Welcome. I’m Melissa - A Certified Separation Anxiety Trainer. I began work with separation anxiety in dogs because of my own dog Rodger. He came to me at 18 weeks with a pretty serious case of it and I was lost. I could not leave his sight, being crated was not an option as his distress worsened, he would barely sleep as every movement would cause him to jump up to see if I had left the room, and if I had he was right behind me. Any early attempts to leave him were met with screaming panic, pools of drool, panting and anorexia. After 6 months of hard work, every single day, he could be alone for about 2 hours. We worked up from there….. now if you know Rodger you know he still prefers to be in my company as often as possible but he can be left home comfortably for about 6 hours with little to no stress. I became a CSAT about a year later with the goal to help as many Rodger’s and Melissa’s as possible because those were long, dark days. Hopeless days where I felt so alone. But here we are!
If you’re reading this, it may be because you have a dog who struggles to be alone. Maybe you’ve tried things the past or maybe you aren’t sure where to start. This is a great place. You are not alone. Many hundreds of thousands of dogs suffer from separation related issues every year.
Let’s talk separation anxiety basics!
“The Basics” - Separation Anxiety, also known as Isolation Distress, is a panic disorder in dogs. Have you ever had a panic attack? They are awful. Dogs who suffer from separation anxiety immediately fall into a state of panic when they are left alone, or when they realize they may be left alone. They are not in control of their actions after that moment just like someone who is afraid of heights is not in control of the terror they feel when in a tall building and need to escape or someone who is fearful of snakes who has just come across a garden snake. We may not understand it, but to that person and DOG the fear and panic is very, very real. Dogs cannot process that you are just running to the mailbox or that you come back every time you leave for work. Logic simply does not apply. Their emotional state has taken over and their system is flooded with cortisol and adrenalin and the amygdala (the emotion center of the brain) is running the show. They are over their stress threshold the moment you pick up the keys, or put on your shoes, or open the door (every case is different).
But wait, maybe you’re unsure if your dog suffers from separation anxiety. Technology is amazing these days, right? The very best way to truly find out is to observe your dog when you are away. Set up a tablet, laptop, cell phone or security camera and observe what happens when you leave. For most dogs, the panic will set in almost immediately, or within a few minutes. Here are some common signs your dog may not be feeling ok when left alone; vocalization (barking/howling), pacing, panting, drooling, scratching at doors or windows, destruction (especially near exits), refusal to eat (anorexia). If crated or confined you may see; biting at the bars, digging in the crate, clawing at the door. This may go on for the entire time you are away or on and off, but if it exceeds a few minutes and gets worse before it gets better, there is a chance your dog may be suffering from separation anxiety. Just one may do it, they don’t need to be suffering from all of the above FYI.
So, now it’s confirmed. My first recommendation, is to try to find a way to leave your dog home alone less often. This doesn’t mean just with another dog. Though some (not many) dogs will find comfort with another dog, most dogs need a human. The good news is many dogs who have separation anxiety are ok with just about any human around! So if you work full time, maybe try for a dog walker a couple of times a week. Maybe doggy day care where they are supervised by humans, a neighbor or friend that can stop by? This won’t solve the problem, but it will reduce your dogs stress levels and that is a big deal! When you are ready to start treatment, the less stress they are feeling daily about being alone, the better!
You may be asking, why did this happen? Well, we just don’t know for sure. There are some common links. There are even some genetic discoveries being made as we speak, but we do know one thing for sure. IT IS NOT YOUR FAULT. Here are some of the common links we’ve found through years of study:
Multiple rehoming/moving episodes
Air shipping (especially during puppyhood)
Illness or malnutrition during puppyhood
Death/departure of a family member
Sudden introduction of a new family member
What didn’t cause your dogs separation anxiety
Sleeping in bed with you
Too much attention/affection
Eating from the table
Being allowed on the couch
I know what your thinking, Melissa, just tell me how to fix it! Well, there’s good news, there is hope! While separation anxiety is complicated and can be time consuming to treat, it can be helped. No other behavioral issue has the impact on the household that separation anxiety does. My clients often feel trapped in their homes like prisoners, or guilty for leaving, worried about what they will return to. Dogs need to learn slowly, through gradual desensitization, that coming and going, at a rate they can handle is boring. The process is fairly straightforward, though not always easy, which is why trainers like myself and the other CSAT’s exist. We are specially educated under the amazing Malena DeMartini, who is the worlds expert in treating separation issues in dogs. It is an easily misunderstood disorder in dogs, and many (well intentioned) trainers often give advice that may delay if not hurt the process.
Join me in future Sunday posts as we discuss myths about separation anxiety, management techniques, medication and its benefits and more! If you are interested in learning more about treating your dogs separation anxiety, please reach out to me for help at www.acanineaffinity.com/separationanxiety