Many, if not most, dog trainers shy away from working with pups who suffer from separation anxiety. In fact, when I started working with sep-anx dogs more than 16 years ago, my client had to beg me to take on her case. She had been turned down by six other trainers already, and she was desperate for help. So, I begrudgingly agreed and said, “Well… I’ll try…”
Hundreds and hundreds of dogs later, I am still tackling separation anxiety. Part of my motivation is a secret that all certified separation anxiety trainers know:
Our clients are the best.
The guardians of separation anxiety dogs are cut from a special cloth, and we cherish the ability to work with them. I remember years ago when teaching one of my CSAT courses, I was talking about how committed and unflappable these clients were. One of my students kept saying, “I just don’t believe that these clients are so incredible, but we’ll see when I start taking on my own cases.”
Six months later, that same student had this to say: “I can’t believe that no one knows this amazing secret! These clients really are as wonderful, compassionate, compliant and hardworking as anyone could ever ask for. They are the hidden gems in the training industry!” Today that CSAT almost exclusively handles separation anxiety and is on cloud nine with her work.
Like her, many of you may question whether these “gems” really exist. But I’m telling you, they unequivocally do.
I often hear trainers, vets and behaviorists question the fact that these clients are as committed as they are. They commonly scoff when we say that in order to teach these pups to feel safe being alone, their families must suspend all absences outside of training sessions. They say that clients would never be willing to do that.
They are wrong.
In fact, out of a survey of 400 recent prospective clients, 45% of the respondents stated that right off the bat they are willing to not leave their dogs alone — and many had already been doing so. Another 37.5% responded that they might be willing to do it. After learning more about separation anxiety and how the training protocol works, most of these “maybes” turned into “yeses.”
Why is this so important?
Never leaving your dog alone for longer than he can handle is a key piece of a separation anxiety training. So, these people who come to us already suspending absences, or who jump on board quickly, have a head start in helping their pups overcome their fears.
It’s a win for everyone: the pup feels safe, behavior problems — such as barking, howling, urinating indoors, destruction of the home, and even the dogs injuring themselves — go away, and the people are that much closer to enjoying the freedom of leaving their homes for as long as they need, without worrying about their dogs or their belongings.
You see, dogs that are experiencing separation anxiety are going through the rehearsal of their stress every single time they are left alone for longer than they can handle. This stress will impact their ability to learn that absences are safe and doable.
If you hired a psychologist to help you overcome your fears of heights, she would figure out what height you could stomach before you became afraid and then gradually increase the distance over time. If you were good with four feet one day, and the next day she hung you off the side of a skyscraper for a few hours, how do you think you would feel? That’s the same thing that happens to dogs. If we’re working on helping them handle a 10-minute absence and then later on that day leave them home alone for hours, what do you think would happen the next time you walk out the door?
Stress and anxiety are truly powerful, and studies have shown the toll they can take on the afflicted individual — both mentally and physically. In order to not make things worse for the dog and, rather, to help him feel comfortable and stress-free about alone time, we must not put him in the situation that will cause him to panic. If he crosses over that fear threshold line, not only will he not feel safe, but he will also not be able to learn.
Not just necessary. It’s doable.
The reality is that many — if not most — guardians of separation anxiety dogs are already suspending absences. Many others are happy to do so once they understand why it’s important and learn some creative ways to get it done. I understand that not everyone feels that they can accomplish this, but I’ve seen client after client after client become successful. In fact, I had to do it when I trained my own sep-anx pup, Tini DeMartini! So, trust me when I say that I know what our clients are going through.
There really are so many creative solutions to suspending absences. If you missed the blog on Crowdsourcing, take a peek. You’ll learn about a variety of ways you can keep your dog from being left alone. The possibilities are truly endless if you use some creativity. One of our CSATs, for example, recently distributed flyers to Meals on Wheels drivers announcing that her clients were looking for help watching their separation anxiety dog. The drivers left the flyers at all their stops and the response was overwhelming! These folks are mostly homebound, so they were thrilled to get some love and company from a sweet dog. What a win for everyone. This is just one example of thinking outside the box.
The main purpose in writing this blog is for us as professionals to embrace the fact that people love their dogs and are quite willing to find ways to help them. Yes, we need to help them be creative in finding solutions, but let’s not throw out this powerful training protocol simply because we think we are asking too much of guardians — they deserve the best and most effective treatment.