How to treat canine separation anxiety
It really doesn’t need any dog behavioural expert to tell a dog owner that their dog’s suffering from separation anxiety as its reactions will be most obvious.
The most common indication of dog separation anxiety is quite simply excessive barking and squawking often known as squealing vocalisation or in other words doggy crying when you leave your property or leave your dog alone!
Other common or accompanying signs of separation anxiety are soiling the house, tearing up the carpets and floor covering and especially scraping and ripping wall covering such as plaster and wallpaper off around doorways.
All this and more can all be caused by a simple faulty program which has escalated and grown in size.
At the core or root of this problem when leaving the dog alone often happens in its most basic form when they were puppies and later experiences along the way reinforce it. Just a simple seed can be sown during the litter stage.
On one level its faulty inaccurate learned information that has led to the misinterpretation in the dog’s mind that they have been abandoned or left. A simple behaviour and misinterpretation in the first weeks of life can set the very first ingredient needed to drive out that response into adult life.
An easier to understand example would be as follows:
If there are seven puppies in a litter and the weaker puppy or runt gets knocked off the mother’s nipple at feeding time due to the other puppies fighting and grappling to climb onto a nipple to the (this happens, just watch them feeding) then that puppy goes without food or goes with less food then the next day or the next feeding time the same thing happens again and that weaker puppy gets pushed off the nipple because it has less strength as well as it being the runt of the pack and subsequently goes without food again or doesn’t get enough then that feeling of hunger will evoke an angry or survival response in the puppy.
The feeling of hunger is so strong and overwhelming that it’s natural tendency is to survive and defend itself so the next feeding time electrical activity and brain chemistry surges and a level of aggression and fight appears (survival — fight or flight) and then the puppy snaps, bites and causes the other puppy to yelp and jump out of the way therefore resulting in success for the puppy who kept getting pushed off the nipple.
Now it is no more hunger because the puppy has adapted to this painful situation and the way to get round it is to bite, biting will bring success in the elimination of the risk of experiencing hunger.
The next feeding time the same thing happens again but now the puppy has a newfound weapon in its armoury to survive which we call aggression and within no time at all the puppy has developed dominance and aggression in the form of barking and biting because that puppy experienced such strong experiences or strong feelings of hunger that they naturally needed to find a way to get to food which led to success therefore it now has developed a beneficial behaviour which may be present for the rest of its life which is biting and aggression with a level of dominance in order to get what it wants and this is just a basic example scenario of developmental psychology in canines on how certain behaviours can develop.
Other traits and behaviours develop this way through cause-and-effect especially when vital flight or flight is needed to survive and is activated.
This is a rough description scenario but you get the point. All behaviours start somewhere and many of them have the original seeds in puppyhood in the first few weeks of life and similarly the same goes for human development in children and especially babies.
From the canines point of view there is no incorrect, correct reactions or misinterpretation there is just a behaviour that is driven by the dogs needs and again from the canines perception or viewpoint there is no wrong or right, there are no judgements, there is just the doing of the behaviour for their reward or benefit and gain.
This around about example has its basis in survival and pain or discomfort avoidance.
Can this be fixed by an amateur dog trainer owner? Of course it can, you just need to know what to do to change a behaviour.
Getting back to separation anxiety, bearing in mind a miniscule very brief experience in its puppyhood could have set the seed to create this barking and squealing response which in time has now grown into a full-blown issue to being left alone, which from the dog’s position is a frightening one.
When you walk out of a door close it, remember the dog who is going off on a loud one, has chemicals and brain activity coursing through its veins and every part of their body is in a state of panic, fight or flight or in other words extreme fear. Many dog owners do not realise this enough!
I’m going to repeat that.
Surging fear through its nervous system and its response such as barking and squealing is to get out of that situation as a matter of urgency.
Just remember that in case you get angry or frustrated with your dog.
And yes some ignorant and unsuitable dog owners will go back in and belt, smack or wallop the life out of their dog to get it to stop therefore reinforcing this unwanted behaviour.
Likewise, going back through the door that you just left and holding or hugging the dog with the reassuring words, strokes and caresses also reinforces this behaviour am totally makes it even worse and subsequently the problem continues. That’s for another tutorial!
