ClickerSolutions Training Articles

Separation Anxiety

My greyhound, Willow, had full-blown, severe separation anxiety. I tried various things, but no one "trick" worked, and I regret the wasted time and pain to my pup while I puttered around. I got the help of a behaviorist, got a comprehensive program to combat this problem, and we finally have it under control. Here's what worked for us:

  • Clomipramine. It does not have an immediate, dramatic effect -- it works subtly, over time, usually starting a month or so after the dog starts taking it. He may need to take it only during the re-training, or for a long time; your vet or a behaviorist would be able to help you decide if and when to decrease it. I don't give meds lightly -- I am generally a believer in natural remedies, but things like Valerian, Bach's Rescue Remedy, St. John's Wort and other OTC remedies, (yes, I tried each!) don't seem to be effective for full-out SA.
  • Crating -- Willow endangered herself and my house without it. A dog that is desperate to get to you may rip splintery pieces out of doorframes and windowsills, and may even try to jump through a closed window. If you can do without, great, but consider it if you need it -- no guilt!
  • Here's the biggy -- a full, gradual desensitization program, during which the dog is never left alone long enough to become even mildly upset, until you've licked the problem. This is very difficult for most folks, I know -- I am a teacher, and made it a summer-long project. But it was the only thing that worked. If you can do it alone, or with help from family or hired dog-sitters, it really is worth it.

    At each stage, you should never let the dog develop any stress. Signs of stress are: ignoring favorite treats, panting, whining, barking, digging and biting at barriers, drippy nose, and even just sitting up watching you, rather than lying down, fully relaxed. If the dog cannot be left alone without stress for 30 seconds, then don't leave him alone for 30 seconds.

    Throughout this process, you should be cheery and calm, never over-comforting or punishing the dog, not showing your own distress at a setback or nervousness about leaving the dog.

    • First, if you are using a crate or small area, and he has any anxiety about this area, make it a joyous place, where he gets special treats and toys -- start giving him the kind of treat-puzzle that you're going to use for departures (see below). Hang out near it, pet him, etc. Start with the door open, then try closing it briefly. If he shows no stress, close it for longer periods (but still only seconds, building up unevenly to minutes, etc.), while he's working on a treat. Watch for full relaxation in the crate before proceeding to the next step. This could take a day or weeks
    • Second, do many repetitions of any "departure cues," without going anywhere. For most folks, it's stuff like picking up keys, putting on a coat, etc. If he has already learned what signs mean you are going out, he needs to have these signs become meaningless again. Depending on how savvy he's gotten about your departure preparation, this could be one evening's work, or many days. Mix the signals -- weird combinations (like wearing a winter scarf and jingling your keys while sitting in an easy chair reading) may knock out the logic of what goes with what. I added the "going out" smells -- makeup, perfume -- on days when I was staying in. Do these things with him out of, and then in, the crate.
    • Third, when he shows no negative reaction to your departure cues or the crate, crate him, give him fabulous treats that require work to get into, and do very short departures. I cannot stress strongly enough that you are building a structure here -- if the base isn't firm, it will topple. You may get to this step in a few days, or in weeks.

Willow gets Kong toys filled with raw ground meat, ground veggies, and crushed dehydrated-fish-treat (very stinky!), frozen; I put something soft at the top (peanut butter or a piece of banana) to make sure she starts on them before I go. I've taken to freezing the mixture in lumps that are the right size to put in the Kong, on a cookie sheet, then bagging them for future use. Make sure he's started eating before you go out (refusal to eat is a hallmark of SA, and, if he hasn't started eating before you go, he won't start after). If there is anything else that changes when you leave the house, try to eliminate it .

Videotape if you can (another advantage to a crate is the ability to set up a camera that shows everything that happened while you were gone), and/or look for signs of stress when you come back -- shedding, dandruff, anything chewed or destroyed, terrible breath from panting and not drinking water (it's a very distinctive smell -- once you know it, you won't confuse it with anything else), etc. If there are any signs of stress, go back a few steps in the process.

