The “Beyond” in Separation Anxiety and Beyond

February 22, 2021

Historically, approximately three quarters of dogs showing signs of separation anxiety have been able to get better with the help of training and/or medications.
It's the other quarter that keeps me up at night.

Having transformed my own pup from barking, howling, pacing, peeing on the floor and the couch, and chewing the door frame when left alone to snoozing peacefully while we're gone, I understand the relief people feel when their dogs get better. Grocery shopping has never been so enjoyable as it is when you can finally do it without worrying about your dog or having to pay a pet sitter to keep him company.

But that other quarter. These people turn to trainers, veterinarians, and behaviorists for help. They might spend thousands of dollars only to find themselves in the same spot they were in at the start.

Whose fault is it? The trainer? The vet? The pet parents? The DOG? Why can’t these dogs be helped?

Well, last year, a research team at the University of Lincoln in the U.K., led by veterinary behaviorist Daniel Mills, released findings that move us closer to solving this riddle. This paper shows that there are a number of root causes to these alone-time problem behaviors.

What has generally been labeled as "separation anxiety," is, in fact, not always anxiety.

Sometimes it’s frustration, boredom, elimination issues, or an underlying health problem instead of, or in addition to, anxiety and fear. And if our training and medication choices are those used to help reduce anxiety, well, it’s understandable that they would not be all that effective if the dogs aren’t actually anxious.

Cold laser therapy session

Those familiar with the story of my Emma know that until we discovered and treated her arthritis, she had zero capacity for being left alone. Once we got her on meds and cold-laser treatments, her ability to stay home alone snowballed from mere seconds to multiple hours in a few short months. So, I’ve had a front-row ticket to watch the connection between physical and mental health, and I have always stressed a holistic approach to behavior concerns.

But understanding the role frustration can have on a pup’s ability to handle being alone has been a game changer for me.

It’s not enough to simply ask ourselves if the dog is upset and then use desensitization or desensitization plus counter-conditioning to turn the pup’s frown upside down. We have to dig deeper.

Is the dog anxious and panicking because being alone is scary (much in the same way I’d feel if a tarantula entered my office), or is the dog bursting with frustration, because she wants access to something (i.e. "TAKE ME WITH YOU! I NEED FUN STUFF!”)? The answer will influence what type of training and management techniques the dog needs.

I attended a Daniel Mills’ seminar in August 2019, where he presented this research, and I have been developing new approaches to meet the different root causes since. The results have been so promising.

Today, dogs who I would not have been able to help previously are fine when left alone. And the dogs who I would have had success with before are getting better faster.

In addition to expanding my training approaches to include frustration and impulse control, I have also honed the art of desensitization to a science. (Get it? See desensitization is actually a scientific term, but the art is in finding ways to keep the dog from feeling scared or tense at all in order for the method to work.)

So that’s where the “beyond” comes from in Separation Anxiety and Beyond. We must take a holistic approach towards helping these dogs, in order to get people out of their homes and back into a normal life as soon as possible.

I hope you’ll join me as we continue on this journey into the beyond.

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