What Google Doesn’t Tell You: The Truth About Dog Separation Anxiety
Updated: Oct 30, 2020
If you’re a dog parent dealing with your puppy or dog’s separation anxiety, I freakin’ feel ya.
In doing my research on separation anxiety in dogs, there hasn’t really been too much talk about the stress and anxiety it gives to the pet owners. In today's climate, we're really starting to talk about mental health and the struggles that come with life. So, I wanted to sit down and write directly to you. The owner who’s dealing with this on a daily basis.
Because it’s hard on us, too.
Everyone’s situation is different. Everyone has their own pet with their own unique personality so the solution that’ll work for your pet family may not work well for another.
There are multiple ways to deal with separation anxiety and every single case is different, but some popular ways include:
Consistent work with a trainer
Reinforcing crate training
Daily doggie daycare
Hiring a pet sitter / dog walker
Bringing your pet to work
Medication for your dog
Confidence building / calm building
Reconditioning thought processes
Getting a second dog
And soooo much more.
Some of these might have worked for you, others not. Some of these don’t really solve the problem, but it’s the only way to manage it. Regardless, you’ve probably spent TONS of money and TONS of time and TONS of energy, right?
Separation anxiety is a long battle - one that your pet will not simply “get over.”
So, I’d like to take some time to talk about the pet owner perspective: the struggles, the triumphs, the lessons, and the tips!
1. It’s okay to get frustrated.
I don’t think most people realize the frustration and stress that comes when your pet is experiencing separation anxiety. In fact, I know several people who don’t even believe that pets can experience these sort of cognitive behavioral issues.
Well, I’ve seen it first hand. I know other people with pets experiencing separation anxiety. Heck, even several prestigious universities have programs or centers specifically dedicated to animal cognition, like Duke and Yale’s Canine Cognition Centers.
What your pets are experiencing is a complicated cognitive behavioral issue, which a lot of us would go to therapy for and learn how to live with through verbal communication. Well, dogs can’t really do that, can they??
So, it’s up to us as pet owners to help our dogs reprocess and rethink learned behaviors. And that takes time. And patience. And extra wine. Just kidding...sort of.
I’m writing all of this to tell you that, it’s okay to get frustrated. It’s hard sometimes to get in the mindset that your pet is struggling, too! It’s hard to realize that my puppy had an accident because he was SOOOO stressed and he couldn’t help it. It’s hard to keep from thinking that he’s doing it just to get back at me.
So, if you’re feeling frustrated or overwhelmed, know that you’re not alone. It’s okay to feel that way.
A close friend of mine (who has a dog with his own health issues) told me that the pet owners who can deal with these behaviors, will deal with them. And it’s because we are the pet owners who will put in the work and won’t just leave the dogs on the side of the road. We will love them and work to help them.
I like to think about that when I get frustrated.
2. Visualization can help.
If you’re into energy and mindset at all, visualization can do wonders for dealing with separation anxiety. I truly believe in the power of the energy we give off and the impact it has on me, my home, my dog, and the relationship/bond I have with him.
Visualization has been a technique I was recently introduced to and has proven to be pretty powerful. This one is rather simple: every morning (or at least every day), TRULY get in the mindset of seeing your dog on the other side of this battle.
Imagine that you’re away from home. Maybe on a date or with some friends and you pull up the camera to see what your dog is doing, and you see him relaxing on the couch, sleeping away. Maybe he gets up for a drink of water and goes back laying down or chewing on his chew.
Can you visualize it?! From there, start working on visualizing the feelings you have associated with that occurring. Is it excitement? Relief? Joy? Do you want to skip down the street and sing? Really internalize these emotions and feelings and start to purposefully visualize it every single day.
If this makes you uncomfortable, I at least urge you to try, with the intention of making it work. For those unsure about energy, you can find some explanations on why it works here. We evolved from needing negativity bias in order to survive. But now, it just means being negative in our innate thinking. If you find yourself always thinking, “WHY is this happening to me!?” or “Why can’t my dog just be normal?,” this is exactly what we’re talking about here.
“The subconscious mind accepts the thoughts that you often repeat and changes your mindset accordingly, as well as your habits and actions. Your new habits and action, often, bring you into contact with new people, situations and circumstances that tend to help you achieve the goals you have been thinking about.” - By Remez Sasson
3. Write it down.
There’s no doubt that if you’ve been at this for a while, that there have been SOME improvements in your pup. They might be miniscule, but they are improvements.
When we tell people, “Oh my gosh. We were able to leave Wilson for 3 minutes today!,” they look at us like, 'what the heck is wrong with you?' But to us, that was a HUGE breakthrough. We started this process with only being able to take one step away from his mat and then come back to treat him for staying.
Writing down these improvements can help you realize the strides your pup is making. Not only that, but it can help you see what’s working and what’s not. Is there a certain time of day that he is worse or better? What about treats? You may think treats don’t work, but have you tried x, y, or z? It’s time to break out the arsenal, write everything down, and try everything. You never know what might work for your dog, environment, family, etc. no matter how out there or random it might seem. Same goes for his triggers. It may be something you think is completely unrelated, like...making coffee in the morning or brushing your hair.
4. You absolutely need a trainer (but not just any trainer).
Consistent training is essential for separation anxiety. There are soooooo many components, strategies, cues, etc. that we don’t know about or understand. Not even that, but even after hours of research on my end, there are still things that are peculiar to my situation and my dog. Enter...the trainer!
Questions to think about when looking for the right trainer:
Does he/she have experience with separation anxiety or serious behavioral issues?
Do they truly care for your pet?
Do they understand the impact all of this has on you as a pet owner?
Are they telling you they have a “quick” fix? → If so, run!
I don’t know how many times I’ve told our trainer that she’s a godsend to my dog and my family. I honestly don’t know what we’d do without her. She truly understands the time we’ve dedicated and sacrificed for Wilson, and even understands when I need to vent to her with my frustrations.
But, most of all, I don’t think we’d be seeing the improvements in Wilson if it weren’t for her.
Separation anxiety is a complicated and serious condition that needs to be properly addressed over time and I didn’t fully understand that until our trainer came into the picture.
The process of reconditioning your pet’s thought processes and experiences is LONG and HARD. And you need professional help for that.
5. Patience is key (even when you don’t have it).
This will not go away overnight. And even when your pup makes improvements, expect some regression, too. Two steps forward, one step back. It’s just how the cookie crumbles.
If you’re losing patience, step away. Alternate who stays home, maybe book a day of daycare or a night of boarding and give yourself a break. Your pup won’t get better if your energy and relationship suffers. So, do what you need to do to be fair with your dog and to yourself. If that means time away, do what you can to keep him with the least amount of stress as possible.
Separation anxiety is a battle for you, your pet, and your family. Know that your pet is truly struggling and doesn’t want to be feeling the way he’s feeling.
I once read somewhere: “Remember, your reactive, distracted, or fearful dog is not giving you a hard time. Your dog is having a hard time.”
Keep that in mind when going through separation anxiety with your pets.
P.S. my trainer told me she learned upwards of 45% of dogs experience some level of separation anxiety at some point in their lives. So, you are not alone in this battle.
If you ever need to vent, rant, or ask general advice, don’t hesitate to reach out to me.
**P.S. I’m obviously NOT a veterinarian, trainer, or therapist, so please take my advice and words with a grain of salt and seek professional advice before implementing any new techniques, behaviors, etc. with you or your pet. And if you’re in the San Diego area and would like to speak to our trainer, please reach out as well. She’s the best!