In yesterday’s Part I of our Separation Anxiety interview series, canine behavior specialist Nicole Wilde, author of  Don’t Leave Me! Step-by-Step Help for Your Dog’s Separation Anxiety, described what separation anxiety really is, the causes, and how you can tell if your dog has it.

Today’s discussion continues, as Nicole talks about innovative ways to manage your dog’s anxiety when you leave, including calming techniques, the crate controversy, and how to build your dog’s confidence. Try using these tips and tricks, and let us know of other techniques that helped you and your pooch become happier in the comments section of this post.

 

If you have a dog with SA, what are the first three things you would do to help make your dog calmer when you leave?

  1. Leave your dog with something super-enticing to chew on that will take a while to eat, such as a frozen, stuffed Kong.

    Kongs can help relieve anxiety (photo: Oakley Originals)

    [Here are some frozen Kong stuffing recipes from Doggie Stylish]

  2. Leave something with your scent on it; this can be very comforting to your dog.
  3. Practice the protocols outlined in my book. Where you start will depend on whether your dog is comfortable being separated from you physically and/or visually, or is fine with you actually leaving for very short periods. Whatever your starting point, you will proceed gradually in small increments so your dog feels comfortable.

 

Your book mentions some great SA management tips and plans. What are your favorites?

Because you can’t leave your dog alone during the behavior modification period other than when you’re working on the protocol, you’ve got to get creative with management. You can take your dog with you to do errands, and some dogs are actually fine when left in the car because they know their person always returns quickly. You could have a friend or pet sitter stay with your dog, or arrange for play dates.

If you’ve got somewhere you have to be for a few hours and are truly stuck, you can always take your dog to the groomer—obviously this is not to be used too often, but you’ll know your dog is somewhere safe and is with people. It’s a bit too detailed to go into here, but in the book I also outline sneaky ways you can make your dog think you’re still in the house when you’re not!

 

Crating for SA seems to be controversial in many dog circles, but your book recommends it in some cases. What are the determining factors?

Luna prefers her crate when she's home alone

It’s absolutely true that some dogs with separation anxiety should not be crated. This includes dogs with issues at the more severe end of the spectrum, the ones who are likely to injure themselves trying to break out of the crate, or self-mutilate. But if a dog has a mild case of SA, is accustomed to a crate, and already regards it as a safe place, it can be a good option for an Alone Zone. One benefit of crating is that it can help certain dogs who would otherwise continually pace, allowing emotional arousal to increase.

With any “controversial” subject, rather than have a knee-jerk reaction to it or, on the other hand, accept the traditional wisdom about it as truth, it is important to subjectively consider whether it will work for a particular dog. Head halters, for example, are a tool that some trainers love, while others abhor them. But the truth is that they can be wonderful tools for some dogs, while being totally inappropriate for others. Crating can be a perfectly good management solution for a dog with separation anxiety, depending on the individual dog. The important thing is crating not be overused to the point where it causes distress.

 

Many people get frustrated when their dog doesn’t “snap out of” the SA behavior quickly, and can’t fathom that SA can be ongoing. What would you recommend for these people when they can’t or won’t implement a rehabilitation plan?

Believe me, I understand the frustration! For those who can’t or are not willing to work a separation anxiety protocol, there are some “quick fixes” that can be tried. I’ve mentioned some of these in an answer below. In extreme cases of separation anxiety where medication is warranted it can be helpful, but it’s important to understand that, even then, behavior modification will be necessary. In some cases of Isolation Distress, getting another dog will solve the problem instantly—but unless you are sure, don’t get a second dog specifically for that purpose. You might just end up with two dogs with separation issues!

 

What are a few fun ways to build your dog’s confidence?

Training, especially clicker training, teaches dogs to think for themselves. Rather than simply performing behaviors by rote, the dog learns to figure out what makes you click (and therefore treat), and will begin to offer behaviors. It’s a great confidence booster! Puzzle toys that challenge your dog’s mind are quite useful in this regard as well. I particularly like the Nina Ottoson toys, as they offer varying degrees of difficulty.


Sierra playing with Tornado, a Nina Ottenson toy

 

What about dog sports?

