Want to fix separation anxiety? Don’t make this mistake

It’s confession time. I’m a dog trainer, and I make dog training mistakes. Some of these have been spectacular. My biggest mistake happened as a newbie owner. I let my anxious dog bark it out. And it didn’t work. In fact, I made things worse.

If you’re new to separation anxiety, or still finding your way, you’re going to hear this advice a lot. If your dog isn’t a barker, you can substitute “leave him to get over it.”

The advice says you don’t need to do anything – your dog’s separation anxiety will fix itself. This infers that to fix the problem, you must stop coddling your dog; stop pandering to him, and leave him to get over it.

Let me tell you right now, this is incorrect. It’s not “difference-of-opinion” incorrect, it’s scientifically and factually incorrect. Let’s explore why:

Dogs do what works

In a way, your well-meaning advisors aren’t wrong. There is a time and a place for letting your dog bark, pester, or whine it out. For example, if your dog pesters you at the dinner table, ignoring him is your best strategy (as hard as it might be). If you ignore his whimpering, two things happen:

  • Your dog learns pestering doesn’t work.
  • Your dog’s pestering isn’t reinforced by you rewarding him for the behaviour.

Dogs are brilliant behavioural economists. They excel at calculating how much effort to put into getting an outcome. If you ignore your pestering dog, he learns he is wasting precious energy. He gives up and saves his effort for something with better odds. If the dog could talk we might hear him say “This is dumb. I’m not getting anywhere!”

Letting your dog get on with the unwanted behaviour can sometimes be a good strategy. The fancy trainer term is “putting the behaviour on extinction.” It works like this: your dog attempts the behaviour and it doesn’t work. He tries again. After seeing it doesn’t work a few times,  he gives up – eventually.  

Chocolate lab sat on sofa begging
It can be hard to resist a pestering dog! Tex is trying his best here.

Although we can use “extinction” to our advantage, we have to make sure our tactic doesn’t backfire. If we’re not careful we can make the behaviour stronger. How? Well, let’s look at an example. If you’ve ever tried ignoring your dog at the dinner table, you’ll have noticed a couple of things.

First, if you’re eating sizzling steak, it takes a lot longer for your dog to give up than if you’re eating bland breakfast cereal.

Then, if you’ve ever -even once – given in, you may have seen renewed vigour in your dog. Your dog may take longer to give up the next time. The behaviour paid off so he tried again; even though the odds weren’t brilliant.

You might recognize this because it’s how gambling works. If the outcome is unpredictable, but good outcomes do pop up, there can be a strong motivation to keep trying. Gamblers get addicted to the thrill of the unpredictable reward – and dogs do too.

Anxiety increases resilience

The thing is, when dogs are anxious, they put more effort into a futile task than they when they are calm. They don’t give up. They are not thinking straight. So if you leave your dog to it, hoping he will give up, chances are he won’t.

Meanwhile, he gets more and more upset because no matter how much he barks or scratches or chews, you don’t come back.

If your dog thought being alone was terrifying before, he thinks it’s even scarier now.

Your panicking dog may bark, chew and destroy the whole time you’re out. Then, you arrive home. There’s a good chance your dog will think: “Ah, so if I bark and bark and bark, she comes back.”

I know that’s not why you came back. Your dog doesn’t. Dogs learn by association and consequences. Your dog barked and you came back, so to him, barking makes you come back.

And the crying or chewing could be his coping strategy. He might find the chewing soothing. 

We know dogs do what works. So, guess what? The next time you’re out, your dog will use the same tactic that got results last time. He will yelp sooner and for longer, because it might bring you back. Or chew earlier and with more intent, because the chewing feels good.

Panic changes the brain

Studies show panic causes a dog’s brain chemistry to change for the worse. It’s as if panic leaves “fear” written on the dog’s brain with a thick, black permanent marker. The more your dog panics, the more fearful he becomes, and he’s likely to become even more fearful in the future.

The longer the panic goes on, the more dismal things can get. If you decide to gamble on the “let them get over it” strategy, you take your chances with your dog’s brain chemistry. Fear is easy to get but hard to lose.

So what can you do instead?

Whether your dog panics or parties when you’re out, don't let unwanted behaviour run unchecked. You're not helping the cause.

If your bored dog thinks he’s missing out by staying home, give him something to do. Puzzle feeders are ideal here.

And if your dog gets into a panic when you go out, you need to stop the panic. That means no more scary, long absences. I know that seems impossible. But if you want to stop your dog’s anxiety getting worse, you have to keep your dog below his anxiety threshold.

When I started working with my dog’s anxiety, I felt like a roaring failure. I couldn’t handle the altered reality of never leaving him. But I knew every time we left, we poisoned the recovery process and intensified his misery. It wasn’t that I didn’t know this. I was leaving him despite knowing this.

If you’re struggling with this too, why not explore simple goal setting? Could you leave your dog for 20% less than you currently do and test that for a week? Then, could you shift to 50% less for a week? Small steps might propel you into taking the plunge of no absences if 100% of the time seems impossible.

There are some creative ways to handle not leaving your dog. See if you can give it a try for a week. Remember whether he’s anxious or bored, if you don’t nip things in the bud, you risk making things worse.

Once you stop the anxiety from getting worse, you can start training your dog to be happier on his own. The sooner you start training him, the sooner you can cure him.

Contact me for a free consultation to learn about separation anxiety training for your dog.

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