Thoughts on Separation Anxiety

Separation anxiety is one of the most common behavior issues I see in practice.  It can turn a pet into a shelter pet really quickly, and because it’s a true phobia, it’s hard to control.  It can be helped, but it takes weeks and months of work, and sometimes drugs.  Usual disclaimer:  I’m not your vet.  I can’t give you specific advice for your dog.  These are general thoughts.  Consult your vet as needed.

So what is it?  It’s a true phobia, no different from your terror of spiders or snakes or heights or whatever; no less real, and no more logical.  Always keep this in the front of your mind when dealing with a separation anxiety dog.  You can’t punish a phobia away, and you can’t logic a phobia away.  You can only attempt to retrain a brain that has made a bad association with being left alone.

Most separation anxiety (hereafter referred to as, “SA”) dogs are equally terrified in a crate or free in the house.  There are some crate-only phobics who are fine as long as they’re not crated, but the only way to tell is to chance it and risk coming home to no woodwork and no couch.  The ideal situation to retrain a SA dog is to not ever leave him (or her…but we’re going to just use “him” today) alone at all until he’s comfortable (which takes months).  If your family situation permits that, fantastic.  If not, then either consider doggie daycare (which is amazing for socialization and confidence-building), or know that the training will take longer because you simply have to crate him when you’re gone to work.

Make a distinct difference between training time and actual “I’m leaving for work” time by only using the crate when you’re actually leaving.  No crate for training.  You’re trying to develop a dog who can be free in your house while nobody’s home.

Here’s how to think about this.  I’ll use myself as your example.  I’m afraid of man-made heights, particularly elevators.  I could no more ride an elevator to the hundredth floor of a building than fly to the moon.  So what if I had to?  What if I had to give a speech (that I couldn’t weasel my way out of) on the hundredth floor of a skyscraper one year from today?  How would I do it?

I could drug myself into oblivion and snooze up the elevator, but then I couldn’t give my speech.  I could wait until the day of the speech and try to suck it up, but I’d be such a panicked mess I couldn’t possibly make any sense, plus my audience would be offended by my pooped-in pants.  Here’s what I’d do.

I’d start with a three story building.  I’d ride that elevator until I was comfortable at the third floor.  Depending on my phobia, that might take a day or a month (if I wasn’t ready for that, I might start by just looking at the elevator doors, walking in and walking right out with someone holding the door open so I couldn’t get trapped in it.  I’d also read about elevator safety precautions until I felt I could at least do three stories).  Then I’d find a taller building and go up to four.  Then five.  If I got to six and panicked, I’d go back down to four until I was OK, then try again.  Slowly, slowly, over months and months, I’d work my way up.  (If you’re interested, I’m good up to about 28 floors as I write this.  I once spent a whole night in a hotel on the 26th floor and I even slept.  I still don’t like it, but I can do it.)  In time, I’d have worked my way all the way up to a hundred, and I’d give my speech.

Maybe stay for a drink at the rooftop bar.

The point is, you’re not going to get me up to a hundred without a total bowel-draining freakout unless you spend the time it takes to slowly work me up there.  You might stuff me in an elevator and leave me there and hope I’ll eventually calm down, but I won’t.  I’ll freak into catatonia.  That approach is called “flooding” and it doesn’t work well.  Don’t do it to me, and don’t do it to your dog.

So what do we do with the dog?

We start by looking at the elevator doors.

