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Separation Anxiety

What is Separation Anxiety? Separation Anxiety is a panic disorder related to alone time. It has been the most commonly discussed disorder in behavioral studies in the last 40 years. (Otega 2016) Separation Anxiety is one of the most common canine behavior problems and is diagnosed in 20-40% of dogs referred to animal behavior practices in North America (Flannigan & Dodman 2001) Common behaviors present in Separation Anxiety cases are vocalization, destruction aimed at doorways or the Guardian’s personal items, and urination/ defecation when left alone. Shadowing the owner around the house is not diagnostically significant for Separation Anxiety. Numerous dogs that do not have separation anxiety also follow guardians around the house. Other behavior problems or medical conditions are often mistaken as Separation Anxiety. These include, noise sensitivities, Thunderphobia, excess energy, incomplete potty training, incomplete chew toy training, seizure disorders, confinement anxiety, and reactivity (barking out the window at passers by). The outward appearance of Separation Anxiety does not always match the inward level of panic. Some dogs might be in a terrible panic but hold still, tremble and drool. This behavior might seem less severe than the dog who barks nonstop for hours, but both dogs are in extreme distress. Labeling separation anxiety as “mild, moderate, or severe” has not proved to be useful in designing a treatment plan, nor does the perceived severity correlate to the amount of time required to fix it. There has been recent discussion about the labels: isolation distress, isolation anxiety, separation distress and separation anxiety. These labels were assigned based on perceived level of panic and whether the dog had a hyper-attachment to only one person, or could be comforted by the presence of anyone. These labels are no longer useful or necessary for designing a treatment protocol. The protocol looks the same for all dogs who suffer dung alone time. The good news is that regardless of how the anxiety presents or how severe it may seem, when diagnosed and treated properly, it is fixable!


Common Misconceptions about SA

There are a number of misconceptions about Separation Anxiety. Let’s examine a few and understand why these aren’t true.


  • The guardian caused it by pampering their dog

  • The guardian caused it by letting their dog sleep in the bed

There is no such thing as too much love. Trying to “act aloof” can damage the dog-human bond and increase the likelihood of separation issues developing.


  • If you just leave the dog, they’ll eventually realize you’re coming back

  • Puppies will just grow out of it

The thought behind these statements is that dogs will habituate to your absences. The flip side of habituation is sensitization: if a dog doesn’t get used to something, they get worse. Dogs with separation anxiety will sensitize if you continue to leave them alone, not habituate.


  • My dog is acting this way out of spite because they’re mad that I left

It is easy to feel this way when you see that your personal items have been destroyed. Spite and revenge (along with guilt) are simply not on our dog’s emotional spectrum. The panic a dog experiences when alone is an involuntary response.


  • If you work on Stay, Walk away, Return and Treat, your will learn to be ok with absences because you always come back and give a treat

  • If you walk around picking up/ putting down keys and wear your coat around the house your dog will learn these things don’t predict your departure

  • You should leave a separation anxiety dog with a food toy to distract them

These are common training exercises suggested for addressing separation anxiety. The first is an operant behavior where a dog learns to perform for a piece of food. This is going to be self-limiting. For a dog that panics about being left alone, there is no piece of food that is worth waiting 2, 3 or 4 hours for. The second strategy might perplex your dog for a bit, but what happens when you need to leave for real? You’ll pick up your keys and put on your coat and those things will again precede an absence. Your dog won’t feel any less panicked that you are leaving. A food toy can provide a temporary distraction, but once finished, the dog will experience panic or they might not eat at all. None of these strategies address the root of the problem: panic about alone time.

  • Separation Anxiety cannot be cured

Separation Anxiety can be cured, read on!


How do we fix SA?


Separation Anxiety is treated with Systematic Desensitization. Systematic desensitization to guardian absences happens well below a dog’s panic point. We will let the dog set the pace and tell us how they’re feeling. We'll know this by observing body language.


In systematic desensitization we work in small steps. If you were afraid of snakes, I wouldn't start by placing one in your lap. I might start by showing you a cartoon picture. Once you were comfortable with that we'd watch a cartoon video. Then we might look at a photo of a real snake. If I saw you gasp, that would be body language that told me you were too close to your panic point. So we'd need to watch more cartoons before looking at real photos. The person guiding the process must respect that the person (or dog) undergoing treatment sets the pace. We’d work in tiny steps until you could look at a live snake from across the room. Eventually we might be able to place one in your lap.


If at any point, I placed a real snake in your lap before you were ready, I’d push you past your panic point. You’d probably loose trust in me and the whole process. It would cause a big regression.


Leaving your dog for longer than they can handle while undergoing treatment for Separation Anxiety is like putting a snake in your lap before you’re ready. This is why the suspension of absences is a critical part of a dog’s treatment plan. The great news is that the dog’s favorite person does not have to be the one always staying with their dog. There are numerous resources for finding companionship for a separation anxiety dog. Remember, this is temporary.


Systematic Desensitization is slow. We think in terms of months, not weeks, when talking about a treatment plan. The great news is that it works! Things that used to cause panic (like keys and coat), no longer do because absences aren’t scary anymore. They get folded into the treatment plan until a person can put on their shoes, pick up the keys, walk out, lock the door, get in the car and drive away. And the dog just relaxes.


The training requires a commitment of roughly 30 minutes a day, 5 day a week from the Guardian. I send custom-written daily plans based on each dog’s individual ability on that particular day. We communicate daily about your dog’s progress and track data in a Google sheet. Each plan is unique and specific to the dog it is written for. The best part about SA training is celebrating the little milestones together. Only the guardian of a SA dog understands how exciting it is to go sit in the car for 5 minutes with the engine running!

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