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How to Treat Separation Anxiety in Dogs: A Comprehensive Guide

Introduction

Separation anxiety in dogs is a debilitating condition that affects many pets and their owners. Imagine leaving your home, only to have your beloved dog develop separation anxiety, manifesting in distress behaviours such as excessive barking, destructive behaviours, or even self-harm. Dogs suffering from this condition often experience extreme anxiety and fear, leading to elevated stress hormones and panic attacks during the owner’s absence. For many pet owners, such scenarios are heartbreaking, and they would do anything to alleviate their dog’s distress. While there is no singular solution to this complex issue, science-based desensitisation protocols can significantly help treat separation anxiety. This blog post will walk you through these methods and provide valuable insights into managing and reducing separation anxiety in dogs, ensuring they remain calm and secure when left alone.

Separation Anxiety Training in Dogs

Desensitisation protocols aim to gradually reduce a dog’s anxiety when left alone by methodically increasing the duration of their solitude. This treatment process requires patience and consistency, as the timeline for success varies depending on the dog’s temperament and the owner’s goals. For treating separation anxiety, especially in cases of severe separation anxiety, it is important to identify anxiety symptoms and understand the separation related behaviour.

Every dog is unique, and the desensitisation protocol should ideally be conducted under the supervision of a Certified Separation Anxiety Trainer (CSAT) professional. Training sessions should be tailored to address mild separation anxiety as well as more severe cases. The material provided here is for educational purposes only. If you suspect your dog suffers from separation anxiety, please reach out to our chief behaviourist for an assessment.

Yes, our chief behaviourist is CSAT certified, trained under the world renowned Malena De Martini!

What is Separation Anxiety?

Separation anxiety occurs when dogs experience extreme stress and anxiety when left alone. The exact causes of dog’s separation anxiety are unknown, but it is widely believed to result from a combination of genetic predisposition and environmental triggers. Dogs with separation problems may exhibit anxious behaviours such as excessive vocalisation, destructive chewing, or attempts to escape from confined spaces. These anxiety symptoms can sometimes resemble a panic attack. For a more in-depth understanding, please refer to our Separation Anxiety Article.

Stay Below the Separation Anxiety Threshold

The cornerstone of any separation anxiety desensitisation protocol is ensuring your dog never exceeds their anxiety threshold.

What is a Threshold?

A threshold is the point at which a dog’s anxiety becomes unmanageable. If this threshold is exceeded, the dog’s anxiety can become sensitised, worsening the situation.

How to Stay Below Threshold

To prevent your dog from exceeding their anxiety threshold, pet parents can use various strategies, such as hiring a dog sitter or dog walker, enlisting a family member to stay with your dog, or utilising doggy daycare services.

Understanding Medication for Severe Separation Anxiety

Remaining below threshold is so crucial that dogs with severe separation anxiety would be recommended to go on medication before starting the desensitisation protocols. Using anti-anxiety medication can be an essential first step in treating separation anxiety, as it helps the dog maintain a calm state. This is particularly necessary when initial behaviour modification techniques alone are insufficient.

Pet parents often see their dogs as integral family members, and witnessing their distress can be heart-wrenching. Engaging with a knowledgeable Veterinary Behaviourist can provide guidance on incorporating drug therapy into the treatment plan. When a dog takes medication designed to ease their anxiety, it can significantly increase the effectiveness of subsequent behaviour modification efforts. The combination of medication and structured desensitisation protocols can pave the way towards a happier, more resilient pet and a more harmonious household.

Identify Signals of Exceeding Threshold

To ensure we don’t exceed the threshold and manage separation anxiety effectively, it’s essential to identify the signals that indicate your dog is approaching or surpassing this critical point.

When you engage a CSAT professional, the first session usually involves you leaving the room for very short periods while the trainer monitors your dog’s behaviour. We also determine the point at which the dog becomes distressed during periods of separation. This point is known as the threshold and varies from dog to dog. Then, we utilise this information to establish a baseline threshold. Throughout the duration of the program, it is critical that you’re not pushing your dog beyond its threshold as this would result in regressions in the fear-based desensitisation protocols.

Signals of approaching the threshold may include whining, pacing, or other stress indicators. If the dog continues to show signs of stress when left alone, the CSAT professional will take note of these signals and their timestamps to establish a baseline. Note that during this initial assessment, dogs with separation anxiety may exceed the threshold, but this is the only time it is considered acceptable during the separation period.

