An innovative approach to separation anxiety in dogs

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An innovative approach to separation anxiety in dogs

How using a Certified Separation Anxiety Trainer (CSAT) in your practice can help you successfully alleviate this common canine behavior problem.

Statistics tell us that over 17% of dogs in the US suffer from separation anxiety. In fact, this condition is one of the primary reasons for surrender, abandonment and euthanasia — not only here, but worldwide. As a veterinarian, you most likely have clients whose dogs have separation anxiety, and know that it can be challenging to overcome. In this article, we’ll look at how a Certified Separation Anxiety Trainer (CSAT) can help your practice successfully solve this common behavior disorder.

A bit of personal background

After becoming a veterinarian and working for many years as a behavior consultant and Bach Flower therapist, I had the opportunity to specialize in canine separation anxiety. Through a Separation Anxiety Certification Program designed by Malena DeMartini, I became a CSAT (Certified Separation Anxiety Trainer), forming part of an amazing group of behavior consultants who work to help dogs and their families overcome this condition. In becoming part of a league of healers who work to mend the emotional aspect of separation anxiety, I also became a healer of their guardians’ spirits, thereby achieving my inner purpose of bringing hope to them.

Separation anxiety is a frustrating problem

When dog guardians reach out to us for help, they feel they have already tried everything. They have read all the information they can find on separation anxiety, and are almost at the point of giving up. They are confused because different specialists from different fields have given them different explanations and different advice, and in their despair they have tried it all, making the problem worse in the process. Furthermore, they have limited their social lives in order to avoid leaving their dogs alone, and many times have lost the support of their families and friends. Common in all these cases is the dog’s irrational fear of being left alone.

Steps for success: teamwork

As a veterinarian, behavior consultant, and CSAT, I have been privileged to see how truly beneficial an integrated holistic approach to healing can be. We know there are many parts to a dog (or family) that might need healing. In response, our society has created a diverse range of professions to accomplish this, including veterinary medicine, dog training, behavior consulting, and dog walking, among others. Additionally, we have created further divisions of focus within each of these categories.

A problem arises when we, as healers, who seek the best for our patients and clients, have to make the decision of asking someone else to help us. We often don’t want to share our patients, and we act as if we are afraid that something bad could happen to them if someone else touches them or adds his or her expertise.

In treating canine separation anxiety from both veterinary medical and behavioral perspectives, I have observed that veterinarians often don’t trust behavior consultants, and vice versa; and although everyone tries on their own to do their best for the dog, they fail in navigating the problem as a whole. This isn’t only an issue in the US. The country I come from, and many others I have had the opportunity to visit, suffer from this same dynamic.  Maybe we should take a step back and remember why we are here, why we are doing this, and trust in one another’s skills and fields, in order to provide dogs with the best opportunity for healing and enhanced quality of life.

We need different specialists and skills to successfully treat separation anxiety as a whole:

  • A veterinarian, who can help rule out any physical problems the dog might be suffering from, and whose field of expertise includes knowledge of behavior pharmacology, and/or holistic medicine and therapy.
  • A specialist in separation anxiety behavior modification, who puts a behavior program into practice to help the dog overcome that part of the issue.
  • Additionally, we may need another dog trainer or behavior consultant who can focus on other behavior problems the dog might be showing.

Clear communication among team members is vital

Treating canine separation anxiety is a straightforward process, but not a particularly easy or rapid one. As such, it is imperative that all team members communicate clearly with one another, and offer support and guidance from their own areas of expertise for the benefit of the dog. When we start working with a separation anxiety dog and her guardian, we offer to get in touch with their vet, dog walker, trainer, daycare, etc., so everybody knows what’s going on and what each person can do to support recovery. We emphasize that everyone’s efforts are valuable and essential pieces of the puzzle.

Addressing physical health and environmental factors

In order to maximize chances for a successful outcome, it’s important to identify and address any physical problems with the dog’s health that could be influencing his behavior. Any necessary environmental adjustments need to be explored as well. Research has shown a high correlation between general anxiety, noise sensitivity and separation anxiety, and as such, there may be a genetic predisposition to the condition. This suggests these dogs may be suffering from a chemical imbalance in which hormones and/or neurotransmitters aren’t working as they should, either due to a pathophysiological issue, a threshold alteration at the nervous system level, or over/under production. Environmental factors such as stressful changes, new noises or traumatizing events might trigger the onset of separation anxiety at any age. Once these factors are addressed, our task as CSATs is to start the behavior modification program.

