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Separation Anxiety

In these COVID-19 times, I think it’s super important to address separation anxiety for a few reasons. Right now, while you’re home, is the perfect time to either solve your dogs separation anxiety or also a perfect time to create separation anxiety in your dogs. Our dogs are going to be home with us for the next few weeks (or months?!) and then suddenly, one Monday, life is going to go back to normal (maybe- get back to me on this) and we’re going to go to work. Our life is going to go back to normal, but the dog’s life is going to change dramatically and they will have no idea why. It’s a good idea to train your dog to be alone everyday, even when we are on a break.

I’ve been kind of diving head first into the world of separation anxiety for my own reasons, beyond COVID, but I figured I would put together this post so I don’t have to see as many people struggle in a few months. On a personal note, I am deep diving into separation anxiety protocols and studies because I have a dog currently in my care that suffers from it greatly and it is the real thing that is going to keep her from getting adopted. I have dealt with quite a bit of separation anxiety in the past with my fosters, but honestly, none as bad as this. Sadie will urinate almost immediately when left alone and although this was thought to be a “leaking issue” and she was prescribed proin in her previous homes, in my work with her I realized that there is no leaking issue at all, just pure panic where she urinates herself. She panics in the crate and also in a room alone, although she seems to be less panicked in a room alone (settles in about 30 minutes versus an hour- not much better!). My first step in any separation anxiety case is really to see if it’s about containment or crate phobia or if it’s more an issue of isolation distress. Confinement distress is repeatable to various confinements- so any type of a crate in any room even if the owner is home. The interesting thing about Sadie is she really shows separation anxiety from her person, she is not just satisfied with any human (isolation distress). She shows true separation anxiety in that it is from her person- even if she is home with another friend of hers, she will panic if I am the one that is gone. This makes it super tough because I can’t really use daycare or just a dog sitter as an option.

Through my research and hard earned on the ground practice from many, many dogs, I’ve found the best way to treat separation anxiety is to treat it as a real trigger. Just like we would desensitize the trigger of dogs with slow counter conditioning and differential reinforcement strategies, we do the same with separation anxiety. The dog cannot go over threshold (meaning meltdown) because that’s where learning stops and the dog is just in fear, rage, or panic- meaning that they are just using the limbic system of their brain (where unconscious reactions come from). What we want is for the dog to be able to be using the prefrontal cortex where reactions become conscious and the dog can use his brain to solve problems in constructive ways. We want small exposure to the trigger while the dog is under threshold and still able to think, just like we would with any other trigger. So small exposure to being alone while the dog can still handle it, not just flooding while the dog is in full meltdown mode, because then the learner (aka dog in this case) can’t learn. There’s a really sensitive line here between stress and distress. A little stress, just like when you’re working out, is good. The workout has to be hard, but if you’re throwing up at the end of it and can’t workout for 10 more days, it wasn’t helpful. Think of it this way to see if you’re training is too stressful: can your dog eat under these conditions? Can they take a deep breath? Can they drink? Can they respond to known cues? Can they de-escalate with out your help? If the answer is no to these questions, take it back a notch. Make it a little bit easier. Check out this below for more info Training dogs is just like training any other animal, including humans. Dogs, and people, can’t think rationally when they are in fear, rage, or panic- we use a different part of our brain for that which is where flight comes in. So in the example of separation anxiety, we are taking the trigger of being alone, and desensitizing them to it but not taking it so far that the dog goes into distress. Eventually, we want being alone to be a thing the dog almost looks forward to. That’s when they get to relax and nap on their bed! Signs of fear, anxiety, and stress include repetitive behaviors, excessive or persistent vocalizations, loss of appetite (anorexia), excessive appetite, destructive behaviors, gastrointestinal upset, and lack of response.

The big thing we have to realize is separation anxiety is totally normal in dogs. They are incredibly social creatures that derived from wolves simply because they are more social than wolves. They crave attention. They have a genetic disposition to feel comfortable in the company of others (dogs, humans they’ve imprinted on, etc) Dr. Roger Abrantes has a great CHAP (Canine Home Alone Problems) protocol for separation anxiety and so does Malena Demartini who actually has Certified Separation Anxiety Trainers (CSAT) which you can find at but I’m going to summarize what I’ve learned. Basically, separation anxiety is one of the most frustrating training protocols because you literally can’t leave the dog alone unless it’s a training exercise BUT there are so many ways to make this work! Day care is a great option and so is just putting a local ad on craigslist or next door to see if you have a neighbor in the area you can drop your dog off with for a few hours while you do errands, work, etc. It’s an intensive program, but if you stick to it- it works. The dog has to be exposed to times alone very intentionally.

