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  • Writer's pictureGabrielle Plascak

A Trainers Guide to Your Dogs Separation Anxiety : Separation Solution

For some dog owners, having a dog with separation anxiety can lead to a very challenging and stressful life while for others, they might not even know their dog is suffering.

While technically separation anxiety is specifically referring to a dog that cannot be away from one particular person without panic inducing no matter the circumstances, this article (and all the information discussed by me and on my website or blogs) is referring to any level of distress triggered by departure, separation, or being alone! For the purpose of having an identifiable name we will encompass it all as "separation anxiety".

There are many varying degrees of signs and symptoms of separation anxiety and none of them have to be present in any specific combination for it to be considered in this blanket term. Any amount of stress is stress and is worth looking into resolving.

Reasons you might not know your dog has separation anxiety:

  1. Your dog is not destructive and you come home to your house the way you left it. Destruction is not a staple sign required to determine separation anxiety is the cause of problematic behaviors. Just because your dog is not tearing your home up doesn't mean all is okay.

  2. Your dog doesn't cry or bark when you leave All dogs operate under a threshold and might not exhibit certain stress responses until they are over that threshold. Plenty of dogs are still tolerating your absence while you walk out of the door and up until a certain point. You might not notice the vocalization because you don't hear it yourself but it doesn't mean it isn't happening. Your neighbors also might not hear it if you are in a single family home OR possibly if your dogs vocalization is whining and not in loud cries or howls. Other dogs spend the time pacing, drooling, and experiencing other types of physiological responses without vocalizing.

  3. Your dog is being crated. I see this a lot when people ask for help with crate training but the reason the crate behavior is so extreme is actually due to the panic disorder and the owner is assuming it is because of lack of crate training. When a dog is confined they are not able to do all the things they would if they were free in the home. We often crate to keep the dog and our home safe but often times it increases anxiety and makes the core issue significantly worse.

  4. You assume it's a different problem. A lot of owners just see the behavior and think it is a different problem. They have no idea why a dog would bark when they walk out the door or they believe the dog is bored and high energy when they chew up the wall after they leave but are not chewers while they are home. They think they have potty training issues when the dog has accidents when they leave, or they simply do not see the subtle and more internal signs of stress the dog may be expressing because they aren't there to see it and there is nothing to show for it when they return. I frequently hear that owners just assume their dog lack proper obedience training for all these issues that pop up when in reality it is a panic disorder that obedience training won't touch.

  5. Inconsistent symptoms Sometimes the behaviors people see are inconsistent but that doesn't mean it is not separation anxiety. If you leave and your dog is sometimes loud and panicking but sometimes you can leave and they are calm and quiet then that just means certain things about leaving are more salient than others. Sometimes more heightened stress is triggered and other times it is not. With data tracking in a desensitization plan these salient triggers will be brought to light so that they can be worked on.

  6. Your dog calms down eventually Just because your dog has the ability to eventually cope and settle in doesn't undo the initial distress and panic they were in upon departure. All the hormone and chemical change in the brain and body after a panic attack, no matter how short, being applied over and over again can eventually be rolling on the dog and always has a risk of increasing or worsening over time.

Why does this matter?

Why would it matter if your dog is stressed, upset, or panicking when your dog if it doesn't affect you, your household, or neighbors? Because having a dog in constant stress/panic is a welfare issue to the dog. If you are experiencing any other behavioral issues such as reactivity/aggression or general anxiety letting something like this go unaddressed can significantly increase overall stress and comfort in the dogs day to day and also will contribute to stress stacking in other cases like aggression or anxiety.

How do you find out?

This one is simple. Watch them! No, you don't have to invest in fancy and expensive cameras that watch them and toss treats to them. Make it simple - just start a zoom call or other video call program up and join your own meeting. Leave the camera on the spot you assume your dog will be at the most (typically the exit point or a place at the window) mute and turn off your camera on your phone and leave them watch what happens over time! If you are dealing with inconsistent results then do it multiple times over the course of a week or 2 and write down the details of your leaving (what you did before, what you wore, what you took out the door with you, what kind of day your dog had before leaving them) The more detail the better. You will eventually see the pattern and if you don't see any correlation then this is a situation where your vet and you should have a conversation of inconsistent anxiety and if there is a way to balance this out during the training process.

