Patricia Clemons and her partner Chris are absolutely in love with their dog Samantha, but it hasn’t been an easy road. Samantha is just under three years old, but she hasn’t lived with Patricia and Chris since puppyhood. She was acquired by Patricia’s grandmother about two years prior when Samantha was still a wee ball of wiry fluff. She was adored by everyone in the family, but particularly by Nanna Clemons who formed a close bond with the pup.
But sadly, seven months ago, Samantha’s life changed as Nanna had to move to a care facility, so the immediate family brought Samantha into their home. To any onlooker, Samantha is the epitome of a happy and boisterous young dog. However, there is a slightly different story to be seen. When she is left home alone, she becomes mournful, panicked, and terrified. She is suffering from a condition commonly referred to as separation anxiety.
Now more than ever, as the world starts to return to work and other life activities, the prevalence of separation anxiety has the potential to reach epidemic proportions. Many dogs have never been left alone, and others have now spent a very long time with people present virtually 24/7. While not all dogs will suffer from separation-related problems post-pandemic, now (literally right this moment) is the time to start preparing our dogs for our eventual return to “normal” lives.
According to Kastle Systems, the percentage of workers back in the office rose to just above 28% last week. This security company measures the number of employees who swipe cards to enter offices in ten of the nation’s largest business districts. Many of us haven’t realized how many people are still working from home and lots of them have dogs. For this remaining 72%, it is time to focus on preparing their dogs for alone-time success.
According to the 2020 research that appeared in Frontiers of Veterinary Science, 22-55% of the dog population are believed to show signs of separation anxiety. They make up between 14 and 40% of dog behavior referral cases. For ease of math, if 50% of dogs suffer from separation anxiety, that would be equivalent to 38 million dogs in the United States alone. This is indeed a welfare issue for pet dogs and for the people that love them.
Luckily, there is good news. Separation anxiety is a fixable issue with training and sometimes medical intervention as well. The problem does not resolve quickly, though, and that is why it is so imperative that dog owners start training their dogs now to prepare for eventual alone time.
As we grow closer to the return-to-life activities, my first recommendation for any dog owner is to get a brief baseline video of what their dog does when left alone. We are so fortunate to have easy-to-use technology to watch our dogs live from our phones or record them for future reference. There are few people out there now who have not heard of Zoom and using this simple platform can allow dog owners to observe their dog’s behavior when they are away from the house.
For some dogs, the indication of anxiety is truly immediate. A few seconds or so is all it takes before symptoms like howling, drooling, pacing, panting, or destruction are evident. Other dogs may take longer to start to show signs of distress, and in part, it is that starting panic point that we are trying to gauge with any dog. Fortunately, not all dogs will have a difficult time returning to alone time, but I feel strongly that all dogs should be assessed to make certain of their comfort.
Once an assessment has been completed, training in earnest can begin. The process by which we start training is based on the same practices used for humans with fears and phobias. This training process developed in the 1950s is called systematic desensitization. This means there is a gentle, gradual exposure to a feared stimulus at a level that can be successfully tolerated. When conducting this type of training, the dog must always be kept beneath the point where there are indications of distress. This humane process has been verified as the gold standard in the extensive research on separation anxiety conducted over the past four decades.
For Samantha, since we knew that she was not panicking until she was alone for more than one minute, we could begin our training conservatively with her caregivers outside of the home for 30 seconds. This may sound ridiculously short, but our data and experience have shown that faster progress can be made if we start well under the dog’s threshold of fear.
Separation anxiety is often misinterpreted. Patricia and Chris learned quickly that Samantha was not giving them a hard time; she was having a hard time. It is not uncommon that dog owners assume these alone-time behaviors are simply the dog being naughty or spiteful. This has been categorically shown not to be the case. As such, we need to have so much compassion for the terror that the dog is experiencing and be mindful that methods that could scare the dog further should be strictly avoided.
While it is impossible to give detailed advice on how to resolve separation-related problem behaviors in a short article, there are several things that dog guardians should know.
While successful, this is a slow training process that takes patience. Keeping the pace of the protocol at a level the dog can successfully handle without fear is the absolute fastest way to full resolution. There is no quick fix to separation anxiety, and even the FDA-approved separation anxiety medications are intended only to be used in conjunction with behavior modification training. The important takeaway is that it can be ameliorated.
Owners must understand that their dog’s separation anxiety is not a result of them spoiling the dog. As defined in the research, spoiling refers to things like cuddling on the couch, sleeping in the bed, giving lots of treats, or taking the dog out on errands. These things do not cause separation anxiety. Owners, please absolve yourselves of any guilt that you might be feeling about your dog’s condition and let go of the self-blame. You can help your dog with systematic training.
Finally, and maybe most importantly, you can do this. There are numerous separation anxiety trainers available to help you, several low-cost online courses to support you (including my own Mission POSSIBLE course), and loads of veterinarians and other dog professionals that can be there for you. If you take nothing else away from this article, please know that separation anxiety is fixable.
Samantha is one of many hundreds of dogs that we have worked with over the last two decades, and she is a perfect example of a dog who now rests comfortably when her owners are away from home. This is what we are striving for, and this is what can be accomplished!