Separation Anxiety in Dogs: Five Steps to Sanity
Ever has it been that love knows not its own depth until the hour of separation.
- Khalil Gibran
Separation anxiety. I hate those words so much, because those two short words encompass such fear and terror, inadequately describing the mental state of a dog who is experiencing the condition. I personally believe that “separation trauma” or even “separation madness” may be better descriptions of this condition, even if only marginally. Because after all, in order to work with a behavior, an adequate understanding of the emotions of, as well as empathy for, the poor creature experiencing the condition, is absolutely necessary.
First, understand that dogs and wolves are virtually the same creature. Running parallel along the same course, if you will. Obviously there are some minor differences (appearance, not the least), but even the rather un-wolflike Cocker Spaniel can breed with a wolf, that’s how closely aligned they are. Humans can only procreate with other humans.
Now, there are a few differences between dogs and wolves that need to be address. Namely, that dogs are essentially wolves that are mentally adolescent or younger their entire lives.
Some are mentally more immature than others. Not stupid; nor backwards in any way. Just not mentally matured to that of a wolf. To put it in human terms, think of a Lab as a 5-year old child. They ask a lot of questions, but mostly of a benign, if not mildly annoying nature. Think of the types of questions a 5-year old human may ask:
“Can I have cake for dinner? Can I play in the mud?”
Nothing dangerous, just merely annoying.
Think of your typical Beagle as more of a 12 year old kid. Definitely more money in their Piloting Piggy Bank, and the questions may not be as constant, but are starting to take a little more Piloting to answer them. They won’t just accept your answer “just because”, and their questions are a little more difficult:
“Can I nip you if I don’t like your answer? Can I make this intruder you call ‘Grandma’ go away?”
Answering their questions with a “because I said so” isn’t going to work. They are a little more mature mentally, and require good answers.
Finally we have dogs like the Akita. I hate that these guys get such a bad rep. They aren’t bad dogs at all, some just have a lot of money in their Piloting Piggy Banks. They are like a 17 year old. They can take care of themselves. Are they fully mature? No. But are they going to take any answer you give them? Not unless you have have a better reason why they should? (Hint: it should never involve violence nor pain!) In other words, they will love you and be loyal, but they definitely aren’t your minions. They will do things the way they think is best, not necessarily the way you wanted them to.
Now, this is a very simplified explanation. I prefer to know who a dog is as an individual, rather than what their breed is. I’ve seen a mentally “5-year old” Akita, as well as Labs that mentally, were like wizened, sage old creatures. But it’s a rough outline of where to start with dog behaviors. “Mental age” is one of the first things I use to determine who your Fido is; breed is one of the last.
That being said, if you are at an amusement park with your five-year old child, and they suddenly get separated from you and lost, how is that child reacting?
Not very well, I daresay. The world is big and scary, and they have questions. Who will take care of them? Who will keep them safe? It’s pure terror until you’re reunited again.
Let’s move on to that Beagle. If you get separated from a 12-year old kid, they’re a little frightened, but they are mature enough not to immediately hit the panic button, and will most likely be able find an employee of the park to ask an adult how to handle the situation. Still scary, but not absolutely terrified. They are still a little panicked, but can think rationally. They can cope better.
But then we have the 17 year-olds, like the aforementioned Akita. What happens when they get separated from you?
Back to terror. Wait, huh? I thought they were mentally more mature, you may ask. Yes, but they may have so much money in their Piloting Piggy Bank that it’s more than yours. Meaning they’re terrified for you. Who will protect and care for you while you’re separated. Ugh. It can be a vicious circle! A dog who’s mentally too immature will be scared for itself. A dog who’s mentally more mature is terrified for you. How to fix the issue: a frightened creature who is shredding their bedding and their crate just to get out so they can shred your couch. Crying, whining, drooling, even urination and defecation in their crate. It’s horrible, and as I said, all driven by fear.
Well, I’m not going to say it’s easy to fix. As a matter of fact, it’s one of the most difficult behaviors to work with when addressing issues with dogs. But it can be treated. Never cured, for that fear will always be under the surface, but it can be managed. Here’s how.