What do you do next?

After you determine that separation anxiety might indeed be the culprit you want to do the following things to start minimizing future damage and maximizing the chance of recovery:

  1. Start withholding absences. No, your dog will not just get used to it! It is vital to the treatment process that we do not continuously expose them to the fear and panic therefore whatever is causing the fear and panic must be temporarily eliminated from their daily life. This might sound extreme initially but there are a ton of resources such as friends, neighbors, family, daycare, sitters, Facebook neighborhood groups and such that you can start building a care team for your dog. Remember that continuous exposure to the fear in ways that create the panic will only keep the reason for panic alive despite attempts to work on it. Any warm body counts!

  2. Talk with your vet. I always recommend a conversation with your vet about any behavioral or panic disorder. They might be able to recommend something to help aid the training process and I always recommend starting sooner than later when it comes to creating a baseline in emotional security. It can help make sure the efforts put into training have max efficiency.

  3. Figure out your dogs threshold. During these trials of observing your dog while your gone I would start paying attention to the timeline of when discomfort and panic starts to set in. This means from the time you walk out of your door, how long does it take for your dog to go bananas? (or their version of max stress) This is very important information to you because the next step is to practice warming your dog up to the idea you will be leaving but it can not exceed this determined threshold. For example: if you walk out of your door and in 30 seconds your dog is sprinting from door to door howling then you will want to practice training exercises strategically far under that 30 seconds. The key is to never experience the panic while also experiencing the absence in safe ways.

  4. Change the way leaving makes your dog feel. We are changing emotions here. We are not teaching behavior and we are not training them to do anything. We simply have to help them realize that being alone will not make them feel the way it has in the past. As you can imagine this is a lengthy process especially with the length of history some of these dogs have with scary alone time. We want to practice on a regular basis so that we are efficient but also we want days off and we don't want to over expose and risk sensitizing them further. We also don't just leave over and over again. We want to warm them up to the idea that we are leaving but let them return to a base line of emotions before proceeding. This process is called desensitization and it should be designed specifically to the individual dogs behavioral tendencies and thresholds. A desensitization protocol involves various steps of exposure (grabbing the door handle, opening the door a crack, turning the door handle without opening the door) done in random order mocking leaving without ever actually leaving and when you finally leave you are ONLY leaving under that threshold.

  5. Constant check-ins. Just like we did in the beginning when we determined our initial threshold we want to do check in tests every so often so that we can follow the threshold increase as their tolerance builds. For example after a week of absence practicing we might leave for a longer time under careful supervision and we might find that they go 6 minutes without starting to worry or panic. From then on we use that time we gained and we continue on the path to increasing duration as we see its safe and comfortable for the dog.

  6. Ups and Downs. Remind yourself that no training is equivalent to climbing a ladder and we are running a marathon not a sprint race here. In other words: this behavior modification plan is a slow steady one and results don't happen overnight. Changing an emotional response is serious business and each dog is very different in how they learn and process things. Just as we do not want to make predictable increase in challenge in our training - we don't always see predictable increase in progress. It is important to understand that progress is not linear and going into it knowing this is a long but true path to recovery is important.

  7. Lasting recovery. For the most part once you gain time safely you get to use that time in day to day life. Some things might need considered like multiple absences a day or other factors that might make something easier seem harder but we usually see really solid change in emotional response once we see it consistently in our practice. If you aren't sure if what your seeing is separation anxiety, or are not able to develop the combination of proper warm ups to see recovery in your path despite self attempts at desensitizing there are professionals, such as myself, who specialize and took specific training on how to work through separation related issues. Certified Separation Anxiety Trainers are professional behavior trainers with specific and in depth training on how to individualize a program that will help your dog recover! Though the solution is not a quick fix there are ways with patience and work that your dog can fully heal from separation related struggles and you can start living your normal life!

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