Dogs behave on one level and inexperienced or untrained humans react and respond on another incompatible level and do not address or meet the dog’s automatic nervous system reaction or needs.
The two operate on different levels and addressing the problem the way inexperienced people do then becomes completely mismatched.
One of the main ingredients needed in dealing with separation anxiety is to have a really good trusting bond with your dog and progressively teaching them in increments, through step-by-step progress together.
Bricklayers lay thousands of bricks in the build and throughout that build only one brick is being repeated throughout. If you know how to lay one brick, to some extent you are just repeating the same thing over and over the same way.
This is why you need to learn just one technique and repeat it over and over. There are many ways of doing this so let’s just look at one simple approach. It is neither right nor an extra is simply one approach.
Everyone has an opinion or a technique that they believe is better than someone else’s. There are far too many opinions and too much ego floating around in the dog training world. One training school will absolutely tear into the techniques of another training school and yet all training schools work. Why?
Learn the basics and improve it as you go along!
You need to create a routine that allows your dog to experience an ever so slight exposure to separation, just enough . . but . . not enough that the dog registers, notices and therefore reacts but rather adapts to the experience of being exposed to the separation experience that freaks the dog out without realising it is occurring and inching forward slowly in small increments for you eventually close the door behind the dog and getting no reaction and this would be the first milestone in your training approach!
By introducing the ‘separation state’ or ‘separation experience’ to the dog with very, very low intensity in mind, without the dog actually registering it is occurring then you can slowly improve the situation by lowering the effects of the situation on the dog.
Once you know how to do this, it is so simple.
From your view of the landscape at this stage you might find this tutorial cumbersome or difficult to take on board which it is not.
The fact that you have this problem with your dog suggests this!
Follow this one simple step and repeat it slowly in increments each day. Do not speed up or jump the stages or you not have success.
Set-aside just a small amount of time such as 20 or 30 minutes.
Create a close bond with your dog with lots of play, caresses and strokes, kind loving words; you know the kind you use when you become loving and gooey with your dog.
Create a loving, hugging, playing environment and ensure you have some high-quality treats with you.
Make sure the treats are high-quality treats, the quality they never receive. Such as pieces of sausage, steak or especially cheese.
Most dog trainers will use cheese to bribe the dog and that’s what you’re going to do. We are using food as a motivator to arouse their food drive.
Assuming and ensuring you have the stay or down command in place then you move away from your dog saying stay then you move away from them with a piece of cheese in front of their face and get them to stay, move back from them and place the cheese down a few meters in front of them and when you’re ready give them the call to go ahead and collect their treat and ask them to return to the starting position. And then reward them again etc. Repeating the same over and over and don’t do anything else but just this.
Then move further back away from the dog towards your open living room internal door (not external door) and each time you are moving further and further away from the dog repeating the same over until you move through the door wide open.
The next day repeating the same you are now moving a further distance away into the other room with the door wide open and then call them for their cheese treat so they come running from one end of the room into the other through the door and then send them back to the starting point.
Obviously you need to be able to already have the sit, stay, return, come, leave commands in place to some extent. If you haven’t then that’s another tutorial altogether.
After two or three days of doing this 20 minutes at a time they will become familiar with this experience and process and they will be highly vigilant and attentive to the delicious high-quality food this endeavour provides them with. You’re associating the going through the door and back again with pleasurable delicious food, this is why high-quality food that they don’t normally receive is used. Delicious mouth watering food is the key!
Do not give them dry plain biscuits which they already receive. This will give a reason for the dog to fully focus on receiving their reward again and again.
Now, whilst the dog is sitting in their place, you hold up the cheese and move backwards again away from the dog, through the open door and now slightly close the door.
At this stage if the mere raising of your hand to touch the door causes a response or an anxiety reaction then you need to be even more supple at this point, you’ll know that point and adjust accordingly so your movements and responses to touching the door, closing the door or opening the door is below the dog’s radar as to what you’re actually doing and you keep them focused on the food, on the reward.
At this point you are placing the treat down on the floor in the doorjamb, the door slightly closing but not closed, again remember move slowly with each action, in only increments ensuring the dog does not react negatively or panicking to any stage, if the dog reacts at this stage you’ve gone too fast and made too great of a move.
