Got Confidence? Treating Separation Anxiety

By Malena DeMartini, author of Treating Separation Anxiety in Dogs

My second client ever was a separation anxiety case. The dog’s name was Guinness, like the beer, and his owners had found him sickly and tattered, scavenging for food somewhere on a California back road. They rescued him, bought him life-saving medical treatments, and nursed him back to health. Guinness was, under all the grime, a delightful bearded collie, who thrived in all ways but one. He couldn’t be left alone.

Freshly graduated from the San Francisco SPCA Academy for Dog Trainers, I went about my assignment with enough enthusiasm to power a cruise ship. Guinness’ owners and I set up a cozy confinement area and called it “The Pub,” so the command to go settle down became, “Guinness, go to The Pub.” I’m not sure who enjoyed that exercise more; the dog, who got treats every time, or the humans, who found it endlessly amusing to say. With this and a few other simple exercises, Guinness began to improve and soon, he was separation anxiety free. His owners thought I was a dog-training superstar, something I soberly considered. Why not? Maybe I had the magic touch?

It was a short-lived fantasy. Separation anxiety case number two brought me crashing back to earth. Orville, despite being on the same treatment plan that had so spectacularly cured Guinness, barely improved at all. Any progress we, his saintly owners and I, managed to coax forth was inchmeal and agonizingly slow. So slow I knew I had to be doing something wrong, but I had no idea what. Absent a better plan, I plugged on. It took months before Orville could be left alone at all and years, eventually, to get to a couple of hours. With the best will in the world he couldn’t be called cured.

The drastic contrast between Orville’s and Guinness’s responses plagued and intrigued me in equal measure. I felt compelled to figure out why the same treatment could lead to triumph and resounding failure, and I soon had more chances to test any theories I formed. Back then, much like now, most dog trainers cringed when approached about separation anxiety cases, so once word spread in the Bay Area training community that I was willing to take those on, I found myself doing nothing else.

There was Mookie with the out-of-control noise phobia, and Tug, whose timid overall nature sparked many treatment plan revisions. There was Nacho, who had trouble overcoming frustration, and Kaya, who, upon the owners’ return after even the briefest absence, would roll over and submissively urinate. I observed, made copious notes, scratched my head, changed tactics many times. My results ranged from super to so-so.

At some point in the mid-2000s I began video recording my cases and studying them for hours on end. And gradually, through years of working exclusively with separation anxiety cases, I discovered gaps in the textbook protocols and figured out ways to fill them.

Nowadays, my separation anxiety treatment plans strongly emphasize confidence-building exercises, especially at the beginning. The textbooks have us start treatment for example by spending oodles of time desensitizing to pre-departure cues. In my experience, this serves mostly to frustrate the owners and may cause them to lose their commitment to and enthusiasm for the entire process. Why start with independence training? Because the ability to self-soothe underlies all other steps. If the dog can’t, say, happily trot off to his bed away from Mom for a few moments, being alone for even ten minutes is a tall order and a recipe for failure once you move on to longer absences.

Confidence-building exercises teach the dog that he has some control over his own environment—and control over whether he’s able to feel good by himself—and that’s crucial to success. If the home-alone environment is scary and the dog doesn’t have any control over it, that compounds the problem. Empower the dog with these skills, teach him to self-soothe, and you bring about the type of confidence that allows advanced learning and new steps of autonomy (like alone time) to follow.

Personally, I use interactive games and toys to achieve this. Simple things like “go to your bed,” “relax/stay,” a brisk game of “find it,” and all manner of interactive toys and trick training. Whatever takes your fancy and engages the dog is fine as long as it builds the dog’s confidence because that, essentially, is how he learns to learn. Then, and only then, can the in-house, out-of-view absences begin. From there, you can move to out-of-house absences that slowly become longer, and so on. But teaching a dog confidence in the beginning of the program is fundamental to success—and a life free from anxiety for the dog.

Treating separation anxiety isn’t for everyone, and I admit I may be an extreme example. I take no other cases and haven’t for close to a decade. My office looks like a NASA control room with screens on all sides flicking through the dozens of webcam feeds I watch daily to monitor the progress of my clients’ dogs around the country, studying body language cues and emailing out treatment plan adjustments and encouragement. Less than that will do. But separation anxiety is a debilitating and heartbreaking disorder that afflicts well over fifteen percent of dogs in the United States alone. That’s more than nine million dogs. And yet, most trainers still hesitate to take on these cases, even though separation anxiety is one of the most treatable canine disorders—three out of four dogs can recover fully.

Looking back now at my auspicious beginning with Guinness, it is obvious to me how little I actually had to do with his miraculous progress. His separation anxiety was a temporary reaction to the drastic rags-to-riches change in his life—plus he was coming off a lot of medication. With time, I suspect he would have gotten through his anxiety on his own without my meddling. But Guinness gave me my passion for dogs afflicted with separation anxiety and I’ll always be grateful to him for that.

I believe we owe it to our dogs and their oftentimes desperate owners to learn more about and do more to alleviate this destructive disorder. If great strides can be made with simple confidence building—and I’m proving that each and every day—what else awaits us?

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.