Actionable 18 Steps to Treating Separation Anxiety
The Role of Body Language
One of your primary tools when working with separation anxiety is your ability to accurately read canine body language and to teach your clients to become familiar with it as well. If you aren’t fully confident of your skills in this area, I urge you to embark on a study of body cues and work toward mastery. Some good general body language resources include: Canine Body Language by Brenda Aloff; Canine Behavior—A Photo Illustrated Handbook by Barbara Handleman; On Talking Terms with Dogs by Turid Rugaas; and The Language of Dogs DVD by Sarah Kalnajs.
You need this skill to do your initial evaluation of the dog and be able to set criteria levels so you know when to move forward and when to stay at the current level—or when to back up a bit. You need to be adept at spotting early signs of anxiety. Once a dog is in full-blown panic—howling, pacing and drooling—you know you have anxiety on your hands and will need to reset your criteria. Fortunately, dogs display many signs long before this stage occurs and a careful observer of body language should be able to avoid panic attacks.
Practice. Get your hands on video of dogs with separation anxiety and watch closely. Looking at dog behavior video not related to separation anxiety can be useful, too, if that’s what you can get, as the better ones will help you identify signs of stress. Focus initially on the more common body cues that indicate anxiety. As you become more skilled, you will be able to pinpoint more subtle cues, the so-called precursor cues and stress indicators. In time you will spot cues that are unique and personal to each dog you work with. A few commonly seen body cues that can be indications of stress and anxiety:
Change in body carriage, including general stiffening or inability to be still.
Change in ear carriage, dropping to the side or back or pricked depending on ear type.
Change in tail carriage, progressively tucking or raising stiffly, even quick wagging.
Change in breathing, beginning to look like panting.
Change in breathing, including unusual sighs (sounding like precursors to whining).
Unusual and repetitive yawning and lip licking.
Displacement behaviors like suddenly scratching.
Unusual or out-of-place water consumption.
General restlessness or appearance of searching for something/someone and/or compulsively sniffing the ground.
Hyper-vigilant scanning of environment.
Here Finnegan began yawning when his owner was doing his first trial separation. When yawning happens out of context, it is a sign of stress.
Lip licking can sometimes be subtle little flicks of the tongue or full licks like you see Jared doing here. This is an indicator that the dog is experiencing some anxiety. You should consider this a precursor to anxiety and assume that you are approaching the dog’s threshold, particularly if accompanied with other stress signals.
When a dog with separation anxiety breaks into stress barking we know he is over threshold. Sometimes this is accompanied by other “confusing” body language signs like a wagging tail. Don’t be confused by that. Anxious barking indicates stress.
It’s important to know these cues as well as those unique to the individual dog you are working with so you can begin to adjust your criteria when you notice them. Let’s look at a flowchart of what you might experience (see chart on next page). You’ll read more about body language in the protocol section later in the book, but this will give you an idea about how the dog’s body language dictates your steps.
Say you are working on stepping out the front door and immediately returning. While doing this, you notice the dog is completely relaxed and lying on his bed. Fantastic. You rehearse several times to make certain this particular criterion is sticking nicely before you proceed to the next level. The next step is staying outside the door for one second. Again the dog stays calm on his bed, head down, with a soft, supple body. Based on your observation it seems logical to push it to five seconds. At about three seconds of absence, the dog lifts his head and his ears go up and to the side and he starts to scan the environment anxiously. If you are watching with your phone (see Chapter 6), it would be wise to go back in now, because you can reasonably assume the next thing the dog will do is get up and come to the door. At that point, the anxiety symptoms might start to escalate. From this example, you would likely want to set a new criterion of about two seconds, then work toward a three-second absence based on your observation of the dog lying down without concern up to that point. If you create an if-this-then-that flow chart as shown below, you would identify all of the dog’s anxiety symptoms and their precursors and have flow chart instructions based on each item. For instance, if the dog typically whines and barks, what does the dog do just before this happens? Does the dog display little changes in breathing or miniature whines that might indicate that his anxiety was starting to escalate? Then that would indicate where the threshold is. Dogs who approach the front door or come to the baby gate are another category. Do they approach and sit or lie down calmly (reason to stick with or raise your criteria) or do they get restless, whine and start pawing (reason to lower your criteria). All these subtle cues need to be taken into consideration when you make decisions about moving the criteria to the next level.
As you can see from this chart, changing your criteria based on the observed body language is important in order to keep the dog from experiencing anxiety. We will address this further in the treatment sections of this book, but make certain you pay attention to the dog’s stress signals right away so you can point them out to the owners.