Updated: Mar 13
Years ago, before the age of smart phones and Wi-Fi, I had a foster dog I suspected may have had separation anxiety. I could hear Jenna barking and howling when I left the house, and the bed in the crate was wet with urine when I returned.
I knew she was probably anxious, but I really didn’t know how bad it was because no one was there to see it. So I set up a camera facing the crate and recorded her while I left for about 15 minutes. I then came back and watched the footage and was horrified to see her howling, barking, spinning and peeing during the entire 15 minutes I’d been gone.
I really wasn’t sure if Jenna was anxious about being alone, or if her anxiety was caused by being confined to the crate. So I also recorded Jenna gated in the kitchen with access to a dog bed. Reviewing that video showed her resting on the bed shortly after I walked out the door. Luckily Jenna turned out to have crate phobia and not separation anxiety, but the only way I could realize that was through the use of that video camera.
Use of cameras to assess and diagnose separation anxiety
When I meet with a new client I spend some time going over their dog’s behavior and history. I ask questions about what they have tried so far, and make sure that they’ve had a discussion with their vet to ensure the dog doesn’t have a medical condition that could be creating or adding to the dog’s anxiety.
But another part of that initial consultation involves assessing the dog’s level of anxiety, and determining at what point in the departure routine it begins. The reason certified separation anxiety trainers don’t do the consultation on site at the owner’s house is that we need to see what the dog’s normal reaction to an owner absence is. If we show up, the dog is already in a different state of mind because there is someone visiting their house. And then if we leave the house with the owner to assess for anxiety, the dog is in a different state of mind because the owner has left with a stranger, which is a completely different situation than the owner leaving by themselves.
Remote consultations allow us to see what’s going on without changing the dog’s state of mind. Using cameras to determine at what point the dog’s anxiety is displayed is an important tool in separation anxiety assessment. Not only does it make it so much easier to diagnose, but also allows us to know how to proceed with treatment for dog separation anxiety.
In some cases it even allows me to rule out dog separation anxiety. I have done a couple of assessments where when the dog was loose and the owners walked out the door, the dog didn’t display any anxiety whatsoever. It turned out what the owner’s thought was separation anxiety was actually anxiety about being confined in an exercise pen or crate. Knowing what the actual problem is allows us to create an effective treatment program to resolve that specific issue.
Dog body language education
Learning what the dog looks like when feeling comfortable, and what the dog looks like when stressed is another important part of working with dog separation anxiety. Owners should be able to identify common subtle dog body language and facial expressions that could indicate the dog is at the threshold of panic. We need to prevent the dog from feeling that being left alone is unsafe, and assure them that they won't ever be left for a duration beyond what they can cope with. If the dog displays signs that they are starting to feel anxious through body language or vocalizations, it's important that the owner return before the dog experiences any further discomfort.
Do pet cameras help with separation anxiety?
Luckily technology is much more advanced now than it was when I was fostering Jenna. Everyone has a camera on their phone. Most people have Wi-fi and other devices with cameras such as laptops and tablets. Using Zoom, Google Meet, Skype or another meeting platform allows one device to remain focused on the door to observe the dog, while the owner observes that camera view from their phone.
Additionally external cameras are extremely reasonable in price and have the capability to transmit to an app on a phone. A designated external camera is a huge benefit because it can be permanently stationed next to the door facing into the room allowing us to see the dog’s face instead of their back end. Being able to see the front of the dog is extremely helpful since so much of a dog’s expression of their anxiety is shown on their face.
Despite some of the remote cameras for pets promoting the fact that you have the ability to speak to your dog through the camera, there isn't any evidence that this is beneficial for a dog suffering from separation anxiety. As a matter of fact, some owners report their dogs are disturbed by being able to hear their human, but not see them. This increases anxiety instead of reducing it!
There are also pet cameras that are designed to allow you to remotely dispense treats. While this seems like a great idea to help a dog who is suffering from separation anxiety, in reality it really can hurt more than it helps.
