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Separation Anxiety Myths

The first myth I debunk with my clients is that they caused their dog's separation anxiety by, for example, letting their dog sleep in their bed. Although some research suggests that an older dog being rehomed or experiencing a big change in life could spark separation anxiety, we don't know exactly what causes it. There are, however, five key contributors to dogs developing fear (which underlies SA) with genetics playing the biggest role. The other factors include early life experiences or lack of them, the maternal dog's stress while pregnant, and the mother's interactions with her puppies after they're born. We have marginal control over a few of those possibilities if we get our dogs as puppies or if we can alleviate maternal stress, but even if we work with puppies on feeling better about being alone, they could still develop separation anxiety. So you did not cause it!

You may also have encountered the belief that people should let their dogs “cry it out” to get used to being alone. This tactic can backfire spectacularly because a fearful dog left to cry it out may continue barking or howling until their human returns, elevating the dog’s stress level and creating a further bad association with being alone (not to mention how neighbors might react). So we don’t leave dogs for longer than they can handle when we do separation anxiety training—even if that means the human simply pops outside and right back in during a practice session. And if your dog goes over threshold and into fear, you’ll go back inside to comfort them because it is cruel to leave your dog in such a stressful state.

Some older training protocols begin with people randomly grabbing their keys or putting on and taking off a coat throughout the day as a way to desensitize their dog to these leaving cues. Instead, when the human performs this treatment the dog’s tension mounts as they are cued over and over that they'll be alone and the keys or coat become even more charged with meaning for the dog. With the latest separation anxiety training we wait until the dog can handle being alone for at least fifteen minutes before reintroducing these cues.

Another myth concerns leaving dogs with some food to occupy them or to help them feel better about being alone. But you have to give your dog the stuffed Kong or the treat before you leave. Over time the Kong or other treat becomes just another cue that something bad is going to happen because that is how conditioning works—for Pavlov’s dogs the bell rang before they saw the food and began salivating. Soon enough the bell alone caused the dogs to salivate. To teach your dog a new association with something he finds scary like you leaving, you need to put the scary thing first (you leaving) and then follow it with the good thing (a delicious stuffed Kong). Using food to reduce separation anxiety also fails because your dog may be too stressed to eat or may finish it quickly and then be left with nothing to distract them from their fear.

Finally, people often ask if they should they crate their dog with separation anxiety when they leave. While some dogs do okay in their crates, many more struggle, so the answer is usually no. Anxious dogs stuck in crates can hurt themselves badly in their attempts to escape. Being left alone in a crate can also destroy the dog's previous good feelings about it. In the early stages of training your dog is more likely to stick by the door than need to be contained. But there are other options like baby gates and exercise pens if you do need to keep your dog in a specific area while you practice the training.

There are a lot of myths surrounding separation anxiety, but knowing fact from fiction can help you understand it better and be more prepared to help your dog work through it.

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