On a day that you’re NOT LEAVING ANYTIME SOON start the training.  Turn on the TV in preparation.  Grab your car keys, grab your coat, whatever you’d normally do before you left the house.  Do NOT crate the dog.  Ignore the dog.  Grab your stuff, but instead of leaving, go sit on the couch.  Ignore the dog.  Don’t look at him, don’t talk to him, just sit there and stare (this is why you turned on the TV).  Dog will be freaking out thinking you’re leaving.  He’ll jump at you and try to get you to pet him.  Sit.  Ignore.  In some amount of time (minutes, I hope, but be ready), he’ll give up jumping at you and sit down, sigh, and look away from you.  When he does, tell him he’s a good boy (once…not a praise-fest), put your keys and coat away and go on with your day at home.  Do this again tomorrow.  And the next day.  During this time if you do have to leave him alone, crate him (or bathroom or basement or whatever it is you do when you actually leave).  It may take a week or a month, but at some point he’ll start to ignore the keys-and-coat routine.  He’ll have learned it’s a game, and you don’t actually go anywhere, and he gets a petting and a “good boy” when he sits calmly.  When he does, it’s time to close the elevator doors and start riding.

Now you’re going to grab your coat and keys and walk out the door (garage or front…whatever door you usually go out to leave the house).  Count to five, then walk back in and sit on the couch.  Ignore the freaking out dog (“You left me!  What the hell, you were supposed to just sit on the couch but you LEFT??”).  Wait.  When he calms down (on his own…you ignore and watch tube) and sighs and looks away, put keys and coat away and go on about your day.  Do this count-to-five routine until you can do it and come in and dog’s like, “Oh, no problem.  You went out and counted to five.  No biggie.”  Then make it ten.  Then a few minutes.  Slowly ride the elevator higher and higher.

At some point you’ll go too long and he’ll go back to freaky.  Cut your time back down to where he’s cool.  See why I told you this takes months?

Eventually you’ll get to the point where you can leave for a couple of hours and he barely notices you’re gone.  This is the goal.

Things to remember:  if you have a SA dog, your goings and comings are critical.  If you make a big deal of coming home (“Hey, there’s my boy!  I missed you so much!”), then he thinks you’re as worried about being away from him as he is.  When you do have to crate and leave him, don’t make a thing.  Out for potty, then right into crate.  No tearful goodbyes.  Close crate and leave.  When you get home, open crate and outside.  If possible, don’t look at him and don’t talk to him.  He’ll be freaking out to greet you which seems sweet, but if you reward that behavior (by petting, talking, paying attention), then it’s what you’ll continue to get, and any freaking out is NOT what we’re going for here.

The cardinal rule of dog training (for any issue) is: reward the dog you want.  If you have a dog that’s jumping and peeing and acting like an idiot, is that the dog you want to reward with attention?  Probably not.  Reward calmness.  Reward independence.  Do not reward attention-seeking (pushing your hand with a cold nose demanding to be petted).  It’s rude.  You’re the person, and you decide when you want to pet the dog.  It’s harsh, but you’re trying to change a whole mindset. These dogs are troubled and terrified and you can’t let anything slide.  If you’re with him, you’re training him even if you don’t realize it.

A word about drugs.  They can help.  They’re not a cure.  How much valium would it take to get me to the hundredth floor today?  Enough to knock me unconscious.  A little bit isn’t going to do the job.  But a little bit might allow me to go up from four to six.  And six to eight.  Maybe ten.  It can take the edge off, and allow me to focus without quite so much terror.  That’s what drugs are for.  We use Prozac and Xanax and a variety of other meds to take the edge off anxiety for dogs who need to calm their brains down so they can learn something.  Drugs don’t do the teaching, they allow the learning to happen.  If you think your dog needs meds, ask for them.  But there is no pill that will make a crate-phobic happy about being locked in a box all day, any more than there’s a pill that will get me to the hundredth floor without a pants change today.

Punishment doesn’t help.  You’ll just make him even more miserable and terrified.

Distraction doesn’t help.  You can give me a Nintendo DS in the elevator, but past a certain height, I’m not going to play with it no matter how cool the game is.  All I’ll see is the floor numbers flashing by.  A phobic dog locked in a crate could not give a crap about a Kong full of peanut butter.

Separation anxiety can be helped, and crate-phobic dogs can be made comfortable in the house.  It takes months of work, but your dog is worth it.

Consult your vet, and good luck.

Published by drwendyv

Veterinarian, writer, board game designer, scuba diver, cake decorator, cancer survivor.

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