If a trainer tells you that you are the cause of your dog's separation anxiety, it is time to find another trainer.
Just now, I was reading this article titled 'how to fix your dog's separation anxiety.' Apparently, according to the writer, dogs suffering from separation anxiety need strict rules and structure to overcome it. In fact, according to the author of this article, dogs that can't stay at home by themself would do better when their choices are limited. The author says that you need to limit the dog's excitement and reduce their options for a dog to overcome separation anxiety.
The author's first step is to make your dog walks structured. This means your dog walks beside you; no sniffing, marking or greeting other dogs because these activities increase the dog's excitement. Structured walks will help your dog be calm at home. You, as the owner, also need to observe your interactions to ensure that your dog does not get excited. You need to avoid petting and playing with your dog, as this will only get your dog worked up. The article advocates that you should limit your dog's freedom in the house. You should prevent your dog's ability to free roam in the home as this will help your dog let go of the worry and stress that is going on around him. A dog that follows you around the house and can't let you out of sight or a dog that reacts to every sound is not relaxed. The author argues that we need to interrupt the cycle of barking stemming from the stress, and to do that, they recommend a high-quality bark collar (aka shock collars) and then recommend a couple of brands. Other options are to increase exercise when possible and recommend treadmill training and structured play that mentally and physically tired the dog out.
While the training process for separation anxiety is similar for each client, we all travel a different path. Trust that your journey is the right one for you and your dog.
The other day I was speaking to one of my clients in our weekly catchup session. I noticed that she seemed subdued and had missed a couple of training sessions. These weekly catchups are where we discuss how things are going, what's working, what's not, how the dog is doing, and how the human is feeling. She commented that she saw the celebration post on Instagram for another client who had graduated from separation anxiety training. This client had achieved over three hours of alone time, a considerable accomplishment. I will always take time to celebrate a client's achievement. Whether it's 10 seconds, one minute or three hours, these accomplishments deserve a celebration.
The client I was speaking to went quiet. I asked her what was wrong. She paused and then said, three hours, wow, we are only at two minutes. It feels like we will never get to three hours. All I can do is nod my head. When a client says this, and almost every client does at some point, it always makes me feel sad. I don't feel sad because they are right. They are only at two minutes, and they want to be able to leave for two hours. Their journey will take as long as it takes, and it does seem impossible. I am sad because the sadness or frustration they are feeling is not deserved. They are falling into the very human trap of comparing their beginning to someone else's ending. It is just not a fair comparison.
My name is Xena, I am a 1 yr old Cavapoo, and thanks to Sharon, I overcame my fear and panic. If my mom left me alone, it would take me less than 1 minute to be paralyzed with fear. I cried, scratched frantically, bit at the bars of my crate to try to get to my mother’s lap. If I lost sight of her, I became so scared that she always took me with her. In the winter, my mom made sure my car crate ( which I could relax in even if my mom left me alone in the car) was covered with a quilt so I would not get cold. The seasons changed, and it was too hot to stay in my car crate, so my mom sought a dog behaviour specialist who could help both of us.
My mom found Sharon at Hanging with Hounds, who seemed like a kind, gentle soul who might be able to teach me not to panic when my mom left me for any amount of time. I started to trust Sharon, who would teach my mom how to desensitize me slowly. My mom and I worked hard. Slowly, ever so slowly, over three months, I learned how to relax and not worry or panic when she left me. It is newfound freedom for both of us, but I am so proud after three months, my mom can have self-care time, time to shop, or to do chores without me having a panic attack.
Separation anxiety is unlike any other kind of canine behaviour and the training is unlike any other kind of dog training. It is an exercise in nuance. It is the study of one.
When people are living with a dog suffering from separation anxiety they can feel desperate. They are torn between trying to do what is best for their pet and being angry and resentful at the same time. After all, this isn't what they dreamed of when they added a dog to their family. Often, when a client finally reaches out for help, they are at the end of their rope. They have followed all the advice from Dr.Google. They have listened to their family and friends. They have done things they regret and have spent a lot of time and money trying things that just haven't worked. They are tired and frustrated and starting to resent their dog.
It isn't the dog's fault. They can no more control their panic than I can speak without an Australian accent. It is who I am and your dog is who they are. By the time a client reaches out to me, they are desperate for a solution. They want their life back. They sign up for the minimum program of 4-weeks and secretly go in believing that in four weeks all will be right with their world again. And boy, do I wish that would be the case. Four weeks is the bare minimum that it will take and yes, I have had a handful of clients that are able to be left alone in four weeks, but this is the exception, not the rule. Typically if we see these results then we are not dealing with a strict interpretation of separation anxiety. In these cases, we are most likely dealing with frustration or a case of FOMO (fear of missing out).
Separation anxiety training takes a big commitment for the family. It requires a daily focus and in the beginning, you don't see very much progress. While this is the case, it is probably the most important phase as everyone is learning. Your dog is learning that with each absence he is safe. You are learning the subtle ways in which our dogs communicate with us. You are learning that this is a race of the tortoise and the hare. In this case, the tortoise is the hero and when you think you are going too slow, you probably need to go even slower.
This is a long blog!
I think separation anxiety is one of the most challenging dog behaviours to live with. Not being able to leave your home without worrying about your dog or worrying about your home is challenging. It is not uncommon for people to be stressed, and worried and angry or resentful. After all, this was not on the list of things you sought when you decided to add a dog to your family. The whys and wherefores of what separation anxiety is will be the subject of a different blog (stay tuned). This blog is about the myths and boy, are there some myths out there. Dr. Google and friends or family will have no shortage of advice for you. This often adds to your guilt and frustration. Unfortunately, while well-intentioned, at best some of the advice may not be helpful and some, well, some is just downright harmful.
As is the case with most dog training, the first answer is ‘it depends’. What I mean by this is that each dog is different and some of the myths presented here may just work well for ‘your’ dog. But in my experience as someone who works with separation anxiety is that for most dogs, these approaches will not work and may just make your situation worse. While pursuing these avenues you are wasting time and money and you and your dog are continuing to suffer.