Ask The Dog Trainer, Dog Care, Dog Health

DOG SEPARATION ANXIETY: Correction and Treatment Protocols, Diagnosis & Understanding

Separation anxiety in dogs is the topic of a 28-page chapter in the landmark new book, DECODING YOUR DOG. The chapter details how to diagnose, understand, treat, and correct separation anxiety problems in dogs. Below, Positively Woof’s Larry Kay reviews the book.  Share your thoughts on our Facebook post .

book-review-FBsquareBook Review. DECODING YOUR DOG: The Ultimate Experts Explain Common Dog Behaviors and Reveal How to Prevent or Change Unwanted Ones, by the American College of Veterinary Behaviorists, edited by Debra Horwitz DVM DACVB and John Ciribassi DVM DACVB, with Steve Dale. (2014: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt) 384 pages.

It can be a death sentence for a dog that misbehaves. Shelters are overcrowded with good dogs that were given up because of behavior problems. Sadly, half of those dogs never get a home.

But there’s good news: a major shift has occurred in the world of dog training and behavior. This shift is saving the lives of dogs and correcting more behavior problems than ever before. The shift is known by names like ‘positive reinforcement,’ ‘reward-based training,’ or simply ‘positive dog training.’

The latest evidence of this irrevocable shift to positive dog training is the landmark new book, DECODING YOUR DOG, a state-of-the-art collection of highly-practical lessons authored and edited by 22 board-certified members of the American College of Veterinary Behaviorists along with highly-acclaimed pet journalist, Steve Dale.

Detailed chapters guide the reader through important training issues, including: housetraining, jumping on people, barking, chewing, and leash-pulling. The book provides specifics on how to redirect your dog toward positive behavior (and the science of why that works). Chapters help us to understand canine body language, encourage your dog’s intelligence and curiosity, inspire a vibrant personality, be safe and great with kids, growing old, choosing the right dog in first place, and the most complete toothbrush training protocol I have ever seen. (Remember that February is Pet Dental Health Month). There are also chapters devoted to healing a dog’s specific behavior problems: aggression, sound phobia, tail chasing, leg licking, and separation anxiety.

separation anxietyChapter Review: SEPARATION ANXIETY. Blending anecdotes with detailed explanation, chapter authors E’Lise Christensen DVM DACVB & Karen L. Overall MA VMD PhD DACVB CAAB detail how to diagnose, understand, treat, and correct separation anxiety in dogs. One big cause of separation anxiety is removing a puppy from the mother between 30 to 40 days, instead of at 60 days or older.

Myths about separation anxiety. Will getting a second dog to keep a first dog company? (No, this often backfires if separation anxiety is not handled first.) Don’t dogs destroy stuff when they’re left alone because they’re being spiteful? (No truth to that myth.) The chapter busts more than a dozen myths about why separation anxiety occurs.

A system that works to solve separation anxiety. Importantly, you’ll be able to follow the authors’ protocols to help your dog decrease and ultimately eliminate separation anxiety by using positive, reward-based protocols (instead of punitive techniques that could possibly make the separation anxiety problem worse). Even if you have a behavior specialist help you and your dog for severe cases of separation anxiety, you’ll need to become involved in your dog’s behavior modification process. The process is based on desensitization and counter-conditioning (DSCC). Desensitization means to decrease your dog’s sensitivity to being left alone. Counter-conditioning means to teach your dog to actually love being left alone.

DSCC starts with patience and loving kindness. Your attitude is key to helping your dog heal from separation anxiety, which is essentially a mental health disorder that can be cured. When you come home and discover that your dog has destroyed or rearranged stuff, or pooped or peed inside your home, your response needs to be calm as if nothing wrong has happened. After all, your dog did the deed during the anxiety attack and is not thinking about it now that you “finally” came home. Punishing for a past deed seems to the dog like she’s being punished for enjoying your company, because the dog brain doesn’t understand the past the way the human brain does. The authors highly recommend that you set up at least one video camera to document what happens while you’re away; watching the video will guide the ways you customize your DSCC protocols for your dog.

You make the difference. You’ll need to modify your behavior to help your dog overcome separation anxiety. Most dogs realize that we’re leaving when we race around in a hurry, jangling keys and collecting our stuff. Instead, the authors want us to be more organized: gather our stuff a couple of hours in advance so that the key jangling and everything else we do to get ready is something our dog no longer associates with being left alone. Instead, we’re to leave calmly.

Ideally, while desensitizing, the authors recommend not leaving our dog alone. Instead, if other family members, pet sitters, doggie day care, or neighbors are options, then the dog will experience fewer episodes of separation anxiety. If this is not feasible, then do the best you can. It may be useful to try comforting devices, such as body wraps (including the Thundershirt) relieve many dogs’ symptoms (but not the underlying separation anxiety problem), are discussed in the chapter.

One key technique to counter-conditioning your dog to be peaceful and eventually look forward to being left alone is to give your dog a “puzzle” that occupies her mind and rewards her. A highly-effective puzzle is a Kong that is stuffed with high-value treats. It’s not simply a matter of tossing the toy to your dog and leaving; the chapter describes in detail how to do this well. They offer more solutions, too, including an inch-by-inch progression toward the front door, how to open the door, how to step outside, how long to leave during the DSCC process. In short, every detail is accounted for in Christensen & Overall’s superb protocol for healing separation anxiety.

What about anti-anxiety medicines? The authors emphasize that even if a veterinarian or behavior specialist prescribes or recommends medication to alleviate separation anxiety symptoms, we must become intimately involved in the DSCC process, otherwise the meds won’t work. In fact, they cite a placebo-controlled study that was effective only because DSCC was used along with a placebo (a fake pill made of starch that looks exactly like the real drug).

If your dog or a dog you know is suffering from separation anxiety, I sincerely hope that you will use this superb, state-of-the-art, practical book. Its methods can save a dog’s life, keep a child safe, or prevent property from being destroyed.

Larry Kay is an award-winning dog book author and Positively Woof’s Leader of the Pack. His next book, LIFE’S A BARK: What Dogs Teach Us About Life and Love, will be published in June, 2014 by Sourcebooks. Follow Positively Woof’s popular Facebook page.

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