on the recommended training exercises. Some dog walkers are able to take dogs out for multiple walks daily to create enough coverage. If not, using daycare might be a better option. It’s important to advise the owner to research the daycare or dog walker in question and make certain her dog is a good candidate for that particular service. Many daycares are excellent, but some are not ideal for a dog with separation anxiety. If the dog can’t be crated, for example, and the daycare is crating the dogs for long periods of the day, that environment would be difficult for the dog. One note of warning here: if the dog is excessively shadowing the daycare staff or pacing he may be over threshold and daycare might not be the right environment for him—have the staff observe closely.
All-day dog walkers can be an excellent way to help support a separation anxiety protocol if the right daycare environment cannot be found.
Pet sitters and relying on friends
If the schedule of the owners means they are home most of the time, it’s possible only a few absences will have to be covered here and there during treatment. For those owners, using a pet sitter or a neighbor, or ideally a trainer, would suffice. Because you are asking owners to take on the monumental task of never leaving their dog alone during the training period, a really good support network must be put into place to cover all absences. It’s important the owners don’t feel imprisoned by their dog during the treatment process because this can (and typically does) lead to frustration, which in turn starts to erode the behavior plan. A night off from training once a week can do wonders for both dog and owners. At the very least, encourage owners to find dog-friendly dining options for a night out.
If you as the trainer have to be the voice for your owners by writing emails to their friends, family and neighbors, then do so. Help them look through community postings to find college students or the like who might be willing to cover absences for modest compensation. See if you can introduce separation anxiety clients to one another so they might exchange dog sitting times. Find solutions in as many creative ways as possible; it’s that important.
Take the dog out and about
One way to keep the dog under threshold during training is to encourage the owners to take the dog with them on outings and errands. Many separation anxiety dogs experience little or no anxiety when in the car, so as long as safety and weather permits and local laws are observed, errand running and brief trips can be accomplished while the dog rides along anxiety free. Be forewarned though, leaving the dog alone in the car for longer and longer durations can eventually poison his feeling of safety in the car, so be mindful and use your observation skills.
Leaving the dog alone on the sly
One idea espoused by some trainers is that it’s okay for owners to leave their dog for short periods of time as long as they set it up in a way so the dog doesn’t know the owner is gone. I strongly disagree with this practice. When it fails (and it most often does), it erodes trust and may make the dog even more alert to absences, triggering even higher levels of shadowing and anxiety. Perhaps a skilled trainer could sneak out on her dog (not likely), but few owners understand what masters dogs are at discerning our presence and absence and won’t cover their tracks successfully. Dogs can hear cars from blocks away even when the TV is blaring, so it’s folly to think we can tiptoe out.
In the first or second discussion I have with a client, I commonly hear this question in some form: “My dog freaks out when I leave through the front door, but when I leave through the kitchen door, he doesn’t seem to notice. Can’t I just sneak out that way?” I always tell the client the same thing: Logical as that solution may seem, it would only work for one or two absences. Eventually, inevitably, the dog would sensitize to both exits.
Never lie to your dog. It’s that simple. Relationships don’t survive lies without damage, and your relationship with your dog is no different. Trust is paramount. I’d rather my clients walk out the front door in broad daylight with their dog watching than have them sneak out and be caught, making their dog ever more hyper-vigilant and ridden with anxiety because he never knows when mom and dad are leaving.
Often owners assume their dog just needs some company and decide to get a second dog. Surprisingly, this doesn’t help in most cases. Only a small percentage of dogs are relieved of separation anxiety by the presence of another dog, so introducing a second dog into the household is rarely a solution. If you suspect the dog you work with may be helped by the presence of another dog and the owners are interested in pursuing this option, you should audition other dogs and choose these candidates carefully. You don’t want your client ending up with two anxious dogs in the home. Or two dogs, one with separation anxiety, one without. The ideal way for an owner to determine if another dog is going to be useful is to not only audition dogs for an appropriate fit but to agree to foster a dog through a local shelter. It’s worthwhile to sign up for a few weeks of foster care to learn whether the resident dog is simply performing better because of the novelty of the second dog. If the novelty of having another dog around is what is keeping the anxiety at bay, you will typically see it wear off after the first two weeks have passed.
Even dogs who play beautifully together when you are present may not do so when you are gone. Try fostering to see if another dog helps the separation anxiety before committing to getting a second dog. It is not very common that a second dog helps.