A call comes in and the harried woman on the other end of the line speaks rapidly about the recent excessive barking warning she received from her landlord about her dog, Clint. Next an intake form appears, revealing a dog named Patches who is destroying items, and shredding and spreading the trash, when left alone. Finally, a prospective client form arrives, saying that her dog, Lola, is peeing in the living room when the client is away.
What is the common thread here? Each of these dogs shows some symptoms of what could be separation anxiety. But can we be certain this is the case? Vocalizing, destructive behavior and inappropriate elimination are the three most common potential indicators for separation anxiety, so it is justified to be concerned.
Separation-related problems are certainly common. In the United States alone, the number of dogs suffering from the disorder is above 13 million. But is that number low? Are there other dogs suffering from separation anxiety, whose guardians mistakenly believe the dog is barking and urinating indoors because he’s being “naughty.” Or is the opposite true? Are guardians trying to help their dogs “overcome” what they believe to be separation anxiety, but their pups are not actually scared? How do we figure it out?
By reading the dog’s body language.
Dogs chew things because it’s fun, but they also chew things when they’re scared. They pee on the rug before they are fully housetrained, but even housetrained dogs might urinate indoors if they panic. And dogs bark when they are distressed as well as when they are perfectly happy. The only way to figure out which reason is causing a dog to do any of these things, is to read his body language and determine his emotional state.
Clint the Barking Boy
In the case of Clint, we discover upon video assessment that he is barking at every passerby, particularly those who are walking with their dogs. What we were able to observe via video was that his body language was generally relaxed on and off where he was simply lying on the couch curled up with hip rolled to one side. That would change each time someone passed the window (especially when with a dog), and he would immediately jump up and bark somewhat frantically. Shortly after they went out of view, Clint returned to resting. Unfortunately, there were plenty of people passing the window so the barking was frequent enough to cause concern from the neighbors and landlord.
Assessment: Not separation anxiety.
Barking at things out the window can be worked with successfully, albeit differently than separation anxiety.
When logging in to watch Patches, we see not panic, but a veritable party while she enjoys getting into the trash and eviscerating items that are left about. Upon further investigation we discover that Patches doesn’t have much in the way of enrichment or stimulation in her life.
Assessment: Not separation anxiety.
Boredom is definitely the problem here. When reviewing the video, we saw Patches having a grand time while dissecting all of the goodies in the garbage can. She was jumping around and playing with coveted items and when she was done she pranced about in the trash before going to take a restful nap as she was finally a bit tired out both mentally and physically.
Lola All Alone
And finally, there is Lola, whose parents are frustrated with the potty accidents that she has when they leave her alone. With a bit of further questioning we learn that Lola never has any accidents in the house other than when alone, and she is always great about letting her guardians know when she needs to go out. After setting up a webcam to assess Lola during alone time, we see that she is whining and pacing and eventually does urinate.
Assessment: Separation anxiety.
We can see Lola becoming more and more distressed leading up to her urinating, which is definitely caused by anxiety. This discovery allows us to start Lola and her family on a separation anxiety protocol.
Reading Body Language
Each of the above dogs has different outward displays that could be related to separation anxiety, yet the only way we were able to determine what was really going on was through video assessment and careful questioning. It is only by observing the dog’s body language that we are able to differentiate a problem that might have a different fix than a full separation anxiety protocol.
Therefore, an essential skill for assessing and treating separation anxiety is reading body language: Does the dog pant, whine, yawn, pace and so forth, or is his body language generally relaxed, loose and calm? We can’t help the dog if we do not know.
Given how important it is to thoroughly understand the intricacies of dog body language when working with separation anxiety, I am so excited that there is now a resource that helps with this. The iSpeakDog.org site will help both trainers and guardians to discern the various body language indicators that their dog is displaying. This is a phenomenal resource that has been developed by the amazing people at Jean Donaldson’s Academy for Dog Trainers. I highly suggest that both guardians and professionals use this site to their advantage and share it widely!
Whether you are a trainer or a guardian, get good at watching the dog’s body language for clues and your rate of success will dramatically improve. And — believe it or not — watching body language cues carefully is not only a key to assessment and training, but it is also fascinating and fun. Learning what it is that the dog physically does when experiencing anxiety versus calm can be as interesting as watching a good movie. I find it riveting to see the online feed of a dog who is overcoming her fears, and I take copious notes about all the subtle body cues displayed along the way. Whatever your goal, a thorough understanding of body language will bring you much closer to success.