Updated: Apr 28
Owners who can't leave their dog home alone because of separation anxiety In previous posts I’ve talked about how when correctly using desensitization we always want to keep the dog under threshold of anxiety when the owner is practicing absences. We do this by making sure the dog is only left alone for as long as they can tolerate without displaying signs of feeling anxiety. It's a very important part of the training process that we do everything we can to prevent the dog from experiencing panic when the owner leaves them home alone.
Signs a dog is anxious
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 body language and facial expressions that could indicate the dog is at the threshold. We need to prevent the dog from feeling that being left alone is unsafe, and assure them that they won't ever be left 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. But how do we do this?
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 know 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.
Using technology in dog training for separation anxiety
Luckily technology is much more advanced now. 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.
The ability to watch our dogs remotely in real time is a huge benefit when working with dogs suffering from separation anxiety. We can see how well they are coping with an absence, and return as soon as they show those behaviors that indicate they’re losing their coping skills. We can get back before they go over threshold and preserve their sense of feeling safe.
My clients are given training exercises to do throughout the week that involve leaving their dogs alone. While they're gone - usually just on the other side of the door to start, the owner is on their phone observing their dog's actions through a camera that's been set up for that purpose. Because of this they know in real time how well their dog is coping and are able to return if there are signs of their dog being anxious.
Learning dog body language meanings
Additionally, recording training sessions and reviewing them later can be very helpful. 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 their are able to help their dog.
The training used to treat separation anxiety is not always easy, but luckily technology can help us be successful.