How to Change Separation Anxiety in Dogs
When deciphering if your dog has either Separation Anxiety or Isolation Distress, keep in mind that both are what is referred to as a “syndrome,” a grouping of behaviors your dog displays regularly that signal us that the condition is present.
Much like a human fear or anxiety, several consistent behaviors can be observed which are heightened and prevent the person’s ability to function fully in situations where the fear or anxiety is present. In the case of our dog, the situation is about being alone.
We touched on this in our last video (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UTuoif0xhwA), but let’s take a little deeper dive into how we change our dog’s behavior when left alone.
The key to long term improvement and success is to change our dog’s emotional state, and therefore their outward response, to being left alone. It is our dog’s outlook and how it affects them emotionally that causes their behavior. Without changing their perspective, we are merely stifling their outward reaction, but they still have the same issue.
Looking for a Quick Fix
Over the years, having lived with two dogs who suffered from separation issues, I know all too well the deep desire to make this problem go away, and quickly. However, when changing a dog’s behavior it takes time, just as it does when we want to change our own behavior. Both of my dogs fully recovered from their separation issues. It did take dedicated time and effort to bring them confidence and calm when alone, but it was completely worth it for their quality of life and mine.
It’s a great time to have a dog with Separation Anxiety! It is the most researched behavior, providing us with solid information on the topic that we can rely upon in how we change this behavior. Research tells us that teaching our dogs to feel safe when alone eliminates the problem behaviors we see.
What Does Work? Desensitization.
In the case of Separation Anxiety Desensitization, this is a process in which your dog becomes less aroused, less sensitive to, and/or less fearful of alone time. As your dog becomes desensitized, they will be more comfortable, relaxed, confident and more capable of learning new associations and behaviors.
The scientific behavior modification term for this path is called, “Desensitization.” A fancy term, but a very simple process in which we gradually expose your dog to absences and longer and longer durations of those absences. When done carefully, and with attention to our dog’s body language responses and our timing, we can successfully leave them alone without those stress responses.
Here's a bit of info to de-code the terms and process with the specific issue of separation in dogs…
Merriam-Webster defines Desensitization as follows:
to make (a sensitized or hypersensitive individual) insensitive or nonreactive to a sensitizing agent.
This is the visual, audible and prolonged absence of your dog’s primary person or people in their life. It causes an emotional and, usually, physical response in a dog which is heightened and more intense than other items.
This is the point at which a Trigger is at a strong enough intensity to cause a heightened reaction. All animals (including humans) show joy, fear, anxiety, aggression, or other strong emotional reactions towards certain Triggers.
However, sometimes these reactions may be disproportionate (abnormal) to a stimuli in comparison to the average animal’s reaction to that same stimuli. For example, you may be only mildly disturbed by spiders or not afraid of them at all. But your friend may scream in horror and jump into your arms when they see even a video of a spider. Your friend’s Threshold is much lower for spiders than your high Threshold.
Psychologists who treat these behaviors understand that in order to treat it correctly, the patient needs to be UNDER Threshold for effective behavior modification. This same concept is applied in modifying a dog’s behavior. It is important to know what your dog’s specific Triggers are which send them over their Threshold reacting abnormally.
In your friend’s case, perhaps we would first only show her cartoon drawings of spiders with smiles on their faces to present the Trigger at a low intensity to allow her to stay calm and look at the pictures with little to no negative reaction. She may even giggle at the absurd drawing - creating a positive feeling and association with spiders. This low intensity starting point allows us to increase the intensity of the Trigger slowly, over time, by, perhaps, introducing actual photos of spiders with her still able to remain calm. We would only move forward with this higher level of intensity when she is consistently able to be calm at the lower Threshold level.
In changing Separation issues, the Trigger can be everything leading up to and including you leaving them alone. The Threshold means the level of Intensity at which your dog becomes emotionally overwhelmed and can no longer cope with the level of Intensity.
Many factors can contribute to your dog’s perception of the Intensity; how long you are absent, exiting alone or multiple household members exiting at the same time, putting on casual shoes vs. work shoes, only walking away from the home vs. your dog hearing your car door open or the car driving away. All of these factors and more influence the Intensity of your dog’s reaction to being left alone.
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