Separation Anxiety is a fairly common behaviour problem that can affect any breed of dog. At its worst it is a full fledged panic disorder causing self-injury and extreme destruction of property. On the milder end, separation anxiety is distressing for the dog and can result in disruption for neighbours due to barking. It’s not uncommon to see this crop up in older puppies who never received proper “alone training” as a youngster, as well as shelter/rescue dogs who have had their lives shuffled through rehoming.
I have a foster dog at the moment, a houndX named Lucy. She’s a clever, active dog, but is not without her share of issues – one of which is separation anxiety. It took well over a month for the anxiety to rear its ugly head after she was moved from her previous home. Fortunately with training, things began to settle… until moving house meant that we were back at square -10. (does that exist? It should.)
With proper training and management, separation anxiety cases tend to have good outcomes. Training consists of structured, incremental “alone time”, often in conjunction with desensitization and classical counter conditioning of “departure cues.” Departure cues are any environmental changes that indicate to the dog that they will be left alone and therefore trigger anxiety – picking up your keys, turning on the car, taking a shower, or in more extreme cases even the alarm clock beeping in the morning.
Lucy isn’t triggered by departure cues, so the focus of her training has been exclusively on alone time. I have found the Manners Minder, a remote treat dispenser, to be indispensable for this training. It will automatically dispense the treats on a variable time interval of my choice and other than the occasional jam it has hurried along progress considerably (and, no, I haven’t yet faded its use, this is a step in itself!)
Separation anxiety training feels fairly banal and very repetitive, with best results coming from careful record keeping of time alone and dog’s reaction – also not a crowd favourite. But, all in all, it is fairly simple and easily executed. Leave the room for 10 seconds. Leave the room for 12 seconds. Leave the room for 7 seconds. Leave the room for 11 seconds. Leave the room for 15 seconds. And on and on and on.
One of the most important aspects in the success of separation anxiety training is MANAGEMENT (surprised? I hope not.) If a dog is constantly being triggered to panic because she is left alone, training will not be successful or at least not as successful as it could be. Leaving a dog to panic today essentially undoes all your hard work of yesterday. For a dog with separation anxiety, management means never being alone. Let that sink in. 24/7, this dog should not be put in a position where anxiety is triggered.
The most enjoyable way to accomplish this is for the dog to hang out with her owner all day. That of course assumes that the owner has a work schedule that accommodates, which is not often the case. Some alternatives include:
- stay with a friend or family member
- go to day care facility
- board at the vet
- go for a grooming
- go out all day with a dog walker
Due to her issues with other dogs, most of the above options were immediately struck from Lucy’s list of possibilities. Luckily for me, Lucy is comfortable hanging out in the car with a few stuffed Kongs for a couple hours at a time – it is not uncommon for a dog to be comfortable in the car but panic in the house.
This all sounds simple enough, and as trainers we sometimes suggest these strategies without taking into account what the actual cost of separation anxiety is. Let’s look at the finances that go beyond consulting with a qualified trainer:
The cost of “out-sourcing” management to pet professionals is a tremendous strain for many. Day care or all day walks can run $30/day, boarding at the vet $50/day, grooming $60/partial day. One work week of boarding could be $150-250. While this doesn’t make a dent in the income for some, for others it is absolutely cost-prohibitive. Separation anxiety doesn’t strike only the well-to-do! Few have friends or family who are available or willing to care for the dog during the long hours in a work week.
Even if not outsourced, there can still be a cost associated with management. Time taken off work and the impact of restricting an owner’s schedule can reduce income and add a huge amount of stress to a household. This has been the most trying aspect of fostering Lucy, and is compounded by other issues such as her reactivity with dogs as well as the inability to leave her in the car during the summer heat. Rescues don’t have unlimited funds available for vet boarding, either, so this was the most viable option considering my relatively flexible schedule.
A good many separation anxiety training protocols use food dispensing toys as a method of counter conditioning in the owner’s absence. A large Kong runs in the $15 range, and several will be needed. This is the cheapest route, even with a couple pricier toys. I’ve found with Lucy and other dogs that these food toys just aren’t interactive enough. The joy of the Manners Minder is that it doesn’t dispense food until after the person leaves, which means that “leaving predicts food” and not “food predicts leaving”. This is not so with Kongs placed down before departure. The food can actually turn into a departure cue and and trigger the anxiety it is intended to thwart! I’ve also found that the whirring sound and dropping of treats are far more potent than a stationary Kong. A Manners Minder runs in the $150 range, plus shipping as they don’t tend to be available in stores. It has a great many uses, but the average pet owner will likely not use it past the resolution of separation anxiety.
Another technological dohicky of great benefit to training – and indispensable for accurate assessment – is a video camera. A sample of Lucy’s separation anxiety is seen in the video above. If not for video recording, how would a person know that she was about to snap her teeth off on the bars of the crate?! In this age of techy gadgets many people do have this at the ready in some form or another. Webcams, camera phones, and video cameras are all fairly common-place, however if an owner doesn’t subscribe to this all-computers-all-the-time culture there is then an additional cost. In more urban areas libraries will sometimes have cameras available for rent, however due to time constraints this will facilitate only the assessment and not ongoing training.
Finally, medications can be a tremendously helpful addition to a behaviour modification protocol. But, you guessed it, that means another cost and requires a consult with a veterinarian or, better yet, veterinary behaviourist. A great way to reduce the cost of the drugs themselves is to ask the vet to write a prescription for a generic version of the drug to be filled at a pharmacy. If pharmaceuticals aren’t the first stop, there are a number of other options including the Thundershirt, Through a Dog’s Ear, and supplements such as melatonin, l-theanine and lactium, though the price tag remains.
At its worst, separation anxiety is not only devastating for the dog, stressful and expensive for the owner and destructive of property, but it can also destroy relationships. Dogs are routinely surrendered to shelters because the owners cannot deal with the separation anxiety even if they are otherwise terrific and loveable dogs. Our jobs as trainers is to facilitate keeping dogs in homes and out of the shelter. A part of this is recognizing the real cost of separation anxiety, both financial and emotional. An owner’s job is to see the training plan through start to finish with the support and guidance of their trainer. This means not only doing the work but also seeking additional guidance before falling off track. Together, owner and trainer must brainstorm inventive ways to mesh the required training and management with the life and finances of the owner, preventing damaged property and repairing damaged relationships.
I’m happy to say that within a couple months of this post, Lucy’s separation anxiety has been “solved”. She has her limitations, for example she can’t be left in a confined space, but she is 100% a-ok if she is left loose in her regular living area. A major factor in this success was moving to a new house where being left loose was a possibility (this is with regard to access to the other dogs in the house, the old set up required that she be confined to prevent an incident when no one was home). For Lucy and many SA dogs, being confined increases frustration and thus anxiety. She still gets Kongs and other food toys prior to leaving, but at this point it is to alleviate boredom (and force of habit), not to prevent anxiety. An 8-hour departure isn’t routine for the household schedule, but she’s done it without issue. It can be done!!
Resources on Training SA:
Managing your Dog’s Separation Anxiety by Aiden Bindoff
Skype Consults for Separation Anxiety:
Malena DiMartini: http://malenademartini.com/
Caryn Liles: https://thetcce.com/private_dog_training_toronto.php