Treibball builds confidence

Dog sports are also excellent for building canine confidence. Agility and K9 Nosework come to mind, but even something like urban mushing (where your dog pulls you on a scooter) can boost confidence.

And, of course, we now have the new sport of Treibball, where dogs “herd” giant balls into goals, like a game of soccer!

The important thing is to figure out which confidence-building activities work for your particular dog.

 

 

 

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Part I of this interview series: Nicole discusses the definitions, causes, how we can help the suffering dog, and clues about separation anxiety with adopting a dog.

 

Part III of this interview series: Nicole explores whether pharmacological intervention is a good idea, what therapies may be appropriate, and alternatives that might work instead.

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Nicole Wilde is a Certified Professional Dog Trainer (CPDT-KA) and internationally recognized author and lecturer. Her nine books include So You Want to be a Dog Trainer, Help for Your Fearful Dog, and Don’t Leave Me! Step-by-Step Help for Your Dog’s Separation Anxiety. In addition to working with dogs, Nicole has worked with wolves and wolfdogs for over fifteen years and is considered an expert in the field.

Nicole is on the Advisory Board of the Companion Animal Sciences Institute, the educational branch for the International Institute for Applied Companion Animal Behavior, and an Advisory Board member for the Association of Animal Behavior Professionals. Nicole writes an Ask the Expert column for Modern Dog Magazine, and blogs for Dog Star Daily, Victoria Stilwell’s Positively Expert blog, and her own site, Wilde About Dogs. You can find Nicole on Facebook at Nicole Wilde, Author and on Twitter at @NicoleWilde.

6 Responses to “Part II: Nicole Wilde on Separation Anxiety”

  • Aly:

    When I first got my cattle dog, she had severe SA. I had attempted crating her at the time and would come home to find her shivering in fear, the crate 15 feet away from where I left it and her still inside.

    Once she was potty-trained, I nixed the crate. Flash forward 6 months later where she HAD to be crate trained for all the dog sports we were starting. She took to her crate much more easily and loved it. It took a few months of gaining my trust, but it was worth it. Now she loves her crate and goes to it all the time when she’s feeling stressed or just wants to relax by herself. Now, 6 years later – she still has some mild SA, but with enough exercise she copes really well.

    • Thanks for your story, Aly. Sounds like she now relates crates to safety… wish more people would be as patient as you. Crates can be controversial, but in the end, so many dogs love them for the reasons you mention. As you know from reading this interview series, it takes patience and positive behavioral modification to help these anxious dogs. There are a lot of great exercises in the book to assist people in figuring out what training is best for their dog.

  • Recommend the process I used when training my dog, Zippy, for the Supervised Separation part of the Canine Good Citizen certification.

    Make the *leaving* an event and the *returning* neutral. Start with a cue (mine is, “Be Back”), a reward, and then go to the door, and pause for a moment, then return. Extend the pauses to several seconds. Then out the door for no more than a second or two. Lengthen the time outside the door.

    You will find it helpful to have another person to monitor pooch’s reaction when you leave. If the dog shows stress, you need to shorten the time you are out of sight.

    You can practice this using your car (but don’t leave Fido in the car in the summer!).

    Tip of the hat to Terri Bright, behaviorist and Training Director (and my mentor) at MSPCA.

    • Harry, thanks for the info! As you know, with separation anxiety, there is no cookie-cutter way to treat the behavior. Each dog is an individual and requires a customized plan. As a Canine Good Citizen trainer, I know what you mean about having to work with your dog on the Supervised Separation part of the certification. Many dogs have anxiety when their owners leave for that part of the test, but it’s not necessarily SA. Many dogs are a little anxious during the CGC test–congrats on Zippy passing, and glad you are a good dog parent in working with him.

  • I could have used this 2 years ago when we first adopted our Newf! He’s terrific now but the transition was tough. He’d eat every item in the house last touched by us the minute we stepped out the door. Crating was not an option. We just picked up EVERYTHING and hoped for the best. Somehow it all worked out. I wish we knew what we did that worked but I think mostly time made him trust that we always come back.

    • I think trust is a big part of helping dogs cope… and glad you stuck with it for your Newf! Crating can be difficult in many cases, so you did what worked for you.

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