1) Become Pilot.
I don’t care how much money your dog has in their Piloting Piggy Bank, you need more. If your dog has $5.00 in their Piloting Piggy Bank, then I want you to have $2 million in your Piloting Piggy Bank. If your dog has $100 (my friend's Jack Russell Terrorists Terriers) then I want you to have at least $5 million dollars. In other words, you have so much money in your Piloting Piggy Bank that they start to accept that you answered the last 25 of their questions well (read: nobody died and they are now calm) that the next question they ask will most likely be answered well by you; calmly, and with love, but firmly. You need to make sure you have a buffer of Piloting money, in other words. Remember, working with separation anxiety doesn’t start when you leave Bella the Boxer to go to work. It’s an ongoing, non-stop thing. You’re working on it every time Bella asks if she can rudely jump on you and you give her a negative. In other words, any questions you Pilot your dog through adds to the money in your Piloting Piggy Bank.
Now, each question is worth a certain amount of money. For instance, if I drop food on the floor, my Sparta will ask if she may have it. I need precisely $0.02 in my Piloting Piggy Bank to answer her question. My Orion, though, will ask the same question, but it’s worth more to him. I need about $10.00 in my Piloting Piggy Bank to answer that question. It’s all good, though. Because I’m rich. I have millions in my Piloting Piggy Bank. Enough to cover almost any questions my dogs may ask, including
“Am I going to die if you leave me home alone?” My answer? No, honey, you’re not going to die.
“Are you going to die if you leave?” No, I’m a big girl with lots of money in my bank. I’ll be safe, too.
So start saving that Piloting money!
2) Make the Abnormal into Normal
Think about the times when you put your dog into the crate: when you leave and when you go to bed. Both times you are separated from your dog, the thing they hate the most: separation. So that crate has become a trigger for them. The Worst Thing Ever is about to happen. It energizes them, and not in a good way. You haven’t even left yet, and they’re already starting with that anxious behavior.
We need to change the ritual. Put them in the crate when you’re home, anywhere from 30 seconds to 2 hours. Yes, I know you feel badly for doing that when they’re already crated so much while you work. Too bad. I don’t care how you feel: I care about getting your dog past their horrific fear. You feel bad. They feel like they’re having a panic attack. So just deal with it. It will be okay. I promise.
3) Red Light/Green Light
In order to recreate a behavior, such as calm in the crate, we need to catch the behavior and give it either a positive or a negative. Now, let’s set the game rules. The object of the game isn’t to have your dog sitting calmly in the crate. The object is to catch moments when your dog is just a little bit calmer than they were a moment ago. Respond to that with positives.
So you’ve locked your dog in the crate, and they immediately start going bonkers. Walk away. Not out of the house, but out of sight. There will be a moment when the barking, while not stopping, lessens. Or even a split second where the barking stops. You seize those moments to slowly move closer to the dog (the positive here).
If your dog’s energy picks up, you will be responding to that with calm, gentle negatives. Initially, it will be turning away from your dog when they start barking again, perhaps going into the other room.
Keep working at catching each of these behaviors. Red light (walking away, going into another room) when your dog has increased their energy. Green light (moving closer to them in a calm manner, and eventually giving them a treat, and or releasing them) when your dog is calmer. Initially the red light/green light will be pretty fast. But pretty soon they start to understand what behavior gets them released from prison and brings you closer. Start to up the ante. Put them in the crate and walk out of the house. Walk right back in. Red Light/Green Light your dog as necessary, but adding very little of your own energy. This should be the most boring thing you’ve ever done, according to your body language.
4) Remain Calm and With Bored Body Language
This goes for everything from greeting your pup to saying goodbye to your pooch. Everything is boring and normal. We, like dogs, are gregarious creatures, often using others' body language to determining threats.. We meerkat, as I call it. We look around at what everyone else is doing. If nobody else looks panicked, then we don’t panic.
But if you’re in a crowd of people, and suddenly, 2 or three of them start meerkatting, you start doing it, too, because you want to do know what the big deal is.