Separation Anxiety: The Forgotten Stepchild We Can No Longer Ignore
Each morning when I fire up my computer, the eager ding of incoming emails greets me and I know to expect at least one new inquiry — if not three or four — from potential separation anxiety clients. This particular morning is no different. As I read through the various emails, I find the dogs the writers describe to be vastly nuanced in their behavioral displays, yet a commonality runs thick through the missives: anxiety, panic, fear. Contained within each email is another common thread: a desperate plea for help from each dog’s guardian.
This morning’s first new potential client is Sedona, and I ponder what the path to success will look like as I work with her and her guardian, Barbara. Sedona is a healthy 3-year-old Rottweiler-Labrador cross who has been in her home for six months. During that time, she has destroyed several crates. After Sedona broke several teeth on the crate doors, her guardian deemed crates unsafe and left her free to roam the house. Not surprisingly, Sedona moved on to destroy door frames, carpet, window moldings, a few doorknobs and the occasional piece of expensive furniture. Neighbors report that she howls and barks almost nonstop. Barbara doesn’t think Sedona has potty accidents when left alone, but she is confused, too, because she regularly finds somewhat large, clear, odorless wet spots near the entrance when she returns after any appreciable duration. I suspect Sedona is salivating profusely (I have seen this behavior numerous times). Sedona is like so many of the client dogs whose stories come across my desk, some more severe in their behavioral display and some less so, but all rooted in the same panic disorder.
Many practitioners would read this email about Sedona and cringe, assuming hers is a case unlikely to have a good outcome. To me, Sedona’s is a typical case of anxiety and needs to be addressed with the same foundational principles and modalities with which I address all cases. I tend to not be unnerved by these cases — or at least far less than some trainers might be — because I know something very important: For the majority of dogs with separation anxiety, there really is hope.
The Good News
Separation anxiety is treatable, with great potential for successful resolution, whether you’re dealing with a severe case like Sedona’s or simply a mildly whimpering dog. After 14 years of working with separation anxiety dogs and their guardians, I have learned a lot. Some lessons I earned the hard way, through mistakes, but all were valuable. Across those years and hundreds of clients, I have learned that the basic treatment principles you need are already in your trainer’s bag of tools; you just need to dust them off and apply them in a particular manner and with particular care, patience, and tenacity.
This article is a beginning point to introduce you not to a new-fangled way of treating separation anxiety but, rather, to a systematic way of breaking down the treatment for both practitioner and client to achieve real results.
Fast-forward a bit. That email from Sedona’s mom is a real email I received several months ago. After my initial phone call with Barbara, we started on a separation anxiety protocol right away. We had our work cut out for us. The protocol began, as many do, with getting the dog to be comfortable with mere milliseconds of alone-time. Initially, Sedona was worried as Barbara approached the door and began to step out, but with enough repetition, she began to get bored with all the approaching and returning. Whereas at first Sedona would react with a look of “Uh-oh!” as Barbara approached the door to leave, now her reaction changed to ho-hum because Barbara would always return a mere
moment later. Once we achieved that level of success, we were able to build on this “absence game” in small increments. I’ll be honest: It was very slow going, and many times Barbara was exasperated. My job, however, is to keep clients motivated throughout the process, the same way a personal trainer at the gym keeps you going after your New Year’s resolution motivation has run dry. We plugged along. Eventually, seconds became minutes, minutes turned into half an hour, and Barbara’s motivation took on a life of its own as she began to realize this approach could really work. That first half hour became an hour, then ultimately turned into a normal day of leaving Sedona home alone when Barbara went to work.
Sounds too simple, doesn’t it? Indeed it does, because in some ways separation anxiety is genuinely a very simple behavior to work with; it just happens to be a particularly difficult one. The difficulty lies in reading the dog’s body language to understand where the appropriate threshold is, maintaining criteria at the pace of the dog, understanding that sometimes three steps forward and one step back is OK, and creating systematic and succinct plans that allow for success.
Advocating for Separation Anxiety
Sedona is one of hundreds of success stories. My hope — my goal — is to be a megaphone and advocate for working with this behavior disorder so others will know it can be successfully resolved with detailed and consistent work.
It is time for us as behaviorists, veterinarians, trainers, and dog fanciers to stop shying away from or wrinkling our noses at separation anxiety. This behavior should no longer be the forgotten stepchild of the dog behavior world. Let’s embrace separation anxiety, change our own perceptions about its treatment, and promote a new view of addressing this huge issue that affects the welfare of so many dogs — and people — in our families and our shelters.
Malena DeMartini is the author of Treating Separation Anxiety in Dogs (Dogwise Publishing) and the founder of the Separation Anxiety Certification Program. Her upcoming lectures and conferences can be found on her website at www.malenademartini.com