One of the most common issues dog owners face is something known as separation anxiety. As the name so clearly suggests, it refers to your dog getting anxious when he’s left alone.
Separation anxiety can be a really serious problem, and hence something no good owner would want to ignore. Treating it can be a little complicated, but it can probably be done with a good amount of effort and a lot of patience.
So without further ado, let’s explain you the treatment process in detail.
Cases of mild separation anxiety are seemingly much easier to treat. The simple but usually fairly effective technique through which they are treated is known as counterconditioning.
Basically, it’s a process that tries to influence your dog’s thinking and makes him associate things that it perceives negatively with something positive or pleasant. In other words, it involves manipulating the way your dog responds to things, especially the ones he doesn’t like, to make them like-able for him.
So, in this case, it should turn your dog’s typical response to negative situations – from feelings such as aggression, anxiety or fear – into something pleasant or relaxed. Your task would be to surprise your dog in situations that it otherwise finds unpleasant and reacts with said negative feelings, by making him associate them to something he really loves.
Over time, this will help your dog realize that what it sees as a negative situation actually brings something good and pleasant for him, something that he really likes. Now, coming to using counterconditioning to treat mild separation anxiety, it would basically involve making your dog associate the otherwise negative feeling of being alone with something good, such as treats that it goes crazy for.
Dog puzzle toys are probably going to turn out to be a great tool here. Whenever you’re leaving your home, you can make your dog engage with a puzzle toy stuffed with a treat he loves. You would also want to make sure that it takes at least 20 to 30 minutes for your dog to solve the puzzle and retrieve the treat, or the process may not turn out to be effective enough.
The KONG puzzle toys are apparently the preferred choice for many dog owners, so maybe you would want to consider using them for this purpose. However, something to keep in mind is that these puzzle toys and the special food treats are only supposed to be with your dog when you’re away and he is on his own. If he has access to them all the time, then they will probably lose their special appeal to him, which can again make the process ineffective.
Finally, we also need to address a limitation of this method, which is the reason it’s only useful in cases of mild separation anxiety, and in nothing beyond that. This is simply because dogs that are more than just a little anxious tend to avoid food altogether in the absence of their guardians, so counterconditioning is obviously not going to work for them.
A moderate or severe case of separation anxiety calls for a much more complex version of the counterconditioning method, something that can also be termed as desensitization. The underlying idea here is to make your dog accustomed to short periods of separation that don’t get to the point where the dog starts getting anxious. You’re supposed to gradually increase the time of these separation periods, but over a long period of time, usually many weeks, in order to not let the anxiety set in.
We will now walk you through the important basics of this process. However, please note that this is going to be more of a general, brief idea of the process than an exact blueprint of what you need to do.
This is because it would probably be almost impossible to offer an “absolute” solution here that’s going to suit your needs perfectly, as it usually comes down to things that may be specific to you, and these things are obviously going to be different for every dog owner. With that said, let’s get to it now.
First things first, desensitization or advanced counterconditioning is in no way an easy process to prevent your dog from encountering separation anxiety. The feeling of fear has to be avoided completely, which requires a great deal of caution. Even a single encounter of your dog with fear may lead to the process backfiring, leading to issues worse than what you were dealing with in the first place.
Another important aspect of this process is going to be professional help. This is because the changes in your dog’s behavior are going to need a change in your strategy, and you’re certainly not trained or experienced enough to interpret those changes.
You would want an expert to help you right from the beginning, with a board-certified veterinary behaviorist (Dip ACVB) or a Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist (CAAB or ACAAB) coming up with a desensitization and counterconditioning plan for you. In case you fail to find either of these professionals, you can even consider a Certified Professional Dog Trainer (CPDT), though it will require more effort on your part, especially for ensuring that he or she is qualified enough for the job.
Step One: Dealing with Predeparture Anxiety
Some dogs start showing signs of anxiety as soon as they get a hint that their guardian is about to leave. These signs typically include pacing, panting and even whining. And the “hints” usually include you getting ready to leave for work, such as putting on makeup, or a coat or shoes. If your dog doesn’t get anxious before you leave, though, you can consider skipping to the step two instead.
However, if these things do make him anxious, you’re probably in for some serious hard work. Such a dog may get extremely anxious even when subjected to a few seconds of their guardian’s absence, which is certainly a serious issue to say the least.
