For 14 years, I have specialized exclusively in separation anxiety and isolation distress, and in that time I have heard stories of great success and of heartbreaking failure. Something I often hear in the buzz around the metaphorical water cooler (the dog park, the beach, the trainers’ luncheons) is that separation anxiety is a disorder that can’t be cured. Not so. Studies show that about 73%* of dogs show significant improvement if a proper protocol is followed. So why is separation anxiety thought of as largely untreatable?
For a number of reasons, but one in particular stands out.
No Quick Fixes
Separation anxiety is rooted in panic and as such we must work at the pace of the dog. We humans tend to be impatient about dog training. Case in point: the many quick fixes available for even the simplest of training issues. How often do we see “guarantees” that you can stop your dog’s leash-pulling or cure your dog’s jumping in just one session? Many of us know that those who tout these guarantees either trade in extremely punitive methodologies—or they also want to sell you some snake oil and swampland for a great price. Dogs are sentient beings and any guarantee of a behavior change, especially along a specific timeline, is just plain nonsense.
When working with separation anxiety, we must start by teaching the dog that an absence doesn’t have to be a scary prospect. You don’t do that by leaving the dog alone (for any length of time) in the beginning. Every dog afflicted by this disorder has some sort of threshold, by which I mean they are able to tolerate some duration of absence. This may be as little as a quarter of a second, but there is always a starting criteria we can build on, even if that’s simply touching the exit door.
Let’s say the dog we are working with can be left alone for one second. Just one second before he starts to get anxious. We can start by leaving for that one second and returning and taking a short break. The dog may initially have a mild reaction of “Uh Oh!” but quickly breathes a sigh of relief as the guardian steps right back through the door. A minute or two later, we repeat the exercise. The dog may again have a mild reaction of “Uh Oh!” and again, the guardian returns. Repetitions ensue. The game of exiting and entering soon becomes rather boring for the dog and after a bit of time that initial “Uh Oh!” turns into a “Ho Hum” and we have now embarked on the desensitization process that will help us realize the success we want in our protocol.
You might be thinking, hold on, that’s just one second. What’s a second worth? Well, don’t be fooled, it’s a crucial second. That one second will soon become three and those three will become 10, which will in turn become 25 and those will develop into a few minutes. A few minutes turns into about a quarter of an hour, which becomes a half hour, then an hour and after that two and beyond. It sounds easy if you put it that way.
Herein lies the kicker, though.
Slowly It Goes
What if it takes you, say, two or three weeks to get through the first nine minutes? Most guardians don’t have years of successful case resolutions to look back on. They don’t know that putting the time into a proper training protocol will yield success. Three weeks of steady training to get to a nine-minute absence feels pretty dismal and discouraging to many people. Lots of guardians, if not counseled well, would give up faced with that time frame and then might tell everyone and his horseshoe that they tried separation anxiety training and it didn’t work. But did it really not work? The way I look at it, it was working beautifully. Nine minutes is often the precipice from where the next jump to 15 minutes is likely to happen. And from there it’s a skip to 30 minutes and on we go.
As cliché as it sounds, I can’t help but say to those working on their protocols: “If you knew you couldn’t fail, what would you do?” As much as they want to pelt me with kibble for spouting such drivel, most clients concede that if they accept this premise they wouldn’t give up on the protocol at nine minutes. It’s my job as a trainer, as a coach, as someone who knows the success rate, to cheerlead, motivate, and genuinely inspire guardians to keep moving forward in their protocols because that first nine minutes is the path to several hours. And that path is not 10 years away either, but rather weeks or months—which will all be worth the effort when the dog can be left alone and everyone’s lives are panic-free and peaceful again.
Let The Truth Be Heard
While there are many reasons people think separation anxiety is just not fixable—including following the wrong treatment plans, being overwhelmed by too much inconsistent information on the internet, and listening to people who give bad advice—I think that even those who follow a sound protocol might be falling just shy of success and that’s a shame. We need an industry-wide awakening on the topic that raises awareness of this disorder and sets new expectations for its treatment. I’m not trying to sugarcoat the treatment process; it’s far from easy. But I’m standing on solid scientific ground when I say that separation anxiety has the potential of being successfully resolved in a majority of cases.
So the question I leave you with is, “If you knew you couldn’t fail, what would you do?” Bring on the kibble pelting and contact our team of separation anxiety trainers to get started.
*Study by Lilly Animal Health 2006