In working with various dog behavior disorders, including separation anxiety, we often categorize the level of severity. We talk about bite severity scales, how much the dog jumps, what the lack of impulse control is, how often he is pulling. We even address the pace of the dog’s learning curve. As a culture, we are accustomed to labeling things as good, fair, poor, mild, moderate, severe and so on; even the letter-grade systems we use (for everything from student work to maple syrup) reflect our preference for ratings. When I speak with new separation anxiety clients or assess their dogs for the first time, they often ask about the severity of the case. For a long time I felt the need to categorize my cases, and I certainly won’t say there is no value in doing so, but there are also some reasons why we might not want to.
The signs associated with mild cases differ from those associated with severe cases. A dog who is self-mutilating or doing self-harm while attempting escape is in a much more severe category than a dog who is simply pacing or whining when left alone. Dogs who experience involuntary bodily functions, such as excessive drooling or diarrhea, are presumably more distressed than dogs without such indications. Quite possibly we could all agree on what constitutes certain levels of extreme anxiety versus mild agitation, but the reasons why the distinctions matter are not necessarily what one might think.
When Labels Can Hurt
Over the years I have found that when a client is asking how severe their dog is, what they really are asking is, “How long will it take to fix?” Some guardians come right out and ask for a timeline, despite knowing the question is unanswerable. They inherently understand that these are dogs, not bicycles that can be adjusted with wrenches or fitted with spare parts. But they feel the need to ask anyway, in an attempt to establish an expectation.
When it comes to the topic of severity level and the corresponding timeline for resolution, it would make sense that a mild case would resolve more quickly than a severe case and vice versa. I’ve noticed through hundreds of cases in my practice, however, that this correlation is not necessarily accurate. There isn’t always a reciprocal relationship between mild and quick or severe and lengthy. I have had very mild cases span many months while some severe cases resolved in what seemed the blink of an eye. Some of the contributing factors surely are the commitment level and skill of the guardian, but the key factor is the dog himself and nothing else. Desensitization may work beautifully for one dog and not as swiftly for another. No earth-shattering reason to be discovered here — we’ve seen different learning curves in different dogs when simply teaching sits and downs, so it shouldn’t be a surprise that the same holds true when dealing with different behavioral issues.
One reason, then, not to categorize our cases is to avoid giving clients the wrong idea about their dog based solely on what they personally assume is the pace of a mild or severe case. Additionally, clients may sway in their motivation based on the classification we give to their case. For instance, a client who is told that her dog is mild may feel lackluster about working on regular absence protocols, or a client who hears that his dog is severe may feel overwhelmed by the amount of work that he imagines lies ahead. Neither of these are positive consequences, so it is worthwhile to consider whether labeling a separation anxiety case, at least to the client, is a prudent practice to pursue.
When Labels Can Help
One important classification we should make, for our own clarification as trainers and behaviorists, is defining separation anxiety as opposed to isolation distress. Separation anxiety is a clinical diagnosis and is much more rare than one might expect. We have become so familiar with the term “separation anxiety” that it is now incorrectly used for referring to most home-alone disorders (like using the brand name Kleenex to mean any facial tissue). A dog suffering from separation anxiety experiences extreme distress when separated from one key individual — or, occasionally, two individuals. Conversely, dogs suffering from isolation distress simply cannot be left without the presence of someone, and generally any person will do. The two disorders may not seem incredibly different, but the difference in the treatment can be vast. Creating management strategies for a dog who cannot be separated from a particular individual is considerably more challenging than for a dog who can stay with pretty much anyone. Because of this distinction, we can say that separation anxiety is more severe than isolation distress — and that, I do believe, is a categorization worth making.
There are other good reasons for a trainer to determine the severity level of a case: to set beginning criteria, to help in determining the need for veterinary support, to create a management routine — and even to decide whether you are willing to work with an individual case.
The bottom line is, use labels judiciously. The main reason not to categorize a case by severity level is to even try to make a guess at how long or how difficult resolving the case may be. In the end, the protocol for working with dogs with separation anxiety or isolation distress will be extremely similar regardless of whether the case is mild, moderate or severe, so maybe the labels matter much less than we tend to think.