True Canine Separation Anxiety is an Illness Not a Behavior Problem
I have a 13 month old dog who suffers terribly from separation anxiety. In doors he follows me from room to room and always stays close. When I leave the house I am told that he becomes extremely anxious, cries and barks continually even though there are others in the house. Do you have any suggestions to help him get over this? A bark collar has been suggested to me, but I don’t know if this might not be too severe. What do you think?
True separation anxiety is an illness as opposed to a behaviour problem. Behaviour modification, and in some cases medication can play a role in providing some relief but true separation anxiety has no known cure.
I used to think I’d “cured” one case of separation anxiety or another but one advantage of having worked with dogs for over 20 years is with enough cases you notice things that otherwise wouldn’t be likely. Eventually I learned there are at least two types of separation anxiety, one that can be cured and one that cannot.
With what I consider to be true separation anxiety, the cause is tied into genetics and critical socialization imprinting. In the “curable” cases it’s a learned behaviour.
In theory the latter are curable cases. The dogs have over time learned that if they behave in a certain way their owners will pay attention to them in a manner that in the short term satisfies the both of them but eventually it gets out of hand. These dogs don’t develop mental brakes and they get conditioned to the drama. In the end their anxiety is as real as that of the true separation anxiety cases. The difference is that the brakes can be installed resulting in a happier dog. In practice though I’ve found it can be harder for the dog owners to change than the dog.
Part of treating these dogs with learned and reinforced anxiety involves the dog owners learning to stop feeding the fire without their dog having a withdrawal meltdown. It’s harder to stop feeding the fire than you might think. Some dog owners on some level like being needed in this way and find they just can’t help themselves.
Another significant hurdle is learning to distinguish between an actual meltdown and a tantrum. The first response of a dog that isn’t getting an expected owner reaction to something like barking is to figure, “How sad, my owner is going deaf. I shall have to bark harder and longer now.” It takes the patience of Job to ignore the bad behaviour so you can reward the good behaviour and that’s why the ultrasonic, nose spray and electronic bark collars are so often turned to.
I wouldn’t reach into that tool bag just yet. In both types of separation anxiety there is enormous value in interrupting symptoms before they avalanche but succeeding in stopping a barking problem may solve your problem without addressing the dog’s problem and other currently less notable symptoms can intensify or new ones develop.
Before you pick a symptom strategy you need to determine what type of anxiety your dog has; hard wired or learned. In order to do that you need to find a trainer that really knows their stuff. When they meet with you they’ll know what to look for and what questions to ask and provide a course of action that won’t make matters worse.