If you're plugging away at separation anxiety training, or planning to start soon, here are some common misconceptions you want to avoid.
1. If he follows me to the door during training he must be upset
Doors are exciting things for dogs. If you think about it, a ton of fun stuff happens on the other side of the door – car rides, park outings, leash walks, exciting visitors arriving.
No wonder dogs love to check out what’s going on at the door. So no, following you to the door is not, on its own, a sign of anxiety.
But if your dog looks distressed, agitated or panicky when you head to the door, that’s different. In that case, your dog is following you as a sign of upset.
2. He should be asleep during long absences
It can seem like we should expect dogs to sleep while we’re out. After all, dogs sleep for around 14 hours a day – more if they're a puppy or a senior dog.
But while lots of dogs will sleep the whole time you’re out, others will mooch about. They might check out different places to sleep, watch the world go by the window, or maybe even investigate your garbage.
It’s wonderful to see a sleeping dog on camera, but don’t panic if he’s awake. If you can’t see any signs of anxiety then just let him keep doing his thing.
3. I should return as soon as he wakes up
So if your dog is asleep during the absence is it a cause for concern if he stirs? No, not a bit. Just like us, dogs have periods of wakefulness during their sleep. While you’re watching him on your camera you may see him wake, move, go for a drink, or wander around.
This is perfectly normal, and we could expect this pattern in dogs who are fine at home alone.
You only need to worry if your dog wakes but then starts to appear anxious. And you know what you’re looking for here – scanning, pacing, hypervigilant, lip licking, panting, and increasing vocalization.
Otherwise, stay put and keep watching. You may very well see him settle down again.
4. He barked part way through, so I knew he was starting to get upset
Barking can be tricky to assess. Dogs bark for all sorts of reasons. Excessive and continued barking is a canonic sign of separation anxiety. But sometimes dogs bark because they heard a car door slam or another dog bark outside.
Again, you need to take the behaviour in context. Did you hear anything outside? Does he bark at noises in the street when he’s home with you?
Because outside noises can be such a trigger I recommend playing music or white noise for any dog who’s being left alone.
5. Separation anxiety training involves going in and out of the door frequently
Well, kind of. Let me explain. The technique which resolves separation anxiety is called gradual exposure therapy. It’s the same treatment used to treat phobias in people (separation anxiety is a phobia too).
It does involve exposing the dog to increasing amounts of alone time. So yes, there’s an element of “going out of the door and back”. But it’s way more precise than that.
The reason why lots of people fail with separation anxiety training is that they’re given this very general advice.
In fact, what you need is an exact plan. How long are you going to go out for, how often? How long depends on how long your dog can currently do. For this, you’ll need an assessment.
By how much will you increase the time you’re on the other side of the door? For this, you’ll need to have watched your dog on video during the exercises and mawkishly studied his body language for signs of anxiety.
So way more than going out and back frequently.
These are the misconceptions I come across most often. What about you? Do you know any inaccuracies about separation anxiety training that need correcting?