To deal with it, however, you would want to make your dog confuse these things with a general activity, and no longer see them as predeparture cues. For example, you can put on your shoes or coat even when you’re not heading to work, and just sit on the dining table for a while. This may help make your dog feel less anxious when you’re leaving for work, as he won’t simply associate these things with your absence.
That being said, this is going to be no easy task, of course, given your dog might have years of experience of interpreting the predeparture cues, and may very well be knowing what they mean for him. So it’s likely going to require following the fake cues several times a day, over a considerably long period of time.
Once you reach the point where your dog no longer gets anxious when you’re leaving, you will probably be ready to get started with step two.
Step two: Introducing Graduated Departures
Once your dog can handle the predeparture cues without losing his calm, or if he never used to get bothered over them, it would probably be time to take things to the next level. This step is basically going to be about introducing shorter departures without letting your dog get to the point of anxiety.
The most crucial thing in this step is going to be keeping the departures shorter than the time your dog can stay alone without succumbing to anxiety. You can start the out-of-sight training by an inside door, such as a bathroom. You can make the dog “stay” outside by using commands such as “sit” or “down,” while you get out of his sight, to the other side of the door. You would ideally want a Certified Professional Dog Trainer to assist you with this process, though.
You can then gradually start increasing the time you stay out of your dog’s sight. If you think your dog is getting fairly comfortable with it, you can also throw in some training to take on the predeparture cues, by putting on a coat and taking your purse with you when going to the other side of the bathroom’s door.
Once things are looking well, you can shift the location to your bedroom door, and then an exit door. However, don’t go for the usual exit door first. The back door would be a better option at first if you use to the front door to leave every time. When you start doing these exercises at the exit doors your dog must have reached a point where he doesn’t get anxious when you leave through them.
And this is when the absences can come in. Although, they need to be extremely short at the beginning, ideally only one to two seconds. You can gradually take it from there and get to absences that last five to seven seconds. Once you do get there, you can let in some serious counterconditioning by simply leaving your dog with a stuffed food toy before an absence. The toy may act as kind of a buffer, helping make the dog feel that it’s a “safe” separation.
However, it’s crucial to have very long “breaks” during these sessions. When you’re doing the absence exercises, you should stay with your dog for a few minutes after an absence. If the time gaps are not enough, it’s likely to make your dog difficult to handle your next absence. This can obviously lead to making things worse rather than better for you.
Being calm and quiet is going to be important, too, in order to not make your dog look at your absences as something clearly out of the ordinary. Similarly, a common mistake to avoid is increasing the absence duration faster than you should be. Many pet owners end up doing this mistake – as they want things to progress faster – resulting in making the dog more anxious and thus worsening the problem.
Instead, you would want to keep watching out for signs of stress during these absences. They commonly include salivating, yawning, pacing, panting, trembling, exuberant greeting as well as dilated pupils. If you see any of these signs, or even any other signs of stress in your dog, you should immediately slow things down and decrease the duration of the absences. Once you’re sure your dog is feeling relaxed with your absences, you can start increasing the duration of your absences again, albeit very slowly.
Now, perhaps one of the most important things of this process that may very well make it a success or a terrible failure is your patience, or the lack thereof. This is because it may take really long to get to 40-minute absences, as a dog tends to be extremely likely to get anxious during the first 40 minutes of your absence. So you will probably just find yourself increasing the absence duration by a mere few seconds every session or two, depending on how well your dog manages to handle the absences. And this will most certainly go on for a few weeks.
However, once you get to the 40-minute breakthrough, the increments can get significantly longer, starting with 5-minute ones and then jumping to 15-minute absences. It’s believed that when you get to a point where your dog can tolerate 90 minutes of separation, he becomes capable of being alone for four to eight hours as well. But you would want to have separations lasting four hours first, before going for eight hours, just to be on the safe side.
With sufficient hard work and consistence, you may be able to successfully complete this unique training process in a few weeks. This would basically require several daily sessions on the weekends, and at least two daily sessions each on the workdays, preferably one before leaving for work and the other later in the evening.
An Integral Component of the Process
Finally, let us also tell you that you may never have success with counterconditioning or desensitization without completely preventing a full-blown version of the “cause” of your dog’s anxiety or fear. You would want him to only experience a mild or low-intensity version at the most.
This means that you won’t be able to leave the dog alone during the counterconditioning treatment, except when doing it as part of the process. Some of the alternatives you can consider include: