Fixing The Unfixable: A New Approach To Treating Separation Anxiety

With Malena DeMartini 

Early pioneer of applied training Bob Bailey often says dog training is simple, but it’s not easy. Never is this more true than with separation anxiety—both for the trainer and, especially, for the client. The training concepts behind treating separation anxiety are fairly simple. There’s no rocket science involved in suspending absences, practicing them, and building canine confidence through exercises like go to your mat and stay. Yet few trainers are willing to tackle SA, and the case resolution record historically has been pretty dismal. Though the disorder is reversible in most cases and the treatment protocols straightforward, straightforward doesn’t mean easy.

For one thing, separation anxiety is fraught with emotion for both the trainer and the client. Trainers know that failed case resolution can have devastating consequences for the client and the dog. And clients are suffering from a maelstrom of emotions: fear, frustration, embarrassment, anger, hopelessness.

Support, Support, Support
If there is one essential ingredient for successful treatment of separation anxiety it is the unyielding support from a compassionate and skilled trainer. Clients must be carried through the early days and weeks of treatment when it is for them unfathomable that the one or two minute absences they’re being asked to work on will ever translate to hours. They must be cheerlead through the breakthrough moments and buoyed up after a setback. They must be taught to see the minute bits of progress they’ll likely overlook but that you know are great signs of forward movement and hope.

Add to this that clients must be actively taught how to work with their SA dog day-to-day. They have to learn to read body language and set criteria effectively. Knowing when to push, drop, or stick absence criteria is paramount to making consistent progress and avoiding setbacks. In short, an SA trainer’s job involves working tirelessly with clients to help them through the steps of desensitizing their dogs to absences while keeping them motivated to do so.

Case resolution is significantly improved by structuring your practice to provide contact with clients several days a week. The old structure of meeting with clients once a week just doesn’t cut it here. Use of technology—phone, email, and live web sessions—will greatly enhance your ability to provide the support clients need without the largely unnecessary pressure of traveling to clients’ homes.

Use Technology
Using video and web technology also offers tremendous breakthroughs in controlling criteria and thus maximizing progress. These technologies allow us to view the dog in real time during an absence, to watch his body language and judge how long an absence can be. We know for sure whether we are keeping the dog under threshold—the most important aspect of the training plan itself.

For example, say we’re “meeting” with a client for a weekly online training session using one of the many applications now available for such work, including iCam, Ustream, or Skype. A camera is set up to watch the dog while the owner exits. The trainer watches the dog from home on her computer while the client watches from outside her own home on her smart phone. The client and trainer are connected by phone as well. This allows the trainer to narrate the dog’s body language for the client and tell her when to go back in and why. Over time, the trainer’s job is to teach the client to make these decisions for herself, to learn how to set safe criteria. The video sessions also allow the trainer to set criteria for the days in between shared sessions and to provide explicit written instructions for the client to follow. (This task will eventually be taken over by the client under the trainer’s supervision as well.)

Set Criteria
When setting criteria, remember that the goal is to keep the dog under threshold at all times; he should never experience fear or panic during an absence, as that sets the training back. So say that in watching a dog during a one minute absence you observe that he remains lying down or chewing on a dog toy, without any concern. Now you know you can push criteria to the next level by adding a bit more duration or perhaps the next step in the absence puzzle, such as opening the garage door. Let’s say for this example that you choose to add another minute. But while watching this next step you notice at the minute and a half mark that the dog is beginning to look at the door worriedly, or gets up and begins to pant or pace. Based on this body language observation you know that two minutes will be too much; we need to stay below a minute and half for multiple repetitions before we can safely push the duration further, so you send the client back in early to avoid a setback.

The body language signals to look for are subtle, as we want to catch any mistakes at the point of mild discomfort or worry—not fear or panic. We’re looking for worried-looking eyes, lip licking, panting, displacement cues, walking to the door, vigilant sniffing. Any of these signals tell us to drop criteria and build up more gradually.

Wow, This Is A Lot Of Work
It is a lot of work, no doubt about it. And it’s easy to go unpaid for it. The typical model of training is to charge only for in-person time with the client. This model doesn’t work for effective separation anxiety treatment. No amount of support skills and high tech tools will help your business if you aren’t being paid for your work. It’s one of the most difficult aspects of separation anxiety training — our typical model of being paid for just the time we’re at the client’s home leaves SA trainers working untold numbers of unpaid hours providing email and phone support in between appointments. This time and the time spent reviewing video recordings, etc., must be compensated.

Structure The Work
The successful treatment of separation anxiety requires more regular client contact and, without a realistic appraisal of the client consult time this requires, SA trainers quickly find themselves giving far more than they’re paid for as they field odd-hour calls and emails from distraught owners.