Professional dog trainers will know not to go past a point. They will know when to stop increments or the exposure to a next stage etc.
Each time you reverse back going through the door, touching the door, touching the door handle, making the turn of the handle sound and then stopping and the dog then coming forward whilst all the time introducing the noises and movements of the door partly closing it, partly opening, bit by bit, stage by stage, slowly, surely, repeating each time, closing the door a bit more, opening it, partly closing it, then opening it again, ensuring no reaction occurs, just the dog’s focus on the treat, closing the door a bit more, repeat, repeat, repeat and then kneeling down slowly closing the door just enough for your hand to hold the treat through the slightly closed-door then send the dog back to its resting or starting point and now at this stage close the door to the last inch and then push the two fingers through the door gap and make it a sort of fun time game without any threat to door closure.
At this stage you are now at the point of closing the door to within a few inches to the last inch so the dog can see your eye looking through the gap.
You’re making this doorway, door jam, closing and opening process a completely new experience which is being treated and rewarded with delicious high-quality food and providing you don’t jump the gun and have carried this out in slow increments then you will have success to this point.
You’ll know by now the stage at which to move and this is where your patience comes into play. It is a simple process of learning how to lay one brick and then just repeat the same over and over to the end goal.
The next stage is to close the door until the door is touching the doorjamb if not for a second or two then opening it and giving the dog the treat and if you have had success with this stage you can end briefly close the door for one second and then open it again and give the treat so that you are now at the stage of closing the then opening, closing, opening, closing and opening, a bit like playing peek-a-boo with your dog and each time you emerge from the door closure you then reward the dog with the treat.
The next stage is to increase the duration of door closure before you open the reward the dog again.
If the dog reacts at this point then you have to slow down again and do more work at this stage slightly opening and closing and offering the reward each time the door opens.
This does sound tedious and time-consuming; it is for inexperienced dog owner. This whole process can be done in a matter of minutes with a professional dog trainer.
You have now literally taken away all of, or most of the threat of door closure as opposed to you leaving.
The next stage is to leave the door closed longer each time before opening it and treating the dog further.
You may be able to stretch this period for a few minutes now.
A word of warning, if all of a sudden the dog starts to squeal or cry, do not open it fast until the dog stops otherwise you will reverse the process which means in the dog’s mind you opened the door because the dog cried for it to be opened therefore the dog now has got the door open because he cried and got anxious.
Wait for that very moment he stops before opening it then reward the dog for that brief moment when he stopped. Never feed the dog the treat whilst they are doing the unwanted or bad behaviour. Only reward required or good behaviour.
If this has been done successfully the dog should be sitting in waiting for the door to open to receive this treat. Waiting, waiting, waiting quietly.
Whatever you do don’t take any great leaps at this stage due to your impatience and introduce external door bangs, door knockers and letterboxes making closing noises which will all be associated to you leaving.
You need to stretch the distance out further and further each time so that you then get to a point where you go out of the door closing it and then come straight back in and close it with a bang to that the closing door sound or bangs and rattles is also to be desensitised and associated to rewards and not a threat of leaving which equals abandonment, disownment or rejection which means feelings of fear etc.
You should then be able to walk out of your front door and closing with a bang, come straight back in and provide the treat only if the dog is sitting calmly and still ensure you never reward any crying or anxiety at any stage.
Always remain still and calm and wait for the dog to do the same then reward them that behaviour.
All this can be done within a few days from start to finish. It all really depends on you and how you apply this.
Every stage of this has to be done in small increments, gentle and rewarding as you go.
If any stage this does not work then it’s because you’re going too fast, too soon and taking greater leaps than is required.
Just remember albeit temporarily, a trained dog trainer or canine behaviourist can turn this around within an hour with the ongoing repeat work later.
The end result is to remove the anticipation or the experience of being left alone with our rewarded one, a pleasant one.
This article is for educational and informational purposes only and must not be used or taken as a substitute in any form for any medical, psychological (mental) advice, medication you are currently taking or any alternative treatments without the prior advice, guidance and consent from your medical doctor. Please speak with your doctor first before making any changes to your diet or medicine as a result of reading any information laid out on this website or in this or any other articles.
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