My second client ever (circa 2001) was a separation anxiety case. The dog’s name was Guinness, like the beer, and his guardians had found him sickly and tattered, scavenging for food somewhere on a California back road. They rescued him, bought him lifesaving medical treatments and nursed him back to health. Guinness was, under all the grime, a delightful bearded collie, who thrived in all ways but one. He couldn’t be left alone. Because of him, I was able to slowly peel back the possibilities of a separation anxiety solution.
Freshly graduated from the San Francisco SPCA Academy for Dog Trainers, I went about my assignment with enough enthusiasm to power a cruise ship. Guinness’ guardians and I set up a cozy confinement area and called it The Pub, so the command to go settle down became, “Guinness, go to The Pub.” I’m not sure who enjoyed that exercise more — the dog, who got treats every time, or the humans, who found it endlessly amusing to say. With this and a few other simple exercises, Guinness began to improve, and soon he was separation anxiety free. His guardians thought I was a dog-training superstar, something I soberly considered. Why not? Maybe I had the magic touch?
It was a short-lived fantasy. Separation anxiety case number two brought me crashing back to earth. Orville, despite being on the same treatment plan that had so spectacularly cured Guinness, barely improved at all. Any progress we, his saintly guardians and I, managed to coax forth was inchmeal and agonizingly slow — so slow I knew I had to be doing something wrong, but I had no idea what. Absent a better plan, I plugged on. Months passed before Orville could be alone at all and years, eventually, until he could get to a couple of hours. With the best will in the world, I couldn’t call him cured.
A Perplexing Puzzle
The drastic contrast between Orville’s and Guinness’ responses plagued and intrigued me in equal measure. I felt compelled to figure out why the same treatment could lead to both triumph and resounding failure, and I soon had more chances to test any theories I formed. Back then, much like now, most dog trainers cringed when approached with separation anxiety cases, so once word spread that I was willing to take those on, I found myself doing nothing else.
I encountered all manner of dogs with separation anxiety and isolation distress, each one mixing in individual nuances: Mookie, with her out-of-control noise phobia, and Tug, with his timid overall nature, which sparked many treatment plan revisions; Nacho, who had trouble overcoming frustration, and Kaya, who upon her guardians’ return after even the briefest absence would roll over and submissively urinate. I observed, took copious notes, scratched my head, changed tactics many times. My results ranged from super to so-so.
At some point around 2005, I began video recording my cases and studying the videos for hours on end. Gradually, through years of working exclusively with separation anxiety cases, I discovered gaps in the textbook protocols and figured out ways to fill them.
Rewriting the Textbooks
Today, my separation anxiety protocols rarely focus on crate training, nor do they emphasize much reliance on interactive feeding toys or pre-departure cue desensitization. Traditional textbooks would have you start treatment by spending oodles of time desensitizing to those pre-departure cues with a repetitive routine: Pick up keys, put down keys, put on jacket, remove jacket and so forth. In my experience, this exercise serves mostly to frustrate the guardians and delay the program, thereby causing clients to lose their commitment to and enthusiasm for the entire process. I’ve found that pre-departure cues can be folded into the protocol later without much difficulty rather than spending all of this tedious time upfront.
So what about stuffing a Kong and immediately going into absence rehearsals? Is it not possible to get dogs to be left alone successfully for at least short periods of time while working on their Kong? For dogs who will eat when left alone (some will not), this might be the case; however, are we simply teaching the dog to eat when left alone? What happens when the Kong runs out? Will the dog suddenly relax and take a nap? Very rarely.
These questions are important ones and are some of the many that I sought to answer through the many months and years of cases I handled while I was learning and experimenting. What was the key to teaching dogs to actually relax when alone, and what, if anything, would help them handle the triggers (pre-departure and otherwise) that signified an imminent absence?
The mainstay of a separation anxiety protocol for me eventually morphed into straight desensitization, wherein a dog learns in extremely small increments to be alone. When relying on an interactive feeding toy in the beginning, I found that dogs had a hard time learning to relax after they had consumed the food. If, however, they were left from the get-go without any distraction and for just tiny increments of time, the dogs could learn to relax on their own. We can build on those increments extremely gradually — emphasis on “extremely.” Once we build up to an absence of 30 minutes or so with a dog relaxing, we can choose to introduce an interactive feeding toy and know that it’s not serving as a crutch for alone time but rather as a positive association tool.
Working with separation anxiety isn’t for every dog trainer, and I admit my dedication to this disorder is extreme. I take no other types of cases and haven’t for close to a decade. My office looks like a NASA control room, with screens on all sides flicking through the dozens of webcam feeds I watch daily to monitor the progress of my clients’ dogs — whether in the United States or in one of several other countries — studying body language cues, then emailing clients new treatment plan adjustments and encouragement. Not every trainer needs quite as elaborate a setup to be successful. Separation anxiety is a debilitating and heartbreaking disorder that afflicts at least 17 percent of dogs in the U.S. alone. That’s more than 13 million dogs. Yet most trainers still hesitate to take on these dogs, even though separation anxiety is one of the most treatable canine disorders — three out of four dogs can recover fully.
It is my mission, my soul’s passion, to educate trainers to understand this disorder better, whether through seminars, books, articles or my internship program. This disorder is not unfixable. We need not shrug our shoulders when these cases pop up in our email, nor should we give the outdated advice to just stuff a Kong and stick the dog in a crate.
Looking back now at my auspicious beginning with Guinness, it is obvious to me how little I actually had to do with his miraculous progress. His separation anxiety was a temporary reaction to the drastic rags-to-riches change in his life, plus he was coming off a lot of medication. With time, I suspect, he would have moved through his anxiety problem on his own without my meddling. But Guinness ignited my passion for dogs afflicted with separation anxiety, and I’ll always be grateful to him for that.
I believe we owe it to these dogs and their oftentimes desperate guardians to learn more about this destructive disorder and to do more to alleviate it. If great strides are possible through simple desensitization protocols, coupled with lots of empathy and regular client support — and I’m proving that each and every day — what are you waiting for?