We recommend using a package pricing structure — a package that includes weekly support time. If you begin with the expectation that SA treatment will require more hours of client support, you can build these hours into your package. A typical package might include:

  • An initial consult: history-taking, assessment, and an outline of beginning training steps
  • Weekly support: training steps, pre-scheduled phone calls (approx. 30 minutes each) for check-in and guided absence work, and time to answer client emails
  • Phone or email support at an additional hourly rate for anything above and beyond the weekly package boundaries

This kind of structure allows you to provide the support clients need. A typical client might require three to five days of contact per week, including two 30-minute phone calls and two or three emails per week — quite different from the usual one-hour-per-week model.

Time is crucial here. Because separation anxiety is no quick-fix, require that your clients commit to a minimum number of weeks up front (a four-week commitment, for example). Take payment up front, too. (Setting up payment plans by taking credit cards will give more clients access to your services.) Making this commitment up front will help clients see the process through when there’s a setback or progress isn’t as fast as they’d hoped, despite your best attempts to set realistic expectations. Your ultimate goal is to change the dog’s behavior and give him and his owner relief from this tragic situation. Set everyone up for success by ensuring there will be enough time to make real progress.

Schedule Yourself
Adding all these extra support and tech hours into your schedule may require rethinking how you manage your time in general. We suggest using a master calendar designed to provide time for all the activities involved in your work. A master calendar splits your work week into specific slots for each task, ensuring time for everything without rushing, borrowing from your days off, or watching balls fall from the air.

All trainers should carve out specific time slots for client appointments, blocks of time for business administration (regular emails and calls, billing, paperwork, etc.), and blocks of time for working on marketing.

If you take on separation anxiety, you’ll also want to add specific time each week for viewing video tape or monitoring online video feeds, either alone or with the client, making support calls and answering support emails, plus the inevitable emergency appointments.

Instead of feeling frustrated by emergency appointments, expect them and build them into your calendar. That said, keep proper boundaries in mind. Even SA trainers should have set business hours and their counterpart — set non-business hours. Let your clients know what these are and turn your phone off when you aren’t supposed to be working. You’ll help many more dogs over the course of your career if you avoid early burnout from being constantly on call.

Market It
So you have some new technology, and a new pricing package. Now what? New clients, of course, still need to find you. As always, we recommend solid community marketing for your business as a whole. Here are a few specific suggestions for separation anxiety.

When writing about SA on your website and other marketing materials, be sure to describe the presenting behaviors, as many owners won’t connect the symptoms they see at home with the overall diagnosis, and they may not have encountered the term separation anxiety. Think in terms such as home-alone training, house destruction, house soiling or potty training problems, barking, etc.

Cases are most likely to come to you through referral sources, so focus on marketing your separation anxiety niche to vets, shelters and rescues, dog walkers and daycares, and pet stores, ensuring that you’ll be the first trainer on their minds when they come across dogs with SA. And don’t forget your fellow trainers. Most of them are likely to refer separation anxiety cases on — make sure they know who to send them to.

How to let all of these referral sources in on your specialty? Use community marketing projects that show off your expertise, such as creating a branded handout about separation anxiety. Offer a staff training lecture to vet clinics, shelters, and rescue groups about recognizing signs of SA and how to counsel owners of dogs with separation anxiety to get professional assistance from a qualified trainer. Do the same for dog daycares and dog walkers, who are often hired by owners tired of coming home to irate neighbors or chewed door frames. Send copies of your behavior reports for separation anxiety clients to their vets and to the shelter they adopted from (with the client’s permission, always). Write an article about separation anxiety for local publishing and/or distribute it among your fellow dog professionals. Create a brochure specifically about home-alone training problems. Use social media like Facebook to share separation anxiety success stories.

Approached with new tech tools and business strategies, treating separation anxiety can be a powerful niche for growing your training business. And there is little else as satisfying as a resolved separation anxiety case. After all, we’re all in this game to keep dogs in their homes.


Malena DeMartini, CTC, is a San Francisco SPCA Academy graduate with over 15 years’ experience and many hundreds of successful separation anxiety cases under her belt. Her use of simple technologies and a different approach to client support to treat separation anxiety is leading this area of the training and behavior field. Her articles have been featured in multiple industry journals and she regularly travels far and wide to share her expertise. Malena teaches an online certification program for experienced dog trainers interested in learning more effective ways of treating separation anxiety.

You can see Malena DeMartini and dogbiz’ Gina Phairas present about successful approaches to separation anxiety in the Fixing The Unfixable DVD available on our DVDs page.