The CHAP protocol really emphasizes getting a dog comfortable on their bed, so that’s the place they chose to go and nap and be happy while were gone. In his book, Home Alone, Roger Abrantes explains that CHAP can have many causes including lack of learning, unwillingness, understimulation, and fear/anxiety). -Lack of learning means that the dog simply doesn’t know how to be alone and this is where we all have to start to teach our dogs. Especially in the age of this Corona Virus, our dogs are going to be monsters when we go back to work because they will literally have forgotten how to be alone.

  • unwillingness honestly goes back to a lack of learning- the dog doesn’t know that it is the owner who makes the decisions so we have to be consistent and purposeful in our relationship with the dog. He dogs must learn that they have some independence.

  • -Under stimulation is the most common cause of destruction when left alone- too much stored up energy. Fulfill the dog before you leave. -Fear/anxiety- most difficult to treat- if your pre departure cues (picking up the keys, putting on your shoes or your coat) already create anxiety in the dog- this is true anxiety or fear and the dogs are in a constant state of anxiety when being left alone- this is when most people would recommend a board certified vet behaviorist to help out with pharmaceuticals while the protocols are being trained.

Abrantes is pretty clear here that dogs with separation anxiety should not be sleeping in our beds. Their research showed that some dogs separation anxiety was literally solved by just having the dog sleep out of the room at night. I struggle with this a bit because I love my dogs to sleep in the bed and on the couch- but with Sadie, I have her go to her bed instead so she doesn’t have to be on top of me looking for comfort. We snuggle in her bed and her life is great there, but she doesn’t need to have me there for extra comfort- she needs to learn she’s ok on her own. His research showed that dogs suffering from CHAP seek a lot of contact and they need to learn that “they will have the contact they need, but it is not free, and does not come when they desire it. From the first very day we start the treatment of CHAP, the dog must not receive any free contact at all. The dog receives contact only when performing exercises. We teach the dog to do something in order to get something- to learn to earn! The first consequence of this program is an overall activation of the dog, especially the centers in its brain concerned with communication and social behavior. Secondly, we satisfy the dogs need of contact, e.g petting and attention- it gets less, but more intense contact. Out goal is to have the dog come to a point where it would prefer not to have contact all the time” (Home Alone, 21). He uses searching (scatter feeding outside primarily- which is tiring and highly activating) and problem solving to work the dog through their separation issues so they are mentally stimulated enough to calmly be in their bed when we do small training sessions of walking into a different room, out the door, etc. The dog’s bed plays a central role in CHAP. The bed is not a punishment, it’s a place where the dog gets contact- not when it’s following us around the whole house. Abrantes also stresses the importance of pre departure cues such as touching the main door knob and picking up your keys. This blends nicely into Malena’s work which is almost entirely stacked upon desensitizing the dog to PDQ before beginning any real alone time training. PDQ’s include shoes, coat, keys, bags, the car opening, the car unlocking, the owner putting on makeup, tv being turned off or on, certain perfumes, the lights, etc. Anything that gives your dog a signal that you are leaving. Basically, you spend the first few weeks simply putting on your coat 5 to 10 times a day, wearing it for about 2 minutes, and then taking it off and not leaving within that hour. As the dog gets desensitized to the PDQs, we work on actually leaving the dog alone for whatever the dog can handle (sometimes this is 10 seconds, sometimes it’s 5 minutes- totally dependent on the dog). The goal in Malena’s protocols are to come back before the dog is moved beyond threshold. Camera’s are a game changer for this so you can really see how large or how small your dog’s threshold truly is. To bring this back to a real world example, with Sadie, I will have her go to her bed and stay there while I do something as simple as go to the bathroom and close the door. At first, she used to panic when I would even close the door, but now she can stay settled in her bed until I come back. I do the same thing when I go upstairs to do laundry. I fold a few pieces, and then come back downstairs, so she is slowly getting used to just being alone in a room. Recently, I’ve started to notice her actually choosing to go sit on her bed while I’m in another room, which makes my heart so happy!

Dogs with true separation anxiety must be seen as having a true panic disorder and that’s why a lot of vet behaviorists will get pharmaceuticals on board. Your dog will NOT grow out of this problem. Only used for genuine fear and anxiety, it’s a great option for dogs who have clinical symptoms of anxiety as the owner prepares to leave or does leave. These include following around like a shadow, strong vocalization, attempts to escape through doors, destruction around doors and windows, extreme salivation, passivitiy, urination and defecation). Theres been some great clinical research on the use of different medication (which I will not go into here as im not a vet but can recommend some great vet behaviorists!) Once you get meds on board- it should be a lot easier to help your dog learn the separation anxiety protocols- it is by no means a fix to separation anxiety! Obviously, there’s a lot that goes into separation anxiety. I would really, truly, recommend working with a certified trainer to work through this if you are truly dealing with separation anxiety.


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