Gradually increase the length of departures, but not in perfectly neat increments. You are trying to make a powerful, lasting impression that you USUALLY come right back, and that he is fine when you're gone. Neatly increasing the length runs the risk of proving that it will get predictably worse and worse! Here's a sample pattern of departures to start: out and RIGHT back in, 10 seconds, out-in, 20 seconds, out-in, 10 seconds, 30 seconds, out-in, one minute, 10 seconds, 2 minutes, out-in, 20 seconds, 3 minutes, out-in, 4 minutes, out-in, 1 minute, out-in, 5 minutes, etc. But don't do anything except out-in if he shows any signs of stress. I did 8-15 short departures on most days with Willow, and a few "saturation days" of 30-50 very short departures. Take the treat away most of the times you come in, so he begins to associate being alone with the fabulous treat (this may seem to contradict the advice about not having predictable departure cues, but, at this point, the dog should be convinced that being alone, briefly, is OK, and can even be pleasant). If you drive a car, some of the short departures should include your starting the car, then turning it off and coming right back in. When you're up to 5 minutes or so, some should include your driving around the block.

Once you are up to 10 minutes, you may increase departures by larger increments, but only do one or two at the length of the dog's longest tolerance each day, still mixed with a lot of very short ones. I went through a couple of weeks where I ran 2-3 errands every day, as I worked up from 15 minutes to 2 hours, in 5-15 minute increments, with a bunch of short departures in between. Once you are up to 2 hours, increase in half-hour, then hour increments, until you are up to the length of time you generally need. But always add a few very short departures at the beginning and end of each day's session, still including some that are just out-ins and 10-30 seconds. And don't forget, this is not in addition to leaving the dog for a normal day -- he can never be left alone longer than the longest current departure.

If he shows any stress, drop back to square one (you will be able to build up more quickly, but you need to check each "level" first). Once they've started adjusting to being alone, getting through the first hour or so seems to be the key for SA dogs, so that's how long the treats should last. Willow used to get 2-4 of her special Kongsicles; I just counted it as part of her regular diet. Now she's happy with just one. She doesn't get any breakfast on days when I stay home, which has made having me home less desirable to her. Now she dances with joy when I'm ready to go out, and leads me to the freezer to get her Kong. Believe me, we still have a wonderful bond, just a healthier one!

Thunder phobia is common in dogs with SA -- on stormy days at the beginning of this process, I didn't even try short departures. A storm, siren or hubbub outside of the house still gave Willow a few bad days at first, and sometimes a mild setback for a few weeks, but she's never gone back to full-blown, panicky SA.

  • Physical tiredness helps a lot -- give him as much exercise as possible before going out.
  • Make his day smoother, rather than having peaks and valleys of emotion. Ignore him for 10-15 minutes before leaving, and after coming home. When I came home during the time they were crated, Willow and her canine housemate, Music, needed to stay lying down, no whining, before they were let out, and nobody got petted if they were leaping around after they got out. I found a few things to do in the house before opening the crates, and then again before taking them outside. This is incredibly hard, totally against my loving nature (and my sympathy for any creature who needs to pee!), but it really helps. I gradually worked up to my sentimental, playful, loving self after I'd been home for a while. Willow no longer needs to be crated, but she and Music know to stay upstairs and be calm until I come up to them. I still get a joyous greeting, but not a desperate one.
  • Do other training besides the desensitization -- positive, operative conditioning training (clicker work, for example) is good. Trainers say it builds the dog's confidence, as well as the sense that you're a competent leader (so, when you act casual about leaving, the dog knows it must be safe). Train a down-stay, and gradually increase the amount of time -- up to 5 minutes with you in another room, if possible. It reinforces the idea that being away from you is OK. Our behaviorist also has us doing NILIF -- nothing in life is free. Willow needs to respond to a cue (sit, down, etc.) before getting fed, getting a toy she wants, getting her leash on for a walk, etc. Not a big hardship -- since I've used positive training, it's all a game to her.
  • A variety of humans -- if the dog doesn't have contact with a lot of other people, try to increase this. The idea that a lot of humans are wonderful sometimes makes them less dependent on the Beloved One. If other folks can walk him, feed him, dog-sit, whatever, that may help.

Some people leave TV, radio and/or lights on. If it's something you've done when you're out, he now associates it with being alone, so there's not much point in wasting the electricity! If you have a radio on most of the time when you're home, it might be worth it, since it's associated with your being home. It can also mask some noise from outdoors that may be upsetting.

Ellen Brown
copyright 2002 Ellen Brown


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