Separation anxiety is normal for children up to about 14 months of age. According to WebMD, “When this fear affects a child over age 6 years, is heavy, or lasts longer than 4 weeks, the child may have separation anxiety disorder.” Child Mind Institute states:, “Separation anxiety disorder is a mental health disorder...”
There isn’t enough research to definitively know if dogs suffer from mental health disorders in the same way humans do. However, many of the same anti-anxiety and anti-depressant medications prescribed for people are also prescribed for dogs. According to Gregory Berns, M.D., Ph.D., these medications are often effective in changing problematic behavior in dogs caused by fear and anxiety.
What is separation anxiety for dogs?
Dog separation anxiety disorder is diagnosed when dogs exhibit dysfunctional behaviors only when their owner is absent, or when left alone, but not when their owner is present. These behaviors include vocalizations, destruction, pacing, over-grooming, urination and/or defecation, and drooling. These behaviors also occur throughout most of the time that the dog is left alone.
Practitioners that work with dog separation anxiety do consider it to be a mental health disorder. It is a serious problem causing distress for the dog, and a quality-of-life issue for both the dog and owner. Dogs that suffer from separation anxiety make it difficult, if not impossible for many owners to go about their lives without making arrangements for their dog. Many owners feel as though they can’t be free to come and go as they need to because they are continuously worried about leaving their dog.
We have limitations when treating dogs for phobias, because we can't use many of the techniques that are used for people. For instance, one treatment method used with people to help resolve phobias is called "Imaginal Exposure Therapy", in which the patient is asked to imagine the situation that triggers the fear, so that those fearful feelings are experienced in a safe place and are not happening for real. For obvious reasons we can't use this type of treatment with dogs.
Will dog training help separation anxiety?
I remember years ago watching one of the news magazine programs on TV. The story that night was about a woman who was severely phobic of spiders; it was so bad that her phobia was impacting her ability to function. The woman was so fearful that she had to constantly scan rooms to make sure there weren’t any spiders or webs, and had trouble focusing on tasks as she was worried there could potentially be a spider in the environment. It was a huge impediment to her quality of life since she was always in a state of anxiety.
The story followed her through her therapy to treat her phobia. The process exposed her to spiders at such minimal levels it didn’t elicit her fear, and gradually increased the difficulty level as she progressed. Only once she felt comfortable at one level of exposure did the therapist slightly increase the intensity of the next.
Desensitization is a commonly used exposure therapy included in treatment programs by mental health professionals working with human patients suffering from extreme phobias, such as the spider phobia in the case described above. When we consider how to train separation anxiety, dogs are worked with in much the same way as people suffering from phobias. With dog separation anxiety, desensitization is also the primary therapy implemented as a treatment program.
Dog home alone training for separation anxiety involves identifying how long the dog can be left alone without exhibiting subtle signs of anxiety, and gradually increasing the duration of those absences. The starting point will vary from dog to dog. I’ve had clients whose dogs’ exhibited anxiety as they approached the door to the house. In those cases, the starting point was moving halfway to the door and back into the house repeatedly, until the dog was bored by the whole sequence.
We always want the dog to remain under their anxiety threshold so that they can learn that there is nothing unsafe about being alone. Because of this, the increase in duration from session to session during dog separation anxiety exercises can seem so microscopically small it doesn’t seem much in the way of progress.
In the early stages of separation anxiety training for dogs, the increase in the amount of time the owner spends on the other side of the door from one training session to the next may be just a few seconds. Many times, clients can struggle with the slow progress, fearing that they’ll never be able to leave their dog longer than 15 minutes.
But these micro increases are important when treating dog separation anxiety. We want the duration increases small so that the dog doesn't really realize the owner was gone longer than they were the previous training session. Keeping the dog under anxiety threshold for every owner absence is the key to successful treatment of separation anxiety.
People always want to know how long it takes for a dog with separation anxiety to “get over it.” The fact of the matter is that there really isn’t any way to say. Every case is different, and every dog is different.
I had one case where the dog aced every exercise and was able to progress quickly and build up enough time that 3 months later the owner was able to go out for a few hours. I’ve had other cases where the dog struggled through the exercises and it took a lot longer.
Owner goals also play a part in the resolution timeline. Some clients may be interested in knowing how to improve dog separation anxiety, as they would be happy being able to leave their dog alone for just a few hours. Other clients would like it to be resolved completely.
But for the most part clients need to realize that this is going to be at the very least a few months, and in some cases, could be longer than that. Separation anxiety isn’t something that can be cured within just a few weeks.
Additional aspects with separation anxiety training for dogs
Additionally, during owner absences we want to be able to observe the dog for any change in body language that may indicate the dog is starting to feel anxious about being alone. Unlike working with a person who suffers from phobias who can tell us how they feel, we need our powers of observation to determine when a dog is escalating in anxiety. Observing the dog remotely during dog separation anxiety exercises allows the owner to return before the dog escalates to pure panic, and avoid the dog going over threshold.
Luckily for owners of dogs suffering from separation anxiety, technology has progressed enough to make it easy to view your dog remotely, and cameras are now fairly inexpensive. Being able to observe the dog remotely and in real time has revolutionized dog training for separation anxiety.
Another component of treating separation anxiety is to never leave the dog alone longer than their anxiety threshold. In the early stages of treatment this will mean ensuring someone is with the dog 24/7. While this seems extreme and impossible to do for most owners, it is an important part of treatment.
Treatment is meant to teach the dog that being alone is never scary, and allow them to feel safe when the owner leaves. If sometimes the owner leaving means the dog will feel all encompassing fear, and sometimes it’s within the amount of time the dog can cope, it will be very difficult to make progress.
That being said, in some cases progress can be made in treatment, if the owner leaves the dog alone. These are cases in which the dog is on maintenance anti-anxiety medication prescribed by their veterinarian, and which the treatment protocols have been adapted for that specific situation. The owner needs to be aware that progress in treatment will go at a much slower pace than if the dog were never alone.
Bad internet advice on how to train separation anxiety dogs
If you do a web search for "separation anxiety cures for dogs" you'll see a lot of advice advocating leaving the dog for short periods of time and returning, gradually increasing the length of the absence. Some of the sites I've seen recommend starting at a minute absence and quickly work your way up to 5 minutes.
The problem with this recommendation is that it doesn't take into consideration what the dog's starting capabilities are. Some dogs have such extreme anxiety they are over threshold of anxiety even before the owner walks through the door. Each dog is an individual and the starting point will depend on what they can cope with. And building duration will depend on how stress free they were on the previous duration.
I can help!
The more we set the dog up for success and keep them from panicking when alone, the faster the process will actually go. Pushing the dog to do more before they can handle it will actually prevent the dog from making progress. “Slow and steady wins the race” may not be good advice for someone running a 100-yard dash (or Fast CAT for you sporting dog people), but it’s perfect when working with a dog that suffers from anxiety when left alone.
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!