How Do We Fix Separation Anxiety?

Valerie Balwanz, CBCC-KA, CPDT-KA, PMCT

Valerie Balwanz, CBCC-KA, CPDT-KA, PMCT

Valerie Balwanz is a behaviorist who generously shares her expertise with the CAF to help new pet owners. Visit her website for more information about training, behavioral issues, and to contact her.

This article is the third of three addressing the topic of Separation Anxiety

How Do We Fix Separation Anxiety?

Separation Anxiety is treated with Systematic Desensitization. Systematic desensitization to guardian absences happens well below a dog’s panic point. We will let the dog set the pace and tell us how they’re feeling. We’ll know this by observing body language.

In systematic desensitization we work in small steps. If you were afraid of snakes, I wouldn’t start by placing one in your lap. I might start by showing you a cartoon picture. Once you were comfortable with that we’d watch a cartoon video. Then we might look at a photo of a real snake. If I saw you gasp, that would be body language that told me you were too close to your panic point. So we’d need to watch more cartoons before looking at real photos. The person guiding the process must respect that the person (or dog) undergoing treatment sets the pace. We’d work in tiny steps until you could look at a live snake from across the room. Eventually we might be able to place one in your lap.

If at any point, I placed a real snake in your lap before you were ready, I’d push you past your panic point. You’d probably loose trust in me and the whole process. It would cause a big regression.

Leaving your dog for longer than they can handle while undergoing treatment for Separation Anxiety is like putting a snake in your lap before you’re ready. This is why the suspension of absences is a critical part of a dog’s treatment plan. The great news is that the dog’s favorite person does not have to be the one always staying with their dog. There are numerous resources for finding companionship for a separation anxiety dog. Remember, this is temporary.

Systematic Desensitization is slow. We think in terms of months, not weeks, when talking about a treatment plan. The great news is that it works! Things that used to cause panic (like keys and coat), no longer do because absences aren’t scary anymore. They get folded into the treatment plan until a person can put on their shoes, pick up the keys, walk out, lock the door, get in the car and drive away. And the dog just relaxes.

The training requires a commitment of roughly 30 minutes a day, 5 day a week from the Guardian. I send custom-written daily plans based on each dog’s individual ability on that particular day. We communicate daily about your dog’s progress and track data in a Google sheet. Each plan is unique and specific to the dog it is written for. The best part about SA training is celebrating the little milestones together. Only the guardian of a SA dog understands how exciting it is to go sit in the car for 5 minutes with the engine running!