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Taming Separation Anxiety

Think of your biggest fear. Is it spiders? Heights? Now imagine you go to a specialist to help you overcome that fear. Maybe she introduces you, at a distance, to a tiny spider that each day moves closer, multiplies, or becomes bigger. Maybe she takes you to the top of a one-story building keeping you a safe distance from the edge and each day increases your height and proximity to the open air beyond.

This learning technique, gradual desensitization, has helped countless people to conquer deep-seated fears. And it’s not just for people, either. Animals of all types can successfully overcome panic and anxiety using desensitization.

But what if your specialist ended each session by dumping a bucket of spiders on you or by dragging you to the edge of a building’s 100th story, not because it was part of her technique, but because when the session is over, she can’t protect you anymore from the dangers of the world. Would the baby steps you took toward overcoming your fear make you feel safe when you were confronted with the real deal each day? Or would you panic? Would you trust the specialist the next day, when she begins again with slow, gradual exposure knowing that when your session is over, you’ll be confronting the scariest version of your fear again?

No matter how illogical it seems, for a dog suffering isolation distress or separation anxiety, your leaving is like that bucket of spiders or the edge of that 100-story building. You can work toward decreasing anxiety through gradual desensitization, but if you are still forcing your dog into panic mode daily by leaving him or her alone to go to work or run errands, you aren’t likely to help your dog overcome his or her fear.

Neither will the bevy of quick “solutions” to isolation distress or separation anxiety that have cropped up in recent years, ranging from industrial strength crates to electronic collars that shock or spray a cloud of citronella in the face of a panicking dog. While these options may prevent your dog from destroying the home or annoying the neighbors, they will do nothing to prevent him from panicking. In fact, by effectively holding your dog hostage, they are likely to increase your dog’s fear and distress. Constant anxiety is not only detrimental for an animal’s health, but elevated cortisol—the stress hormone—levels can also lead to new behavior problems.

Panic is illogical. In human terms, knowing that spiders are rarely dangerous is little comfort when one crawls across your hand. Dogs suffering from separation anxiety don’t have the advantage of knowing that their fear of being left alone is illogical. Perceiving themselves to be in a life-threatening situation, they may urinate out of fear or dig at doorways (to the point of bloody paws and destroyed moulding) to find you. They may whine, bark, or howl consistently in an attempt to self-soothe and call out for help.

In order to overcome the disorder, the dog must be prevented from panicking in the first place. Whether your dog’s barking or destruction begins 30 seconds, five minutes, or 15 minutes after you’ve left home, this is the threshold of time over which you must never leave your dog alone when you first begin training through gradual desensitization. With no reason to panic, your dog begins to trust that you will not allow them to experience the terror of being alone.

As you build trust with your dog, slow, deliberate exposure to your absence and all the tiny tip-offs that precede your leaving (picking up keys, putting on shoes, etc.) become a meaningful learning experience that your dog perceives as “safe.” With time and, admittedly, hard work, you can overcome isolation distress or separation anxiety together.

Professionals, including certified separation anxiety trainers, use these tips to better understand and improve a dog’s separation anxiety:

• Technology is your friend. Free videoconferencing platforms like Skype or Zoom can help you to see how your dog reacts to being alone and to identify signs that he is slipping into panic

• A crate is rarely the best solution. Most dogs with isolation distress or separation anxiety do better when they have space to stretch their legs.

• Gradual desensitization means gradual desensitization. Increase the length of your departures slowly over time.

• Anxiety typically begins before you’ve left the house. Be sure to gradually desensitize your dog to your pre-departure cues (things like keys and shoes) alongside attempts to step out the door. Picking up your keys multiple times without pairing the action with leaving the house is not likely to have much of an impact.

Shoshi Parks, Ph.D., specializes in helping dogs to overcome separation anxiety as a Certified Separation Anxiety Trainer, or CSAT, and Certified Professional Dog Trainer, CPDT-KA. She is the owner of Modern Hound Dog Training in San Francisco and an instructor at the San Francisco SPCA.

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Main article photo by: courtesy Shoshi Parks