Separation anxiety training is unlike any other kind of canine behaviour and the training is unlike any other kind of dog training. It is an exercise in nuance. It is the study of one. When people are living with a dog suffering from separation anxiety they can feel desperate. They are torn between trying to do what is best for their pet and being angry and resentful at the same time. After all, this isn't what they dreamed of when they added a dog to their family. Often, when a client finally reaches out for help, they are at the end of their rope. They have followed all the advice from Dr.Google. They have listened to their family and friends. They have done things they regret and have spent a lot of time and money trying things that just haven't worked. They are tired and frustrated and starting to resent their dog.
It isn't the dog's fault. They can no more control their panic than I can speak without an Australian accent. It is who I am and your dog is who they are. By the time a client reaches out to me, they are desperate for a solution. They want their life back. They sign up for the minimum program of 4-weeks and secretly go in believing that in four weeks all will be right with their world again. And boy, do I wish that would be the case. Four weeks is the bare minimum that it will take and yes, I have had a handful of clients that are able to be left alone in four weeks, but this is the exception, not the rule. Typically if we see these results then we are not dealing with a strict interpretation of separation anxiety. In these cases, we are most likely dealing with frustration or a case of FOMO (fear of missing out).
Separation anxiety training takes a big commitment for the family. It requires a daily focus and in the beginning, you don't see very much progress. While this is the case, it is probably the most important phase as everyone is learning. Your dog is learning that with each absence he is safe. You are learning the subtle ways in which our dogs communicate with us. You are learning that this is a race of the tortoise and the hare. In this case, the tortoise is the hero and when you think you are going too slow, you probably need to go even slower.
This is a long blog!
I think separation anxiety is one of the most challenging dog behaviours to live with. Not being able to leave your home without worrying about your dog or worrying about your home is challenging. It is not uncommon for people to be stressed, and worried and angry or resentful. After all, this was not on your list of things you sought when you decided to add a dog to your family. The whys and wherefores of what separation anxiety is will be the subject of a different blog (stay tuned). This blog is about the myths and boy, are there some myths out there. Dr. Google and friends or family will have no shortage of advice for you. This often adds to your guilt and frustration. Unfortunately, while well-intentioned, at best some of the advice may not be helpful and some, well, some is just downright harmful.
As is the case with most dog training, the first answer is ‘it depends’. What I mean by this that each dog is different and some of the myths presented here may just work well for ‘your’ dog. But in my experience as someone who works with separation anxiety is that for most dogs, these approaches will not work and may just make your situation worse. While pursuing these avenues you are wasting time and money and you and your dog are continuing to suffer.
What is it with muzzles that gets people upset? If I suggest to a client that we get their dog comfortable with wearing a muzzle, it is almost always met with resistance. There is such a stigma with a dog wearing a muzzle. Immediately people think that your dog must be aggressive. To the uninformed, even a dog wearing a head harness can lead a person to think that dog must be aggressive.
As a trainer, I know that there are situations where a muzzle could be necessary. I have three dogs. These dogs range from being super comfortable with being handled to tolerating it. And that’s handling by me. If they were being handled by someone they were less comfortable with such as our vet or a groomer, could their response be different? You bet! What if they were in pain? Of course, and would you blame them. It is not like they can say ‘ouch that hurts’. So, they may snap or growl. It’s how they communicate. Now if they were injured it is not like you can just ignore that, so the vet will need to muzzle them. It is a safety issue. In the interests of treating the injury, the dog would be restrained and a muzzle would be put on them. This is not how I want my dogs to be introduced to the muzzle. This would add another stressor to an already scary and stressful situation. It certainly won’t help them with the association with the vet for future visits.
So, I muzzle train them.
Puppy mills are alive and well across North America. Would you know how to recognize if a puppy was from a puppy mill? Puppy mills are in it for the profit. They do not care about the welfare of the animals in their care and most animals live in deplorable conditions. Here are some of the red flags to be aware of:
- They are selling puppies in large numbers or always seem to have puppies available.
- A breeder refuses to divulge the name of their veterinarian. If you are given the vet information, make sure they actually exist.
- Advertisements are constantly in the newspaper classifieds or listed on the internet to buy puppies from the same person.
- The same person always has puppies available or advertises them at every occasion as gifts.
- A breeder offers multiple different breeds for sale. Responsible breeders breed one maybe two breeds of dogs.
- The seller wants to meet you in a public place to complete the sale.
There are some perfect dogs out there. You may have seen them. Walking politely on leash, checking in with their handler or stopping what they are doing and immediately coming when called. In some cases, genetics may play a role. Lucky owner if that is the case. For the most part, that perfect dog is the result of an incredible investment in time, effort and dedication in building the relationship and investing in the training to make the perfection seem effortless. Just like the smoothness of a duck gliding across the water belies the effort happening below the surface.
So many things go into the 'Perfect Dog'. There are no short cuts. Hard work, training and practice. So much practice in lots of different places. Persistence to work through those inevitable plateaus.