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The Top 7 Things that Could Be Making Your Dog’s Separation Anxiety Worse

This blog will focus on the seven things you may be doing that could make your dog’s separation anxiety worse.

I wrote about what you are told is causing your dog’s separation anxiety in a previous post. You can read the blog ‘How to fix your dog’s separation anxiety‘ here.

The top 7 things are:

  1. Not suspending absences
  2. Following outdated or wrong advice
  3. Trying everything else before considering behaviour medication
  4. Consistent training
  5. Going at your dog’s pace
  6. Not watching your dog on camera
  7. Using punishment

1) Not suspending absences
Suspending absences means that your dog is not left alone except when training. Sometimes I will hear a comment that if I could stop absences, why do I need training. Fair point! Here’s the thing, suspending absences is only intended to be short-term. The goal of training is so that you can eventually leave your dog when you go out. So while suspending absences can be inconvenient and expensive if you need to pay for pet sitters or daycare, it is only required while we train your dog to be completely comfortable on their own.

So why is suspending absences so critical to a successful outcome for separation anxiety training? Every time your dog is left alone and experiences fear and anxiety, it sets back their ability to be left in the future. They begin to associate and predict that they will have a scary experience every time you leave. They may see other things in your leaving routine as a predictor that you are about to go. You might notice your dog becoming aware that you are about to leave by becoming hyper-vigilant, clingy and stressed, such as panting and pacing even before you move towards the door. This anticipation means the stress begins building earlier and earlier.

Suspending absences is one of the most significant things you can do to help prevent your dog’s anxiety from getting worse. Management solutions won’t fix a dog’s behaviour, but they are essential in preventing the behaviour from worsening. Management for separation anxiety training means preventing your dog from experiencing an over threshold experience by suspending absences.

This doesn’t mean that you can’t leave your dog ever. It means that your dog can’t be left alone while we are doing training. If your dog is okay with other dogs, daycare and pet sitters are options. If your dog can stay with friends or families without experiencing distress, this is an option. It is not always easy. It requires organization, and doing things on short notice can be difficult, but it is possible.

2) Following outdated advice
Doing a google search on separation anxiety will land you with hundreds of links on what causes separation anxiety and how to fix it. Some of it is reliable and of good quality, but so much is outdated, wrong and harmful. At best, it will slow down your progress, but it will be detrimental at its worst. Three of the most common pieces of outdated advice include:

  1. Using food in training
  2. Let them cry it out
  3. Crate training

i) Using food in training: Advice such as using food in training may seem innocuous, but it rarely helps an anxious dog overcome separation anxiety. If a dog is worried, food will not help. You may find you give your dog a food toy they would generally devour, but when left alone, it is left untouched. Even if the dog does engage with the food toy, it is often just a distraction. Once the dog has realized you have left, they ignore the food. Either way, the food hasn’t helped fix separation anxiety. It is, at best, a distraction. Unfortunately, in some cases, the giving of the food toy becomes a predictor that you are leaving. It becomes a pre-departure cue (PDQ). Suppose your dog only ever receives a delicious peanut butter kong when you are about to leave. It doesn’t take long before the dog connects the dots that the presentation of their favourite food toy means you are about to head out the door.

Using food in separation anxiety training is not the end of the world. It is important to know that it is unlikely to be a long-term solution.

ii) Let them cry it out: This is common advice. It is bundled in with ‘they will learn that I always return’. Here’s the thing, when your dog is so anxious that they bark, whine or howl, pace, pant or damage your home, they are not in a ‘thinking state of mind’. They are panicked. The ability to rationalize your departure is not possible. One of the most significant factors in success is to prevent over threshold experiences. As in #1, preventing over threshold experiences, whether it is preventing the dog from crying it out or suspending absences, is key to resolving separation anxiety.

iii) Crate training: Ensuring your dog is crate trained is standard advice to fix separation anxiety. However, it is pretty common for the dog that suffers from separation anxiety to be anxious when confined. A dog confined in a crate can suffer more. This can seem confusing because the dog can often be quite happy sleeping in their crate or resting there when you are at home. So why do they struggle when crated if left alone? Our best guess is that the crate somehow exasperates the fact that the dog can’t reach you. It seems counterintuitive, but time and time again, I will see a dog showing less stress when left free in the home. I am sure you are concerned that leaving your dog free in the house will mean that you will see more damage in your home. Since we don’t push your dog beyond what they can handle, they will not get stressed. We can ensure that your home is safe because we will be watching on camera live.