In previous posts I’ve talked about the fact that we don’t use food in separation anxiety training. Many dogs who are experiencing stress when the owners leave are unable to eat. Those that will eat are often masking their stress during the time that they’re eating the food, but once the food is gone the anxiety returns.
Additionally, with separation anxiety training we want the dog to be relaxed when the owner is absent. Some dogs may become fixated on the treat dispensing machine and it may cause hyper focus on the device, or even frustration if the food isn’t coming when they want it to. This is the opposite of being relaxed!
What to look for in a camera used in separation anxiety training
There are a lot of cameras that are marketed specifically for use with pets. But you don’t actually need to buy one that is designed for that purpose to help with separation anxiety training.
I’m not going to make any recommendations on specific cameras or brands, because I am not an expert and those products, and also because technology changes so quickly, by the time you read this there may be new products on the market. What I will do is tell you what features to look for when you are shopping.
Phone app for real-time viewing Because you need to observe your dog in real time to see what their behavior is during your absence, it’s very important that the camera you purchased allow you to do so. Get a camera that has an app you can put on your phone so that you can watch your dog after you walk out the door.
Continuous recording – not just motion triggered Some cameras have recording that is triggered by motion sensors. Some only record short clips. This is problematic. You need to be able to have the entire training session recorded. It’s entirely possible for a dog to remain stationary, but still exhibit anxiety signals. Even if you are watching your dog remotely, you may miss these signals in real time but might have been able to catch them when you watch the footage later. In addition, if you work with a trainer you will need to be able to submit videos for review so that your trainer can identify any anxiety that you may have missed. If your camera doesn’t continuously record a training session, you may not be able to provide all the information to your trainer that is needed.
No monthly fees required Be aware that some cameras require a monthly subscription in order to use the camera, or to store the recordings on the cloud. If you want to buy a product and not spend any additional money, make sure that the camera you buy is able to save the recording to a micro-SD card instead of the cloud.
Noise alerts to phone Initially when you’re doing separation anxiety training you want to keep eyes on the dog at all times. But later on when you have accrued a significant amount of time and want to actually leave the house to run errands or eat at a restaurant, you most likely will not be staring at your phone screen.
Many cameras have the capability of sending a text alert to your phone if there is noise in the environment. Some even specifically pick up barking and send barking alerts. With very long absences this is very helpful, because it will tell you if your dog is experiencing anxiety when you’re gone that you need to address, instead of discovering it later when it’s been happening for a while.
Motion tracking Some cameras are able to rotate and use motion tracking to do so. While most of these remote cameras have wide angle lenses and can take in a very large portion of a room, the addition of motion tracking can be helpful if you have a very large open space in your home. Having a camera doesn’t help if you can’t actually see your dog!
Ability to add multiple cameras to app I had a client whose dog would often relax in one room as she walked out the front door. But other times the dog would actually go to the front door. What was helpful was that the camera that she purchased allowed for a second camera to be added to the app. She could watch the views from two cameras monitoring two separate areas at the same time. If you have a dog who likes to move from room to room when you are doing your training absences, it’s a great idea to have more than one camera so that you can see your dog no matter where they go.
Learning dog body language
Using cameras during training can be incredibly helpful in another way. Owners can learn a lot about dog body language just by recording training sessions and reviewing them later. I don’t know any professional trainer that hasn’t watched video of dogs in various situations, even rewinding and watching multiple times in slow motion, as a way to learn how to understand a dog's body language.
Since dogs are individuals, an owner can learn a lot about their dog’s specific body language and facial tells that indicate when it’s time to come back. The better educated an owner is about their specific dog's behavior and what it means, the better they are able to help their dog.
Cameras are an essential part of assessing and treating a dog suffering from separation anxiety as it allows for real-time viewing of the dog’s behavior when left alone. Being educated about body language and using those skills allows owners to do departure training and monitor the dog’s state of mind when left alone.
Cameras need to have features that will allow for both real-time viewing of the dog, but also easily record training sessions for later review.
The training used to treat separation anxiety is not always easy, but luckily technology can help us be successful.
If you would like help with putting together a desensitization training plan for your dog, and being coached through the process, I would love to work with you.
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!