In separation anxiety training, we trainers talk a lot about management, or managing absences. What does this mean for people who have dogs suffering from separation anxiety or isolation distress? Why is it so important? Let’s dig in!
What is Management?
In the dog training world, management means setting up your dog’s environment in a way that prevents them from practicing unwanted behaviors. This is a really good way to start setting your dog up for success during training and behavior modification. In SA training, the most important management step is to never leave your dog alone for longer than they can handle. As a Certified Separation Anxiety Pro Trainer, I know this is a big ask for many of my clients. I put such a great emphasis on managing absences for good reason: clinical separation anxiety and isolation distress have excellent prognosis’ when the proper management is in place in addition to training protocols.
Why is it so important to ensure my separation anxiety dog is always with somebody?
Separation anxiety in dogs is very similar to phobias in humans. For this reason, we can use some of the same behavior modification principles to help our pups. The technique I use to treat separation anxiety is called desensitization. This involves exposing your dog to safe absences that we know they can handle and taking care to avoid pushing them over their anxiety threshold into a panicked state.
Another technique used in humans is flooding. For dogs with separation anxiety, this would mean leaving them alone for much longer than they can comfortably tolerate and hoping that the fear resolves. According to the APA Dictionary of Psychology, flooding is a technique in behavior therapy in which the individual is exposed directly to a maximum-intensity anxiety-producing situation or stimulus, either described or real, without any attempt made to lessen or avoid anxiety or fear during the exposure. Repeated flooding has the potential to sensitize your dog to being alone rather than desensitize them. A big reason for this is that it’s impossible to explain to dogs that nothing bad will actually happen to them during this experience. We also have no way of getting our dogs’ consent for this process.
Picture something you are terrified of. It can be anything; we’re all scared of something. Now imagine that almost every day, you are forced to have an intense experience with your scary object or situation. So intense, that you might have a panic attack or do whatever you possibly can to escape the situation. No one has asked you if this is how you’d like to work on facing your fear, or even warned you before the big scary experience is coming. Do you think you would “get over” your fear by repeating this constantly? You might, or you might not. There’s no way of knowing whether your fear would get better or worse using this method.
This is essentially what we are doing when we leave dogs who suffer from separation anxiety alone for longer than they have learned is safe.
How does food play into separation anxiety training and management?
If you’ve worked with Sits n Wiggles or another R+ trainer, you’re probably used to using a lot of small, yummy treats to reward your pup for doing what you would like them to do. In separation anxiety training, we don’t need to use food as a reward because you coming home from a safe absence is already a great reinforcer for them.
That being said, food can have its place as a management tool for some dogs. Some dogs get so anxious when left alone that they cannot eat until their person comes home, but many dogs are still interested in food. This is very dog dependent. If your dog is one who still loves eating while they are home alone, chances are that they will be able to focus on the food until it is gone. Many food-based activities encourage behaviors that have been shown to reduce stress and anxiety. These behaviors include sniffing for food in a puzzle toy, licking food out of a stuffed toy, chewing on a tasty bone, and foraging for food hidden around the room. If your dog enjoys these food activities while home alone, you may be able to use them as a distraction if you must leave them for longer than they feel safe. This can be tricky, as you have to be back inside before your pup finishes the activity.
What are my options for a hyper-attached dog?
Some dogs are categorized as having clinical separation anxiety. This means that the dog is highly dependent on one specific family member. Having additional people in and out of the household taking a bigger role in caring for the dog is a great way to get your pup comfortable with them. We call this spreading the love, and it can include feeding, walking, playing, and doing fun training sessions with them. It’s a great idea to spread the love to at least 3 other people in your home or out of your home who are willing and able to be a part of your village.
Your village can include friends, family members, dog lovers in your neighborhood, daycare providers, dog walkers, and anyone else who is willing to hang out with your dog when you can’t be there. Managing absences for a hyper-attached dog can be trickier than a dog who is okay with any person, but this doesn’t necessarily mean that separation anxiety training will take longer.
You Can Do This!
Suspending absences is often the scariest part of separation anxiety training for pet parents, but it’s also one of the most important things you can do to help your pup. With the high prevalence of social media, sometimes all it takes is a post asking for help with your dog (and a super cute photo) to come up with additional options for dog sitters. Rover often has people who are willing to work with you to manage absences. They aren’t just for 30-minute dog walks!
There are support groups for separation anxiety popping up in all kinds of places where owners “trade” dog sitting with each other. Our clients can post in our Facebook support group to see if there are other pet parents near you who may be able to help. Keep an eye out for a special Sits n Wiggles separation anxiety network coming soon! You may need to get creative with the extra care your dog needs while working through separation anxiety or isolation distress, but it’s always worth it to improve your pup’s quality of life.
If your dog struggles with separation anxiety, isolation distress, or other separation-related behavior issues, contact us today to set up a consultation and assessment.