The internet, well-meaning friends and family are full of advice about separation anxiety. Some advice is good. However, some advice is not only not helpful, it can be damaging. Leaving out a food toy to keep the dog busy, is not likely to be helpful. Calming sprays, thunder-shirts, music designed for dogs, again not likely to be much use. While some of these things might work for some dogs some of the time, for most dogs, most of the time, they won’t. At best, they fall into the ‘might help, can’t hurt’ category. The trouble is, quite frankly, while you are spending time and money trying all of the advice on the internet, your dog is suffering, and so are you. Separation anxiety can be resolved. CSAT’s and SAPT’s from around the world have been helping dogs with separation issues and thanks to them, there are many thousands of dogs successfully snoozing away while their wonderful pet parents are out enjoying their life again.
This is the million-dollar question. There is no way to be able to answer this question. There are so many factors that will affect how long the path to resolution is. It varies significantly from several months to a year or more for a dog with separation anxiety to learn to spend any significant time on their own. In many cases, you’ll be able to leave your dog for short periods within a few months. By the end of your initial six weeks of training, we will have a better idea of your dog’s learning curve and progress speed. Many factors affect how long it takes to resolve the behaviour, such as how long the dog has lived with the issue, their prior learning history, genetics, training commitment, exposure to over-threshold absences, whether behaviour medications are being used and management. Always bear in mind, dealing with separation-related behaviour issues is unlike any other type of dog training. We are dealing with fear, and we are trying to change the emotional response to that fear. It takes time. Historically, based on average results, many clients can achieve 2-3 hours within six months. But this is a guideline only. Some dogs take longer.
Usually, the symptoms of separation anxiety are hard to ignore. These include howling, incessant barking, noise complaints from neighbours, pacing, whining, over-zealous greetings when you return, destruction of furniture, walls and doors, elimination (peeing and pooping) in the house in an otherwise housetrained dog, injury and self-harm, escaping crates or trying to break out of the room, or the home. However, there are instances when the dog does not have home-alone issues but still shows some of these same behaviours. Lack of exercise or mental enrichment, boredom, housetraining problems, too much time alone can yield the same symptoms, but the root cause is not fear or anxiety. Your separation trainer can help you determine if you are dealing with separation anxiety or boredom, FOMO or frustration and advise the right training plan to address the problem behaviour. This is why Sharon requires an assessment first before recommending a coaching program.
Yes! We use technology to watch your dog in real-time. You don’t have to be very techie to be able to do this. With today’s technology – laptop, tablets and smartphones, Skype and Zoom – a certified separation anxiety trainer can help anyone, anywhere in the world. A word of advice – setting up cameras each time can become very irritating. In some situations, the dog begins to alert to the camera setup process as a departure cue. Not what we want to happen. Stand-alone cameras have become so affordable and reliable now. It is worth considering going this route in my experience if for no other reason than to remove one aggravating chore from your daily training exercises.
Separation anxiety training is a specialization. There are a variety of disciplines that dog trainers pursue, and working with separation-related behaviours is one of them. Separation anxiety is rooted in fear, and fear is a complicated behaviour to address. When we are working to ‘fix’ this type of behaviour, we work to change the underlying emotional response. The training is not the same as teaching a sit or any other behaviour. In applied behaviour terms, we are changing the underlying association for the dog to being left alone. We do this with desensitization – ever so slowly teaching the dog that being left alone is safe. We are constantly working with the dog just under the dog’s threshold. If the dog is relaxed, we move forward. If we note any signs of anxiety, even the most subtle signs, we stop. A trainer who chooses to specialize in this field has a finely tuned eye for canine body language. We design a training plan that slices the process into baby steps. There are currently two certifications for trainers who specialize in this field – the CSAT and Cert.SAPT. I hold both certifications. Both certifications have a rigorous acceptance process where prior experience and credentials are audited. You can be assured if a trainer holds one or both of these certifications that they have the skills to help you.
At the end of the 6-week coaching program you may be ready to continue on your own. In this situation, we will discuss how to move forward so that you can continue to build on your success. Almost everyone will have seen some improvement in the first six weeks. Hopefully, you can see the first glimmers of your dog beginning to relax…sigh! But as you know by now, separation is not resolved quickly. It takes time. I try to make sure my clients know that we are looking at months, not weeks to see significant improvement. The rule of thumb, is that it will take approximately 6-months to see 2-3 hours of consistent, reliable home alone comfort. I would be misleading you, if I didn’t point out that for every rule there are exceptions. There will always be dogs that progress faster and others that take longer. This is normal. If at the end of the 6-weeks, you are not at your goal time or not ready to continue on your own, you can choose to renew on a month-to-month basis. You can do this for as long as you need to. When you are ready to go it alone, you can always choose the Freedom Step program which is program designed to help you to transition to life after training. Whatever path you choose, you can go forward knowing that I will always be available for questions. And if you find that life changes have resulted in a lapse, as a previous client, you are always welcomed back for a refresher program.
As with all dog training, we cannot guarantee success. We wish we could, but the reality is that dogs are living, breathing, thinking creatures, and so many factors influence the success both during the training program and following its completion. Ethically, I cannot guarantee a specific result. But, I will do my best to give both you and your dog a sense of success and relief.
