Your dog is urinating in the house when you are gone. He should be told he’s wrong, right?
Your dog chewed up the couch while he was alone. He should be scolded, right?
Your dog is barking when no one is home. You should tell him that he is misbehaving, right?
It is a common theme for guardians to think that these misbehaviors need reprimanding; however, if we look at them more closely and in a different view, maybe we can garner a different opinion.
If you had a friend who just recently experienced a difficult divorce and was suffering from anxiety, would you tell her that she was “bad?” If you had a family member who was afraid of public speaking, would you admonish them?
The most important thing that people can do when faced with a dog who has separation-related problems is to understand the underlying issue. The dog is not barking because he is naughty; he is not eliminating in the house because he is a bad dog; and he is not destroying stuff because he is ill behaved.
He. Is. Panicking.
When I am contacted by guardians who have a dog with separation anxiety problems, I most often start the conversation by describing the disorder. Most guardians get in touch with us because they want the barking to stop due to neighbor or landlord complaints, or they want the destruction to stop due to rising costs, or they want the peeing and pooping to stop because it just sucks to have to clean it up every day!
But these outward manifestations of the anxiety that the dog is experiencing are just that — OUTWARD displays of an internal problem. We cannot “fix” the barking problem or any other without addressing the underlying anxiety.
So, it is paramount to realize that the dog is suffering, if you want to resolve the problem.
If your colleague at work were afraid to do presentations in front of the boss, would you smack her upside the head and tell her to get a grip? If you would, I think I can give you argument for another approach.
There are many behaviors that dogs do that annoy us, inconvenience us, and downright infuriate us, but with separation anxiety these are not behaviors that are born of spite or even deliberate thought.
When people come to us for help, they have often tried a variety of techniques that didn’t work to help their dogs. Sadly, many of the methods are punishment-based, which not only do not help the dog, but they can usually make the problem worse. Let’s take a look at some of the most common techniques.
The first and most common is the bark collar, which either emits citronella spray or an electric shock. If the dog is suffering from anxiety — is truly panicked and is completely fearful — do we think that a bark collar could help? In actuality, the use of bark collars can exacerbate the problem and cause far more alone time problems with additional fallout.
Think of it this way: “I (the dog) am petrified.” “While petrified, I bark and then get a spray in the face or a shock to the neck. Now I am more petrified.” Coupling this aversive stimulus with the panic that the dog is experiencing can be disastrous. An already afraid dog, who is now experiencing something so awful as a spray of something in his face or an electric shock, now feels terribly worse. Remember, these dogs are experiencing fear… well… terror really. One way to compound that fear is by using a bark collar.
Highly Reinforced Crate
Another way that people often think to address separation anxiety is by using a highly reinforced crate, most commonly called Alcatraz Crates. These crates are unable to be destroyed by many dogs, so the thinking is that the dog cannot escape or damage to the home.
Here is the bad news about such products for a separation anxiety dog: Many dogs with separation anxiety also experience confinement phobia. Often times they have already broken out of lesser crates and even broken teeth and nails on the wiring. When confined to a truly sturdy crate, the self-harm that can occur is tremendous; but moreover, the anxiety that peaks is truly concerning. The dog can become absolutely petrified. Yes, the dog may not harm the home in these instances, but there are better ways to proceed for sure. Proper training can save the day.
Muzzles for Alone Time
I have had clients that decided to muzzle their dog with a groomer’s muzzle to keep him from barking all day long. First of all, the muzzles that can inhibit barking also totally inhibit panting or proper breathing in the long term. Leaving a dog on a muzzle all day brings with it the grave concern that the dog will overheat. Furthermore, the dog is still so completely stressed that oftentimes a new undesirable behavior will pop out.
There are also products out there called scat mats, which keep a dog (via shock) from approaching the couch or the window or the counter. Once again, the association of being completely afraid with something terribly scary like electric shock is beyond undesirable.
Throw Loud Items at the Crate
There are trainers that tell people that throwing a loud/heavy chain or a penny filled tin can at the crate when the dog is barking will be effective. Please understand that this only exacerbates crate problems and will certainly not help alleviate anxiety.
Bark It Out
Finally, I would like to address the dogs that are being left to “bark it out.” There is a lot of information out there that says that the dog should never be rewarded for barking when left alone, so you need to wait until there is a break in the barking to come back in. While this approach makes sense for a dog who is not distressed, it does not work when dealing with a scared dog. Dogs with separation anxiety are stressed out, really and truly, so they are not learning within the continuum of “time outs.”
Imagine if you bring your young child to the doctor’s office for some shots. Your child starts crying and even screaming about how afraid he is. Would you scold your child for being scared? Would you get mad at the doctor for rewarding the fear by giving a lollipop after? If you would I beg of you to reconsider. Fear is truly something that drives us all to do things like cry, scream, throw things, and beyond. Quelling such fear with a gentle word or a systematic process is so important.
What Works: Desensitization
The quintessential process for working with dogs who have separation anxiety is called desensitization. We gradually introduce the dog to small durations of achievable alone time before moving on to the next duration. Desensitization has the biggest track record for successfully overcoming separation anxiety, and it has been proven in studies across the board.
My hope is that after reading this blog post, rather than punish your dog, you will empathize with him and help him to feel safe. Falling into punishment will most likely make the problem worse and create an irreparable rip in your bond with your dog.
If you’re eager to learn more and get started on a separation anxiety protocol, consider checking out our online, self-paced separation anxiety course for dog trainers.