I had coffee this weekend with a friend who was telling me about the struggle her little boy was having with going to school.
Her three-year-old has decided he doesn't want to go to school. She's very upset, saddened, frustrated, and confused by what's going on.
From the outside, it seems like it's not the “I don't want to go to school today, Mom” type of three-year-old tantrums. It's much more “There's something I don't like there, Mom. Please don't make me go.”
Seeing her son in that state every day as she drops him off at school breaks her heart. So she came up with a plan – talk to the staff, ask for their advice, see if they can work out the cause, and take it bit by bit. She knows that to solve the problem she must find out the cause of her son’s upset and tackle that.
Make it stop
The discussion about my friend’s little boy reminded me of the question I dread most when I talk to people about separation anxiety: “Can you make it stop now?”
I’m sure deep down, my friend thought this about her son, too. I bet my friend's initial response was, “Oh, gosh. Do I have to deal with this? Isn't there anything we can do to stop it right away?”
But she knows this is more fundamental than temper tantrums at the door. Something has to be done to make him feel happier about going to school. And as much as she wishes she could instantly halt the behaviour, she recognizes getting him happier at school is going to take as long as it takes.
And that's like separation anxiety. You can't suddenly get your scared dog to be happy at home.
No quick fix to tackling fear
Remember the reason your dog is barking or chewing isn't that they're acting up. They're not tantrumming to try to get your attention.
They bark or destroy because they're frightened.
Fear is easy to develop but hard to lose, especially when it comes to home alone distress.
To stop the fear, we have to change the cause of the fear. And no more fear means no more anxious barking.
Anyone who sells you a quick fix for separation anxiety either doesn’t understand how dogs handle fear. Or, worse, they're deceiving you. Separation anxiety cannot be instantly cured.
Slow but steady
There may be no quick fix, but separation anxiety training has a high success rate.
You can get your dog more comfortable with being home alone. You can get him over his fear of separation. The training won’t stop the barking tomorrow. But stick with the training and you can stop the barking.
But, worrying about being kicked out of your apartment or coming back to destruction is the worst feeling, as I know all too well.
So, if your neighbours complain and you need to do something today, what can you do? Well, since the barking only stops when the fear stops, if you have to stop the barking tomorrow, your only option is not leaving him.
I know that may well seem impossible, but see if you can get creative about getting some help with not leaving him. Lots of owners start thinking they can't do this, but soon find ways to get company for their dog.
It doesn't always have to be a professional dogsitter or a daycare. What about retirees? Or students? Perhaps you have friends with kids who might be interested in trading some sits.
Whatever you come up with, getting help will give you and your dog a much-needed break.
Then, you can gradually get your dog used to being on his own through desensitization training. Desensitization training works on the fear. And once the fear goes, so do the problem behaviours associated with the fear.
If somebody tells there's another way to stop that barking today, don’t listen to them.
But what about bark collars?
Bark collar manufacturers promise their products will “Stop Barking Now!” and “Fast Results”. But these devices are unregulated, so these companies can promise whatever they like.
What the marketing won't tell you is bark collars are what dog trainers call aversives. In other words, they frighten or scare the dog into changing its behaviour.
“But wait, I read bark collars just give the dog a static shock.”
That's what the marketers want you to believe. But sadly, they only work when they cause the dog enough pain. And they don't do anything to change the fear.
Let me share an example. Have you ever tried to give up your favourite candy bar or chocolate? Now imagine you've said to me, “Julie, every time I go near chocolate, I need you to stop me.”
So I tell you everytime you head to the kitchen for chocolate, you're going to get a static shock. It'll be the sort of static shock you get on a dry morning when you're putting on synthetic clothes.
Is a static shock going to stop you from going for your favourite chocolate you haven't eaten for weeks and you're desperate for? Of course not.
But if I gave you a full on electric shock, would that make you stop? I’m guessing, yes.
So the static shock thing is a myth. The only way bark collars and other shock devices change behavior is by frightening your dog.
Change the fear to change the behaviour
Just like the little boy at the school gates, punishing a dog for home-alone behaviour won't change how he feels about school, but it might stop the crying, and it might stop the behaviour.
Which is what anti-bark devices do to a dog. They might stop the behaviour, but they don't do anything to make the dog feel better about being alone.
He's going to be even more frightened when you go out, because now not only has he got the fear of being alone, but he's also got the dread of an electric shock happening if he dares to bark to tell you he's lonely.
So what can you do today?
Well, you need to get creative about finding help with your dog. Jump into my Facebook group. Reach out to people about what they've done to suspend absences. Ask what they've done to stop the destruction and chewing in the home. And find out what they've done to handle neighbour complaints. That's your first step.
Then crack on with the training. The sooner you start, the sooner your dog's going to stop being frightened at being on his own.
Finally, don't feel bad about anything you've done up to now, because you've been sold some very clever marketing. That's not your fault. Hope to see you in the Facebook group soon.