Updated: Mar 5
The most effective way to treat separation anxiety and one endorsed by most professional dog trainers, behaviorists and veterinarians is through a process called desensitization.
Desensitization used for separation anxiety in dogs when left alone is a method through which the dog is assessed for the length of time he can be alone without displaying anxiety, and then exposing him to absences by incrementally increasing the length time the owner is gone. The absence increase is always kept short so that is the dog is always kept under threshold of anxiety, and feels safe whenever he's alone.
The goal with this dog separation anxiety training plan is that the dog will learn that being alone isn't scary, because he is never left long enough to experience the panic that he previously felt when he was by himself in the house.
Leaving your dog alone, how it hurts progress
In addition to using desensitization to help a dog learn to be comfortable at home alone, another important part of dog separation training is ensuring the dog is never left by himself except for training absences. There needs to be a commitment to preventing the dog from being left alone until the dog has significant enough recovery that they can be comfortable when left for real. When dog separation anxiety is treated with the combination of desensitization and never being left except during training, there's a better prognosis of resolving the problem.
Understandably owners are a bit shocked when they hear this, and panic a bit because they don’t see how they can possibly make that work. While we all love our dogs, most of us don’t revolve our lives around them 24/7. We have work to go to, errands to run, and want to have a social life that allows us to leave the home. Most people would consider ensuring someone is with their dog at all times as being unreasonable at best, and impossible at worst.
Although separation anxiety training is about trying to change emotions, and is quite a different process from training a dog to stop performing an undesired behavior, there is a similarity to both types of training that in order to be effective they rely on management.
If I want to train my puppy not to chew on shoes, I'll prevent my puppy's unsupervised access to shoes until he learns what he is allowed to chew on. If it's safe to chew on shoes sometimes (when I'm not right there) and unsafe others (when I'm in the same room), it will be very difficult to train him to never chew on shoes.
Management with separation anxiety training is just as important; we want to prevent the undesired emotions of over-whelming panic from being evoked, and replace them with feelings of safety.
There is a good reason why a dog trainer who is certified to treat dogs with separation anxiety would strongly recommend their clients find a way to have their dog with someone 24/7 as they work through the training process. Dogs suffering from anxiety when left alone do not feel safe. Through the use of desensitization our goal is to give them practice feeling safe when they don’t have human company.
Dogs who sometimes feel safe, but other times feel panic stricken will have a very difficult time ever making progress towards being comfortable being left alone for extended periods of time.
In my post explaining how desensitization works I talked about the TV show that followed the woman receiving treatment for her severe phobia of spiders. If she was at the point in her treatment where she was comfortable seeing a spider in a cage from 50 feet away, and then someone placed a tarantula on her arm, it would likely set her treatment back. The fear elicited by having a spider placed on her skin before she was ready for it would reignite the fear response she’d worked so hard to over-come, and would likely set her back in her progress.
Absences that push a dog over anxiety threshold will make the process take much longer, or even interfere so much that the dog doesn’t make any progress at all. It’s not so much two steps forward and one step back, but more like two steps forward and two steps back.
Impacts of Chronic Stress
Dogs suffering from separation anxiety who are routinely left home alone are suffering from chronic stress. The Center for Studies on Human Stress states: “(Chronic stress) is stress resulting from repeated exposure to situations that lead to the release of stress hormones. This type of stress can cause wear and tear on your mind and body.”
According to the Mayo Clinic: “The long-term activation of the stress response system and the overexposure to cortisol and other stress hormones that follows can disrupt almost all your body's processes.”
Some of the impacts of chronic stress on an animal’s health include heart disease, immune system problems and digestive problems. I have noticed that many of the dogs I’m working with to treat separation anxiety tend to also suffer from diarrhea or even diagnosed Inflammatory Bowel Disease.
Even more relevant to being able to successfully treat a dog for separation anxiety is the fact that chronic stress can cause damage to the brain, and this damage has a huge impact on a dog’s ability to respond to desensitization training.
One of the impacts of this damage is that an animal becomes more susceptible to fear and anxiety, and the fear becomes generalized. What this means for a dog with anxiety when left alone in one situation is that the fear becomes worse, and the dog will develop anxiety when left alone in other situations. A dog who starts out anxious when the owners leave the house may progress to also becoming anxious when the owner goes into another room.
Chronic stress can also damage areas of the brain that make fear more resilient, and can also impair an animal’s ability to learn. Both of these effects will interfere with the effectiveness of desensitization training and will cause recovery to take much longer than if the dog is not experiencing chronic stress.
Finding ways to avoid leaving a separation anxiety dog alone will go a long way towards keeping them physically and mentally happy, and will make treatment much more effective.
Some alternatives to leaving your dog alone in house
So what’s an owner to do? It depends on the dog, on the owner’s lifestyle, community they live in and finances. Some possibilities include doggy daycare or a dog sitter in home or where you drop your dog off.
While these options can get expensive if you’re trying to cover an entire work week, the consolation is that it won’t be forever. As your dog gets better at being alone you may be able to reduce the amount you use these services.
One benefit of Covid is that it’s increasingly becoming more common for employers to allow their staff to work from home. If you have a job that makes that a possibility it could be worth it to see if your employer would allow this.
If you have a friend, relative or neighbor who is home during your work day, loves dogs (or at least loves your dog), they may be willing to watch your dog for you for a minimal fee or maybe even for free.
If your neighborhood has a Facebook group, you could post a request and see if any neighbors you haven’t met yet may be interested in watching your dog. You could also see if an independent living facility that allows pets would permit you to post a flyer asking for one of their residents to watch your dog. There are a lot of people who love dogs but don’t want the responsibility and expense of having one of their own. This could be a way for that person to have the best of both worlds.
Many owners who are treating their dog’s separation anxiety are able to find ways to manage their absences so that their dog is never left alone other than when training absences. With a little bit of creativity and effort it’s possible to make it work and keep that wag in your dog’s tail.
An important component of treating a dog’s separation anxiety is avoiding leaving them alone during the training process. Anxiety being triggered during absences prevent the dog from being able to predict when the owner’s leaving will allow them to feel safe, or unsafe.
Additionally, frequent absences triggering anxiety will lead to chronic stress with impacts on the dog’s physical and emotional health, and could cause changes in the brain that will interfere with treatment.
While training with owner absences that trigger anxiety may eventually be effective, it will be a more difficult and longer resolution.
Separation anxiety can be really difficult to treat, especially when you don’t know where to look for valid information. If you’re struggling to cure your dog’s separation anxiety, or if you'd like to train to prevent it, your best course of action is to find a professional who specializes in treating it.
As a certified separation anxiety trainer (SAPro), I can offer you the support and expertise that will help you and your dog!
Check out my process, pricing and packages! All training is conducted virtually and I can work with clients located anywhere in the United States!