Identify Pre-Departure Queues (PDQ)

Prior to leaving the house, there are many activities that you perform that hints to the dog that you are leaving. These are cues of departure that your dog would have associated with you leaving. For example:

  1. Picking your keys
  2. Putting on your jacket
  3. Putting on your shoes
  4. Unbolting your door

These cues of departure have been negatively associated with anxiety by your dog. We will make a list of all these activities, and introduce them into the fear-based desensitisation protocols as the training progresses.

Maintain a list of PDQs, including others like grabbing your coat or turning off the lights, as you may identify additional ones over time. Add them to your protocol for effective desensitisation.

Start the Desensitisation Protocol

Armed with the pertinent information, gradually expose your dog to short periods of alone time in a safe environment. Take small steps initially and start with brief separations, such as leaving the room for a few minutes. When the dog becomes comfortable, gradually increase the duration. By changing your departure routine, you can minimise separation-related distress. 

The intensity of the exercises are controlled using duration as well as injecting pre-departure cues. The longer the duration, the higher the intensity. The more pre-departure cues are included, the higher the intensity.

Throughout these fear-based desensitisation protocols, it is crucial that we ensure that the activities are not predictive as it may result in the dog predicting a negative event (owner leaving), and react negatively causing a regression in the protocol. Throughout the duration of the protocol, your assigned CSAT individual will closely monitor the sequence of activities that you are performing and compare it against the reaction of the dog to ensure that you do not accidentally cause a regression in the exercise.

Warm-Up Exercises

The desensitisation protocol begins with warm-up exercises to prepare your dog for the gradual increase in your absence. Examples include:

  • Walk to the door and return.
  • Walk to the door, touch the handle, and return.

This list is not comprehensive, and varying the activities is a must to prevent your dog from predicting when you will leave. Guidance will be provided by a CSAT professional. Monitor your dog’s behaviour during these exercises to ensure they remain comfortable.

Proceed with Desensitisation

If your dog handles the warm-up exercises well, you can proceed with desensitisation:

  • Open the door, close the door.
  • Open the door, step outside, close the door.
  • Open the door, step outside, close the door, and walk away for 10 seconds.

Vary these activities to prevent your dog from predicting your absence. Gradually build the duration of your absence without incorporating PDQs. Aim to reach a substantial duration before introducing PDQs.

Incorporate PDQs

Intoducing PDQs are tricky and require very gradual incorporation in a specific way! This is why it is important to engage a CSAT to help you do this effectively and minimise the likelihood of a regression.

Once all PDQs are incorporated and your dog is comfortable with a significant duration of absence, start building the duration to your target goal. This goal varies for each owner—some may need 2 hours, others 6 or 12 hours. Customise the duration to suit your needs.

Your CSAT professional will work with you to establish the initial baseline duration of absence.

Individualised Training Approach

While looking for a treatment method, pet owners need to understand that every dog is unique. The anxious behaviours for each dog may manifest differently, so the training sessions may vary for each dog. Consider these factors before developing a proper training plan that addresses the dog’s severe separation anxiety.

  • Age
  • Breed
  • Temperament
  • Past experiences

Contacting a Certified Separation Anxiety Trainer is recommended for more effective results. Pet parents can also learn more about their pets through this programme and by speaking to a professional.

Anti-Anxiety Medication and Drugs

For serious separation anxiety cases, CSAT professionals may work together with a vet to recommend a combination of medication and training. The medication will aim to alleviate the stress from the dog, and the training will focus on fear-based desensitisation.

The combination of these strategies will aim to alleviate anxious behaviours in the long run, and eliminate any destructive behaviours that are expressed when the dog is left alone.

There is a lot of similarity between separation anxiety and mental disorders, where there are stigma against providing medication. Each individual has their own personal sets of values and intrinsic motivations, but at Pet Coach, we believe that you should do whatever it takes to ensure your dog never experience the extreme stress that it undergoes during separation anxiety related events.

Final Thoughts

While the desensitisation process may seem complex, rest assured that our CSAT professionals will guide you through each step with explicit instructions. We hope this guide provides a better understanding of what to expect during separation anxiety training for most dogs. While dogs with separation anxiety can greatly benefit from this training, on rare occasions, individual dogs may require additional support compared to other dogs.