Separation anxiety is a slow process. We work at the dog’s pace. Often the most difficult part of the training is the speed. A typical training result looks like the chart below. There are ups and downs. We purposely build in the volatility so that the dog cannot predict the absence duration. This is intentional. This is what normal training looks like. Sometimes we hit plateaus and even regressions. This is normal volatility. Often the biggest disconnect for clients is the expectation that training will result in a straight line. While the straight line in the chart (trend line) does slope upwards, which is what we want to see, the day-to-day results do fluctuate. This is normal, planned and intentional.
In all honesty, we don’t know why separation anxiety affects some dogs and not others. Separation anxiety is an anxiety disorder that some dogs, due to temperament, are more susceptible or predisposed to than others—just as we humans have varying degrees of susceptibility to anxiety issues. Separation anxiety is not a behaviour. It is not something your dog chooses. In some cases, separation anxiety is triggered by a traumatic experience. Common triggers are losing a home, a family move, a change in the family such as a divorce or death, the loss of a doggie companion, or a frightening incident such as a home burglary. The current research is pointing to the following factors, but so much more research is needed before we can conclusively point to a specific thing: Genetics Early life experiences * Maternal stress during pregnancy Maternal behaviour Bad experiences – things that happened that made the situation worse * So before you feel guilt over something you have done to cause your dog’s anxiety, let me clarify. Of the above list, the only two items you might have any influence over are flagged with an asterisk. Home alone training for puppies is critical preventative training to ensure a puppy can relax on their own as they grow. It ranks up there with house training, in my view. Ensuring that your puppy does not have frightening experiences is always something we need to strive for, as experiencing one fearful event can imprint on the dog with lasting effects. You cannot affect your dog’s genetics, and unless you are breeding your dogs, you cannot affect how your dog’s mother’s stress levels or behaviour were, while in-utero or after birth. Allowing your dog to sleep on your bed or being kind and gentle with your dog will not result in a dog that has separation anxiety. For other common myths, please read my blog on the Top Separation Anxiety Myths.***need new link
Unfortunately, the answer to this one is no, too. There have been a handful of documented cases in which a dog suffering from separation-related behaviour concerns was comforted by the presence of a canine companion. But the vast majority of separation anxiety dogs, even those who actively enjoy the company of other dogs, are only soothed by human companionship. By all means, get a second dog if: You used to have a second dog, but the remaining dog started to show separation anxiety when they died. You have been thinking about getting a second dog for a while and are ready for the additional financial commitment, time and training required. That you are okay if the new dog doesn’t get along with the current dog. That you are okay if the new dog does not help with your current dog’s separation anxiety. My advice is don’t get another dog to fix your current dog. There is a high probability that the new addition will not improve your current dog’s separation anxiety. If you want to test this out, consider fostering a dog or dog sitting a friend or family member’s dog etc., to see if you notice your current dog responding. And remember, give it time. A few days will not give you an accurate reading. You need to see how your dog’s behaviour responds over a more extended period of time, so plan for a minimum of a few weeks.
Unfortunately, no. It is prevalent for dogs that suffer from this condition to be anxious when confined. There is also a high correlation for dogs that have separation anxiety to have noise phobias as well. A panicked dog will go to incredible lengths to break free of a crate, often breaking teeth and injuring itself in the process. But don’t worry! The only time your dog will be alone will be when we are practicing an exercise, and we will have ‘eyes on them at all times. Whew!
While this might seem like a win-win situation for both of you, and you might find for a time that you can get away with, it comes with considerable risk. Even if you have done this successfully and gotten away with it, if there comes a time when your dog wakes while you are out and becomes distressed, you may well find that your dog’s anxiety becomes worse. Now your dog has learned that they cannot trust you and that they had better keep a much closer eye on you. Honestly, it is just not worth it. And I am not recommending this to be clear; I would sooner you walk out the door in full view of your dog than teach him that they can’t trust you.
Does this program require that I never leave my dog alone? If I can do that, then why do I need you?
So yes, this program requires that your dog is not left alone EXCEPT while practicing an absence exercise for the duration of the program. This program teaches your dog to relax so that you have the freedom to go out without guilt. Living with a separation anxiety dog is challenging and can be very isolating for people. Wouldn’t you like to be able to run out for groceries, go for a hair appointment, maybe catch a movie without worrying? I am sure the answer to that question is ‘Yes. So yes, in the beginning, we ask you to commit to not leaving your dog alone. While this seems daunting, it is possible. Most clients found a way to suspend absences even when they initially thought it was not possible. Asking friends and family to help out, using pet sitters and doggie daycares make this very doable. It is not always easy, but it is possible.
I am a dog trainer, not a veterinarian. I can’t and won’t diagnose, prescribe or recommend medications. What I will do is strongly suggest that you speak with your Veterinarian about the concerns you have. In some cases, you may need to speak with a Veterinarian Behaviourist or Veterinarian specializing in behaviour. And yes, your Veterinarian may prescribe medication in some situations. I work collaboratively with a client’s Veterinarian throughout the process to have the best combination of medical and behavioural support possible.
Separation anxiety is a panic disorder. They can no longer control their fear of being left alone then I can control my fear of heights. They are not angry at you leaving, and they won’t just get over it.
Without training, the answer is, unfortunately, no. Dogs suffering from separation anxiety experience such deep panic that the learning part of the brain shuts down—the same way our own thinking processes do when we’re frightened. Separation anxiety training is all about teaching your dog—slowly and systematically without ever triggering her panic response—that you do indeed always come back.