Treating Separation Anxiety Through Training
Here in Cincinnati, Ohio, we’re seeing an increase in the cases of separation anxiety that our clients are reaching out to us about. Many of the cases are in rescue dogs, and we applaud owners for trying to resolve these issues and helping their rescued pups go on to lead happier lives!
There are varying degrees of separation anxiety:
Low Grade: What we call low grade separation anxiety is behaviors such as nervousness, pacing, barking or whining when left alone, in or out of a crate/kennel.
Medium Grade: Medium grade separation anxiety involves destructive behaviors – chewing inappropriate things when left alone, attempting to break out of crate/kennel, barking/whining, making themselves sick (vomiting or diarrhea).
High Grade: Dogs typically injure themselves or destroy crates in their attempt to get out of them with high grade separation anxiety. They can’t be left out of the crate/kennel because of their destructiveness, but are hard to contain in a crate/kennel.
While we can’t specifically treat separation anxiety, we can (and do) focus our training on the most common sources of it – 1) lack of exercise and mental stimulation, 2) lack of structure and discipline, and 3) lack of confidence.
Exercise and mental stimulation alone can stop many of the destructive behaviors owners tell us they are seeing. Providing a job for your dog (listening to you) is sometimes all they need – just to have a job, and do it well (receive praise for it). If you don’t give them a job, they may decide that it is their “job” to shred the sofa, or their “job” to get out of their crate after you leave the house, by whatever means necessary.
For Low Grade separation anxiety cases, exercise and mental stimulation may be all that is necessary to resolve many of their behaviors, especially if daily practice takes place before they are left alone. The practice take the edge off of a dog’s energy, and the training in general can help calm them over the course of a few weeks.
Our training also naturally creates an environment of structure and discipline, which dogs strive on. We’re not talking about harsh discipline, we’re talking about a clear set of instructions that you and your dog live by. You define the rules/instructions, your dog complies with them, and you’re both much happier and less stressed for it!
Lack of confidence and the inability to remain calm in stressful situations is the majority of the reasons dogs develop separation anxiety. Each of our commands work in harmony to increase a dog’s confidence. Starting in the very first lesson, with “sit” and “stay sitting in the face of distractions”, dogs learn that calm is rewarded, doing what we ask is rewarded, and it’s actually pretty easy to please us. It’s hard for your confidence to NOT go up when you’re being told you’re doing awesome all the time (and you actually are doing awesome all the time!).
For Medium Grade separation anxiety, the 4 weeks of training, practice, and reinforcement, involved in our Basic Obedience Package typically results in a generally calmer dog. We can’t specifically treat the separation anxiety, but by removing some of the excess energy, outlining and rewarding the desired behaviors, and building confidence, we can see a marked improvement in many of the common sources of the anxiety.
High Grade cases typically require a longer period of reinforcement, and more focus on the specific problem areas the dog is having. If it is a confidence issue primarily, we can provide advice on building confidence in key areas. If it is a specific trigger (thunder for example), we can provide advice on helping desensitize them to the triggers, using obedience to help them stay calm and gradually increasing their exposure to the trigger. We also have recommendations for crates that provide a safe environment for the vast majority of High Grade cases – where they don’t have the ability to break out, so they can’t hurt themselves during the recovery process.