If you suspect your dog is suffering from separation anxiety, please reach out to our chief behaviourist for a separation anxiety assessment. Our team is here to provide you with professional, empathetic, and tailored support to address your dog’s unique needs. Whether you’re just beginning to notice signs of anxiety or have been managing it for some time, our chief behaviourist can offer valuable insights and strategies to help improve your dog’s well-being.

Based on the history you provide, our CSAT professional might recommend a vet visit to rule out any medical problems or suggest other methods if separation anxiety is not suspected. It’s essential to differentiate between behaviour problems and issues that might arise even if your dog is completely house trained. We are dedicated to helping ensure your pet’s overall well-being through comprehensive care.

How often should we desensitise?

Aim to conduct desensitisation exercises 4–5 times a week so your dog with separation anxiety learns to cope with your sudden absence and can be left alone comfortably.

How will the CSAT monitor the process?

Monitoring is done remotely. Owners will need to install CCTV and connect it to Zoom for real-time observation of their dogs, especially to check for excessive vocalisation, anxious behaviours, frequent urination, or signs of distress when left alone.

Duration of Training?

The duration varies. Some dogs with separation anxiety show significant improvement within a week, reaching 30 minutes, while others may take a month to achieve 40 seconds of progress.

Understanding and addressing separation anxiety in a dog is a challenging yet rewarding journey. With patience, consistency, and guidance from a certified professional dog trainer, you can help your furry family member overcome their fears and lead a happier, more relaxed life.

Does Crate Training help with Separation Anxiety?

Crate training does not address the root cause of separation anxiety, which is the dog’s emotional response to the absence of the owner. While a dog may feel comfortable and secure inside the crate when the owner is present, it will still experience stress and anxiety once the owner leaves. In addition, in many cases crating the dog will result in sensitisation and development of confinement anxiety, causing the problem to worsen. The key to effectively treating separation anxiety is to gradually acclimate the dog to being alone, regardless of whether it is in a crate or not. Therefore, emphasis should be placed on systematic desensitisation and counter-conditioning rather than relying solely on crate training.

Does it help if I give my dog a puzzle toy before I leave?

Puzzle toys, while beneficial for mental stimulation and alleviating boredom, do not address the underlying issue of separation anxiety: the dog’s emotional distress in the absence of its owner. Like crate training, these toys might provide temporary distraction, but they do not tackle the root cause. Effective treatment should focus on systematic desensitisation to help the dog become more accustomed to being alone, ultimately reducing their anxiety levels.

Does it help if a puzzle toy stuffed with food is given to the dog?

Food-stuffed toys do not help a dog with separation anxiety at all. Similar to crate training and puzzle toys, these toys do not address the root cause of the anxiety, which is the emotional distress the dog experiences when separated from its owner.

To effectively help a dog with separation anxiety, focusing on systematic desensitisation is crucial. This approach involves gradually acclimating the dog to being alone, thereby reducing their anxiety in the absence of their owner.

Is Separation Anxiety caused by excessive attachment?

No, separation anxiety is not caused by excessive attachment or pampering. While it might seem intuitive to blame a dog’s anxiety on a strong bond with its owner, the reality is more complex.

Dogs that are excessively attached can, in fact, be perfectly fine when left alone. Conversely, dogs without a strong attachment can still exhibit significant anxiety when left alone.

The root of separation anxiety lies in the dog’s emotional response to being alone, rather than the level of attachment or pampering they receive. Therefore, addressing this issue requires a focus on behaviour modification techniques such as systematic desensitisation, rather than making changes to the degree of attachment and pampering.

Picture of Webster Cheong, BA, IAABC-ADT, CPDT-KA

Webster Cheong, BA, IAABC-ADT, CPDT-KA

Webster has trained various species in zoos, rehabilitated companion animals, and championed animal welfare standards. He represented Singapore in the Amphibian Taxon Advisory Group, focusing on amphibian care and conservation. Now, his main focus is in canine fitness and conditioning as well as essential canine skills.

Picture of Qiai Chong, MSc, CSAT, CSB-D, CPDT-KSA

Qiai Chong, MSc, CSAT, CSB-D, CPDT-KSA

With over a decade of study in the animal behaviour and welfare sciences, Qiai earned her Masters from the University of Edinburgh and has since devoted herself to the welfare and behaviour of pets. She has worked as an animal behaviourist since, and her expertise lies in addressing pet behavioural issues such as fears, phobias, anxiety and aggression.

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