The CSAT behavior modification program

The program is designed to guide and coach the guardian through daily training sessions that seek to desensitize the dog to his person’s departure and absence. They include several strategic steps that help the dog adjust to his guardian approaching the door, leaving for a few seconds, and using some of the objects she would normally bring with her when leaving (keys, purse, coat, etc.). The next session is created based on the dog’s performance during his last rehearsal. Learning to read and interpret a dog’s body language is essential. The dog’s reaction to each session’s steps will help us create the next one and strategically vary our criteria. In time the dog learns to trust and adjust to departures, giving us the chance to increase the duration of the guardian’s absences, so she can finally leave the dog alone without triggering panic.

Desensitization and respecting the threshold

Reward-based training is a very successful tool for navigating many behavior problems. Counterconditioning (or classical conditioning) and operant conditioning are great for speeding the learning process and more quickly elicit the behavior change.

However, when working with separation anxiety, we seek relaxation from the dog, not the alertness that reward-based training would trigger. Besides, having the guardian reward the dog with a treat when she returns, to reinforce the dog’s behavior for not reacting when alone, will be insufficient once the absences become longer.

Instead, by gradually increasing the intensity of the stimuli while always staying under threshold, desensitization allows us to teach the dog he has nothing to fear when left alone. In time, the dog will begin to relax and adjust to the stimuli, which will allow us to progressively increase the intensity until we accomplish our absence duration goal.

The concept of threshold is an important one, because it tells us when the dog is no longer able to adapt to change and is about to enter survival mode, from which the panic response arises. In order for the desensitization program to work, we have to find, through reading the dog’s body language, where his threshold is. In other words, we have to find how long the dog can stay alone before the situation becomes aversive. Once the threshold is identified, we must always stay under it when designing training sessions. In time, the dog’s threshold will change, and that will allow us to get closer to our goal.

Remote observation: an innovation critical to success

My mentor, Malena DeMartini, once shared this quote from Rear Admiral Grace Hopper:  “The most dangerous phrase in our language is ‘we have always done it this way’.” We can apply this wisdom to treating separation anxiety. Utilizing technology as our 21st century helper, we use remote viewing to observe dogs and their guardians so we can create customized therapy plans that allow us to daily guide and coach these families.

Yes, our whole program is done remotely! Technology optimizes our chances of success while allowing families to access help regardless of locale. I have clients who live in Chile, called the “last place in the world” by some, along with clients who live in the nearest town. Many conditions need to be addressed in person, and many fields of work require physical presence, but the opposite is true when treating separation anxiety. We need to observe the dog’s body language when the guardian leaves, or when she is rehearsing a training session, and in order to do that without becoming a disruption, we need to be “ghosts” or “spies” who can see every detail without the dog noticing. We need to teach the dog that it is okay for his guardian to leave every morning or every afternoon, and this wouldn’t be realistic if she had to practice with us in the same room; she doesn’t leave for work every morning with us by her side.

Personally, I have found the remote viewing work to be richly rewarding. I love connecting with people this way by helping them with their dogs. When I came onto this path, I was scared it wasn’t going to suit me, and that I was going to miss the dynamic of seeing my clients and their dogs in person. I was wrong. I have never connected so much with my clients, their dogs and families as I am doing now. Before treating separation anxiety this way, I never felt as if I was really bringing people hope. Now I do.

Conclusion

If we open ourselves to the amazing results that can arise from working as a team of different types of healers, we will understand the meaning and importance of synergy. Being a veterinarian, but also a dog trainer who currently works exclusively on separation anxiety cases, I feel very eager to bring vets, trainers and behavior consultants together, so dogs with separation anxiety can benefit from a holistic approach — one that includes the best of each area of expertise, and helps dogs and their families succeed.

References and resources

Crowell-Davis, Sharon L and Murray, Thomas. Veterinary Psychopharmacology, Blackwell Publishing, 2006.

DeMartini, Malena. Treating Separation Anxiety in Dogs, Dog Wise Publishing, 2014.

Overall, Karen L. Manual of Clinical Behavioral Medicine for Dogs and Cats, Elsevier Inc. Mosby, 2013.

Sherman et al. “Effects of Reconcile (Fluoxetine) Chewable Tablets Plus Behavior Management for Canine Separation Anxiety”, Veterinary Therapeutics, Vol.8, Nº1, 2007.

Tiira, Katrina et al. “Prevalence, Comorbidity, and Behavioral Variation in Canine Anxiety”, Journal of Veterinary Behavior, Elsevier Inc., 2016. 

Wilde, Nicole. Don’t leave me!, Phantom Publishing, 2010.

malenademartini.com

moirahechenleitner.com/en

This article has been peer reviewed.