3) Waiting to explore all other options before trying behaviour medications.
Medications are often regarded as a last resort. Instead, they should be the one thing considered early in the training process. People often have big feelings about the use of behaviour medications. I don’t want my dog to be sedated all the time or to be a zombie. I am going to try everything else first. I will not go into all the ins and outs of behaviour medications here. (There will be a future blog on the topic, so stay tuned). In a nutshell, behaviour medications can make the difference between success and the speed it happens and grinding away slowly. For some dogs, behaviour medications are essential. The longer the introduction of medications is delayed, the longer you both live with the anxiety that harms the quality of your lives. I will not downplay the importance of doing your due diligence in introducing behaviour medications. I have done it myself, taking way longer than what was appropriate to introduce my dog to behaviour medication. Why? Well, I thought that in time I could train her through it. I thought maybe she would be able to adjust to her triggers. But here’s the thing, all I did was delay getting her the help she needed. I empathize with my clients facing the same decision, but my biggest regret is that I didn’t get her the help she needed sooner. The calm, relaxed dog I live with now is my dog’s true personality without the anxiety clouding her day.

4) Consistent training
Any change requires consistent practice. Whether you are trying to learn a new language or instrument or picking up a new sport, the only way you will move from the current state to any degree of proficiency requires practice. The same applies to separation anxiety training. Regular practice is essential since we work at your dog’s pace (see #5). The behaviour modification required is working with your dog under their threshold; as the dog can settle longer, their threshold increases. We work in small increments of time, think seconds or minutes, not hours. So to make progress, short sessions more frequently will place you in the best position to make progress. Separation anxiety training provides you with the ultimate flexibility. In the beginning, training sessions are usually less than 30-minutes long. You train 5-days per week, but you can choose the day and the time of day that works for you. I know that those who can commit to regular training see the best results.

5) Going at your dog’s pace
This is a tough one for the human end of the leash. The dog sets the pace. We are in the passenger seat. We work out what your dog can handle right now during the initial assessment. This is your baseline, and that is where we start. We gradually increase the time based on this time and how your dog does. I know most clients are focused on time. The trainer through is focused on how relaxed your dog is. The time you are outside the door is secondary. I love it when clients tell me they were so comfortable they could have gone longer. This is music to my ears. Why is it so important to go at my dog’s pace? The process we use in separation anxiety training is desensitization. In simple terms, we are getting your dog used to you leaving by slowly exposing them to the thing that they fear most, being left alone. Progressing only at the speed that your dog is comfortable with means we can gradually increase the time you can go while your dog stays relaxed.

Now it is a little more complex than this, but that is the gist. If we push the dog too quickly, your dog may be white-knuckling it through the exercise. While the dog didn’t bark or scratch at the door, they were not relaxed. When you leave next time, the dog’s anxiety may return. This response happens because the dog is ‘sensitizing’ to you leaving. This is the opposite of what we are trying to achieve through the desensitization training plan. So while you may think staying out longer because your dog is doing so well is so tempting, this is where the trainer in me asks you to trust the plan, trust the process and trust me. As tempting as it is to stay out longer, you will get to your goal way faster if you slow down to your dog’s speed. Separation anxiety training truly reflects the children’s story, The Tortoise and the Hare.

6) Not watching your dog on camera
In #5, we talked about working at your dog’s pace and its importance. But how do you know how comfortable your dog is. Standing outside the door waiting to hear if your dog begins to bark won’t cut it. Dogs communicate through their body language, so by the time you hear your dog barking, they have likely given you many other signs that they are becoming anxious. Through training, you become so clued into your dog’s body language you can intercept sooner if you notice your dog is becoming anxious. But here’s the kicker, you have to be able to see your dog in real-time to make this call, and you can only do this if you watch them on camera. Watching later on a recording or standing outside the door listening is like watching the horse bold away after the barn door is closed. It’s too little too late. Watching real-time on a camera is a big differentiator in being successful. Watching real-time doesn’t have to be a big deal or require a significant investment in equipment. You can use phones and laptops (as long as they have a camera) connected to a zoom or skype call. A stand-alone camera is the best way to go for the ultimate convenience. Eliminating the aggravation of setup before training and the convenience of watching real-time on an app on your phone means training is easy to do when it is convenient for you. The cost of these cameras has come down substantially over the past few years, making them much more attainable.

7) Using punishment
While I can understand the allure of a quick fix, using tools to ‘stop’ your dog’s anxiety will backfire. I know it is tempting to use a bark collar to stop barking if you come home to neighbour noise complaints. Inflicting anxiety and potentially pain to fix anxiety does not work and will make your dog more anxious. I am not going to go any further on this topic. Other than to reinforce that your dog is doing what they are doing because they are afraid and scared. They are not doing it on purpose. They are not doing it intentionally. They are not trying to make your life difficult. They are not mad at you. They are fearful, and treating fear with punishment is not a solution and will likely make the situation much worse and damage your relationship with your dog in the process.

While you didn’t cause your dog’s anxiety, you may be making the anxiety worse if you are doing anything of the above. Being aware of these things means that you can change. Addressing separation anxiety takes time, even in the best-case scenarios. The more knowledgeable you are of things that are hurting, the quicker you can change and start the journey to resolve your dog’s separation anxiety.

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