Separation Anxiety (SA) is so many things to so many people. Anxiety is observed in dogs through a wide variety of behaviours. Some dogs will pant, some whine, some pace, drool, destroy furniture, chew their tails, etc. The extensive list of behaviours’ variety is matched only by the many degrees of separation anxiety that exist.
Think of separation anxiety as actual anxiety. Some people are a little nervous about creepy crawly things, preferring to skirt the edge of the room when they see a spider on the wall, and others will scream and run out of the building. It’s the same for dogs. In some cases, separation anxiety is like a panic attack.
Don’t punish them.
Punishing them when you come home to find the drywall eaten while you were away has no direct affect except to show your dog that sometimes when you come home, you’re terrifying. Consequences need to immediately follow behaviour to effect the behaviour in the future, not after the fact. Punishing a dog, or yelling at them for having separation anxiety would be like yelling at your friend as they’re having a panic attack. It would make the situation scarier and isn’t very helpful. Behaviour and emotion are two separate things, and you can’t punish/reward an emotion.
So what can you do? How can you change an anxiety attack?
First know that SA is not all your fault. In fact, SA is natural - it allows a puppy to survive by not straying too far away from mom. It’s being studied at a genetic level, and have hope because today’s technology makes treating SA more effective than ever before.
The level of separation anxiety your dog experiences will probably define how much attention and work your family chooses to dedicate to it. If it is extreme - self harm, destruction, you no longer leave the house for fear of your dog’s safety and welfare, seek professional help. Vets can prescribe medication, alongside a carefully crafted and monitored behaviour modification plan has seen success. (I recommend anyone with a CSAT - Certified Separation Anxiety Trainer - see resources below.)
SA is treated individually and by taking teeny tiny steps. There is no quick fix. For a dog that gets a little bored and then settles, a stuffed kong or puzzle toy when you leave the house could suffice. But more extreme separation anxiety is handled very carefully, slowly and gradually, with lots of easy wins for your dog.
Think about what signals your leaving.
Remember that ‘leaving the house’ isn’t just you walking out the door. Dogs are excellent at pattern recognition. Putting things away, putting on socks, grabbing a coat, keys, purse, placing your phone in your pocket, can all be signals to your dog that you’re about to leave. Even putting on that pair of pants (*cough* anything that’s not PJ pants), can be a signal to them that you’re leaving home. Just as you might start to feel your heart race as you look at the basement door in anticipation of spiders, consider the possible signals that your dog perceives as meaning ‘you’re leaving’.
Body language is important!
When working on separation anxiety, it’s important to read your dogs body language. They can’t tell us when they’re feeling uncomfortable, so we have to recognize that when our dog pants or starts to drool and that those are signs that they’re stressed. The advantage we have right now is technology! Setting up a camera to watch what your dog does when you leave the house has never been easier than video calling a household member, plopping your phone in an empty cup and driving down the block to watch what actually happens.
When you work on SA, the goal is to keep your dog from getting too stressed out. So you practice teeny tiny steps at the easiest levels where your dog remains comfortable and slowly (snail like) work up from there. We’re talking seconds.
For example. You might just walk to the door and touch the door knob ten times. By the tenth time, your dog probably isn’t as interested in your actions as the first time.
What if you go to the door and unlock and lock your door?
It’s important to note that desensitization (grabbing your keys at random so that you’re not leaving EVERY time you grab your keys) isn’t the real goal here.
The real goal, according to the newest research, is that it’s about slowly practicing the ritual of going out with such small steps that your dog gets to practice remaining calm.
What does SA practice look like?
First, determine your dog’s stress threshold (this is when a pro would come in handy). For this example, let’s say your dog is laying on the couch. With the magic of a video call, you see that when you leave, your dog perks up and watches you. They then go to the window and watch the window for a minute. Then they start to pant for three minutes. Then they start to whine between pants for 2 minutes. Then they start to eat your baseboard.
So, we’ll say that we don’t want to get to the panting stage. We are going to set this up so it’s easy for your dog. Because we want them to succeed. Set backs can be especially detrimental when working on SA.
How you might practice:
Dog is laying down on the couch.
You go to the door and touch the doorknob. Dog perks up and lifts its head to see what’s going on.
So you go and touch the doorknob and come back and sit down on the couch. You wait until your dog has settled back down and then get up again and go touch the doorknob. If your dog takes more than 30 minutes to settle down, it’s time to make it easier. Get up and go to the door area and come back and sit down on the couch.
The next day, you might get to unlock and lock the deadbolt.
If the following day, you wanted to grab your keys to add to your ritual, you might go back to just touching the doorknob.
The key here is that your dog will tell you what they’re comfortable with, and each session is new and different. One day, you may progress to being able to step outside, and the next day, your dog may be completely uncomfortable with you even approaching the door. Maybe the squirrel in the backyard was scurrying all over the base of the tree and your dog spent extra time outside sniffing and is more tired than usual.
You have to approach this with care and let your dog tell you what they’re comfortable with. A win, no matter how small, is a win.
What if my dog doesn’t currently have SA, what can we do to prevent it?
As I mentioned before, SA can be genetic, but for our friends who got a puppy during this crazy time when we’re spending so much time at home, what can you do?
Practice leaving your puppy alone for a minute, then five, then maybe an easy win and do three minutes. Work your way up to an hour and eventually, gradually, work your way to four/five hours. Keep an eye on them with a webcam or fancy treat dispensing camera. Practice carefully now so when you do go back to work for the day, it’s not a complete shock to your pups.
If you want more information, I HIGHLY recommend reading Separation Anxiety in Dogs by Malena DeMartini-Price. She also has a great website with resources, an online course and a way to access a CSAT.
Camilla holds an internationally recognized certification in animal training and is an animal behaviour nerd. She specializes in positive reinforcement and loves working with families to help them mold the perfect dog for them. You can find her at behavioursintraining.com and on Instagram @camilla_in_training