Separation Anxiety Basics

I’ve had a recent surge in contacts regarding separation anxiety (SA).  If you’ve followed me for a long time you probably remember my post on SA in my personal blog.  Warning: my personal blog is personal for a reason.  If you’re easily offended, I would skip it if I were you.  In that blog, I covered what the disorder is and what it isn’t, and in this post I will hit on some basics for treatment. If you believe your dog is experiencing SA please find a qualified professional to help you.

What is Separation Anxiety?  The briefest way for me to describe this disorder is this:  it’s an anxiety disorder centered on departures/being alone.  What happens is the dog experiences an anxiety attack (if you’ve ever had one yourself, you can sympathize with these poor animals–if you haven’t, just count yourself lucky) when he is left alone.  After a few of these (or just one) the dog begins to experience anxiety surrounding departures and triggered by departure cues because he is anticipating the horrendous anxiety attack he experiences once left alone.  It’s a vicious cycle because the actual event that caused the first few anxiety attacks (being left) is no longer even relevant because the dog’s anxiety is building long before that happens.

First, identify your dog’s “triggers.”  As mentioned above, dogs with SA begin to experience anxiety surrounding departure cues.  These departure cues are referred to as “triggers” and the first stage of treatment is identifying all triggers.  You must become an avid student of your dog’s behavior and figure out what the specific triggers are that begin the spiral of anxiety that starts with involuntary stress signals and escalates into life-threatening destructive acts.  If your dog has SA, at one point every morning he is calm, and at some point he begins to panic because he knows you are leaving.  It is up to you to identify what that point is.  Some sample triggers are:

  • Owner’s alarm goes off (if you don’t use an alarm on days when you stick around, this can be the first trigger–unfortunate because it is how the day begins).
  • Owner puts on makeup
  • Owner puts on shoes
  • Owner picks up keys
  • Owner puts on jacket
  • Owner puts coffee into travel cup
  • Owner loads car

Now that you’ve identified possible triggers for your dog, list them out in order so that you aware of the order of operations.  Each trigger causes more anxiety than the trigger before it, so it is important that we list and rank these triggers.

Then, randomly desensitize your dog to his triggers.  That means repeating the triggers at random times throughout the day when you have no intention of leaving.  If your dog’s first trigger is when your alarm goes off, set your alarm to go off multiple times a day.  If it is you picking up your keys, pick them up and put them down all day long.  Get the point?

Finally, plan a system for counter-conditioning your dog’s triggers.  That means giving your dog something amazing (raw marrow bone, hollow bone stuffed with liverwurst, Kong stuffed with crack chicken*, it has to be AMAZING), waiting for him to get really into it, then engaging a trigger.  Then take away the good stuff and wait a few minutes before repeating the whole scenario again.  Practice this with all triggers until the triggers become less and less anxiety-inducing and more and more pleasant.

The bad news is that while you go about this process you need to keep your dog somewhere else where he doesn’t experience anxiety while you have to be away.  This means hiring a dog sitter, taking him to daycare or a boarding kennel, or taking him with you while you modify how he feels about being alone.  If you go through the process of treating his disorder while simultaneously leaving him alone every day, causing anxiety attacks, your progress will be slowed dramatically.

The good news is that SA can be treated successfully.  Most dogs can learn how to hang out alone if the treatment is done correctly.

*”Crack chicken” is my very special treat for dogs that is chicken breast boiled in sweetened water (I use honey).  Most dogs will do backflips for it.
I would not know what I know about SA if not for the work of Dr. Patricia McConnell.  I highly recommend her book “I’ll Be Home Soon!” on the topic.

2 thoughts on “Separation Anxiety Basics

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