“Did you know that we can hear your dog barking all day?” my neighbour asked me one day. The simple answer was: no, I didn’t. It was this conversation that led me on the path to discovering my dog-ownership bombshell: that my dog Percy had separation anxiety.
I can vividly recall how I felt that day my neighbour turned my attention to my dog barking. I had no idea about my dog barking when I was out. How could I have known? I’d had my other dog for a year with no complaints. Percy was a new addition to our family, so it must have been him.
I couldn’t bear to think of my dog barking all day, and I didn't want to get into trouble with the neighbours. I needed to get to the bottom of his condition.
Searching For An Answer
As is often the way, I turned to Google first. Type “dog barking all day” into any online search engine and you’ll get plenty of muddled information. Apparently, it was because I cuddled him (guilty as charged), let him sleep on the bed (guilty), let him go out of the door ahead of me (I’m going down) or let him eat first (lock me up).
There’s also a lot of well-meaning advice, such as: “Because he thinks he’s the leader of the pack, he’s getting stressed when you go out. You need to show him who’s boss.”
And: “Just let him bark it out.”
I discovered that the first approach made no difference. In fact, dominance is a myth, and it’s a harmful concept for dogs and owners . The second approach, made my dog barking and condition even worse.
The Answer At Last
Thankfully, I stumbled across resources that made sense. I learned that I had a dog with a phobia of being alone: separation anxiety. And, it appeared the condition affected just my one dog. Despite the fact that I’d treated both dogs the same – with cuddles and sleeps in bed – only Percy had developed the phobia.
Living With My Separation Anxiety Dog
In the meantime, life with Percy, the separation anxiety dog, was stressful. I had a dog with a morbid fear of being left without human company. Moving house, going on vacation, accepting last-minute invitations; all of those things were either impossible or could only be done knowing that I was likely making his anxiety worse.
My husband and I loved Percy to bits, but we needed to get our life back too.
We don't yet know why some dogs get separation anxiety and some don’t, but we do know how to fix it. I decided to stop trawling the internet for half-baked ideas on “why” and instead to focus on the fix.
As a (then) dog training amateur I fumbled my way through, but it seemed the key was getting my dog used to being alone in tiny increments. I established that leaving him for longer than he could cope with would make it worse and that I needed to know he was doing when I left. For that, I needed technology, and so “Percycam” became a thing.
I was simply showing Percy – by leaving him for small, non-stressful absences – that being alone wasn’t scary; it was manageable. What I did then seems so rudimentary and clumsy compared to how I train now, but somehow I managed to see improvement. This approach worked, where all the other advice had failed.
Before I knew there was a more scientific approach to dog training I, like many owners, thought that somehow “knowing dogs” was what mattered.
But, the more I dived into this world of how dogs learn, the more I realized that evidence-based dog training is the key to fixing a dog with separation anxiety.
It’s science, pure and simple. It’s about how dogs learn by association, about how they develop fear, and how to change their fearful responses. It’s not about anthropomorphic, voodoo, “desire to please” or leadership mythology-based. It’s about using techniques based on the laws of animal learning. And, the thing about this method is that it’s based on science we’ve known about for years – so old it seems new.
Not only has it helped me work through Percy’s separation anxiety, it’s done so without me needing to shout, correct, alpha roll, or inflict pain with aversives, such as a bark collar.
How could scaring or inflicting pain on an already anxious dog help? Fixing fear with fear isn't the answer. I don’t like roller coasters. Put me on one and I’d scream. Hold a gun to my head and tell me not to scream and I’d stop screaming. Would I be any less scared? Not a bit. And in fact, now I’d associate rollercoasters with the extra fear of having a gun held to my head. I knew there was good reason to steer clear of roller coasters.
Becoming A Trainer
After my experience with Percy, I became hooked on force free, evidence-based training. My husband and I had such a challenging time trying to help Percy, I felt passionate about helping other owners and dogs avoid the same heartache.
Dog training’s dirty little secret is that anyone can legally call themselves a trainer, and there’s no industry framework for consumer protection. But some of us believe that this lack of regulation is no excuse for being unqualified. Determined to do things properly, I signed up for what’s known as the “Harvard for Dog Training”, Jean Donaldson’s Academy for Dog Trainers. And I also mentored with the leading expert in Separation Anxiety, Malena DeMartini. [For more on the lack of consumer protection in dog training watch Jean’s Donaldson’s video on Transparency in Dog Training]
Here I am today, heading up SubThreshold, a company that specializes in separation anxiety training. I’m on a mission to ensure that owners across Canada have access to our trailblazing treatment approach.
I’m doing this for the Percys of the world – dogs who are frightened; not mad, or bad.
Do you think your dog might have separation anxiety? Click this link to take our quiz.