By Julie Naismith
Life with a separation anxiety dog differs from the ideal of dog ownership many of us have. “Lassie Come Home” it isn’t.
Here are 5 ways this debilitating condition will affect your life as a dog owner, plus a few tips on how to handle the changes without losing your sanity.
#1 You learn to plan way ahead for everything
Once you’ve worked out your dog has separation anxiety and is in a panic whenever you go out, it gets tough to leave him. When you know the root of his behaviour is morbid fear, it’s even tougher than when you were just worried about him chewing, barking, or soiling.
Separation anxiety is a phobia of being alone. With any phobia, if you get exposed to too much of whatever scares you, the fear escalates. Leaving your dog for too long means not only is the dog having a rough time, but two of you might lose any of the progress you have made through separation anxiety training.
You will find workarounds to making sure your dog is cared for when you do have to leave him: getting dog sitters, finding good daycares and walkers, and begging favours from friends when the coffers are bare are just a few options.
This new way of doing things feels restrictive and headachey – and is far from simple. But, like any new way regime, it does get easier once it becomes a habit.
I found the need to plan ahead hugely limiting at first, but, you’ll be relieved to know, it does become second nature.
#2 You miss spontaneity
Freedom to drop everything becomes a hazy memory when you have a dog with separation anxiety. Last minute outings and separation anxiety don’t mix. You’ll likely need to write off any last-minute invitations; anything less than 48 hours notice becomes an outright “no.” Less than a week might be doable in a pinch.
But all is not completely lost. You might be able to bring your dog with you and will find creative ways to do so. Here are a couple of tips:
- Think dog-friendly patios
- Ask if your dog can come if you’re going to dinner with friends
- Arrange to go for dog walk rather than coffee on your next friend date
- Create a deal with your friends who have kids and trade dog watching for babysitting. These friends know the limitations of last minute as much as you do! And if you have kids, bundle dog sitting into the babysitting deal.
- Some dogs with separation anxiety are fine with being left in the car. They’ve learned car absences are shorter and safer. But you can obviously only use this solution in cooler months.
#3 Organizing your vacation just got way more stressful
Ah, yes vacations: sandy beaches, majestic mountains, boats, lakes, and dinner outside. Alas, vacations present a new logistical challenge. What are your options?
1, Kennelling, with all the “normal” dogs
2. House sitters at your house
3. Having someone watch your dog at their place
Let’s back up a moment. Dogs are notoriously good at generalizing fear and crushingly bad at generalizing confidence. Ask anyone who’s moved home with a previously recovered separation anxiety dog, and they’ll tell you the dog did not say: “Oh, new home? Mom and dad went out? No sweat—just the same deal at the last place.”
Rather, the separation anxiety dog screams, “Where am I?! Where have you left me?!”
I’ve read many people advocating for kennelling. The argument goes that if the dog does get fearful at being left in the new place, it will associate that fear with the kennels, not the home. No damage was done, is the suggestion.
However, given the tendency to generalize fear, if you leave your anxious dog in a kennel, the chances are high you’ll return to velcro dog who goes into a stress spiral if you so much as think about leaving the house.
Options #2 and #3 are your best bet. But, you need to drill into sitters they must not leave your dog alone under any circumstances.
#4 You get good at ignoring the naysayers
Whether it’s friends, family, sitters, or co-workers; everyone has something to say about your separation anxiety dog. Here are some scripts for dealing with noise from the outside world.
“Why can’t you leave him? He’ll soon quieten down if you let him get on with it.”
“Yes, I can see why you would say that, and my trainer says even dog trainers used to think that too, but now we know they’re not being attention seekers or getting mad at us for going out, they’re having a panic attack.”
“It’s because you let him onto your sofa and you let him sleep in your bed.”
“You’re right, lots of people do say these things cause separation anxiety. But no one knows for certain what brings it on. We do know how to fix it though, and that’s what I’m focused on.”
“Surely you can leave him this once—it’s only a movie/lunch/drink.”
“I know it can seem silly that I can’t leave him but if I let him go over his fear threshold, he’ll panic and have a setback. I risk losing all the progress we’ve made so far. If I stick to the plan, I’ll be back in circulation soon enough.”
Remember, your friends and family mean well. They just haven’t been through what we have, so it’s harder for them to make sense of what’s going on.
#5 You secretly putting your dog on anxiety medications
The gold standard treatment for separation anxiety is systematic desensitization combined with anxiety medications. Desensitization alone will work, but progress is more rapid when you give the dog’s brain chemistry a nudge. Yet for many people, “putting their dog on Prozac” is unthinkable.
If you’re reluctant, let me tell you I’ve been in your shoes. I was a cynic. My vet managed to persuade me to dip my toe in the water by starting out with alternative remedies, none of which made a jot of difference. The only impact was the dent in my bank account and time lost while we waited to see another remedy fail.
But here’s the thing, whatever your view on anxiety medications, don’t you owe it to your dog to help improve things for him as quickly as you can? He doesn’t have a say, but if he did, he’d be asking you to do whatever you can to make this fear go away.
#6 You’re surprised to find that owning a separation anxiety dog is incredibly rewarding
Yes, I know I said 5 ways, but take this as a bonus. Working with a separation anxiety dog, seeing your dog recover, and getting your life back on track in the process might well be one of the most rewarding things you’ll ever do.
Am I mad? If you’re just starting out, or if you’re in the middle of yet another stutter in progress, then I probably do seem so. But please hang on in there. I can see the light at the end of your tunnel, even if you can’t. And the love of a separation anxiety dog is quite something.
How has your separation anxiety dog changed your life? Share your experiences in the comments below.
About the Author
Julie Naismith is CEO and Founder of SubThreshold™ and a self-confessed separation anxiety geek. When her dog, Percy, developed separation anxiety she became a woman on a mission – determined to cut through the swathes of incorrect advice to find how to fix it. Having successfully resolved his separation anxiety, with little support and lots of judgment, she founded SubThreshold Training™ with the vision of pioneering treatment for separation anxiety.
Prior to SubThreshold, she apprenticed with one of the world’s leading force-free, evidence-based trainers, Jean Donaldson. She graduated with honors from Donaldson’s Academy for Dog Trainers (CTC) and is a Certified Separation Anxiety Trainer (CSAT) having studied with leading expert Malena DeMartini’s separation anxiety program. Naismith works solely with separation anxiety cases, making her a true specialist in the field. She is also a member of PPG’s Shelter and Rescue Division.