A dog with this disorder will "ask" for constant reassurance from their owners, or any humans in the vicinity, by doing things like leaning heavily on a person, climbing onto laps, and perpetual whining or barking for attention.
In Indy's particular case, the only symptom we didn't experience was house soiling. Indy has been known to bend back the bars of his crate, tear through the garbage, pull off the refrigerator door and clean out the contents (oh yes, I said it. Right off it's hinges, folks), howl, bark, whine, and scratch and chew himself raw.
In many cases, owners simply don't realize that dogs need to learn to cope with being alone in puppyhood. It doesn't come naturally to them. What's more, without low-stress positive reinforcement training to create some level of impulse control, the dog may find himself unable to self-calm - alone or otherwise. When we suddenly have to leave our canine companions due to a job change, a move, or travel, the symptoms of separation anxiety can crop up very quickly.
In Indy's case, as a puppy and adolescent, we learned that he had been tied up outside and left for long periods of time without food or water. When Indy panicked due to prolonged isolation and neglect, he began to act out with extreme, unwanted behaviors. As his forced exile from the family became more prolonged, Indy's separation-related behaviors became more severe.
Australian Shepherds are, by nature, high energy and extremely social. Tying down a working, herding breed alone for extended periods could only result in massive psychological and behavioral problems. And so it was for Indy.
So how did we help our beautiful, red-headed herder to cope?
To begin, I came to quickly understand that punishment, in the case of a dog with separation anxiety, is completely out of the question. It will only increase anxiety to before unseen levels. Instead, we must take a different path and build our anxious dog's confidence and independence.
To start, I began to associate departures from the house with good things for Indy. In cases less severe than his, often leaving a favorite toy, chewable, stuffed kong, or food puzzle can be enough to keep our furry friends busy for short periods while we're away. Be sure to put the toy down five minutes before you leave, and to pick it up on your return (provided your dog has finished with it and it's empty inside), ensuring that the dog associates the enjoyment of the toy for only those times when you are away.
Next, I began to train Indy in impulse control. This meant that, for everything Indy wanted, whether it was dinner, his frisbee (his greatest joy in life), a tasty bully stick, or even our affection, he must earn it through offering us good, appropriate behavior. I executed this with a manding protocol.
Having manding training under your dog's belt is critical to teaching impulse control. In this way, Indy's ability to communicate his needs and wants became reliable, increasing his confidence. In addition, I incorporated a basic, low-stress, positive reinforcement cue and trick-training protocol. This was designed to help Indy become less reactive, and a little more thoughtful. Thinking, instead of acting. By creating a tiny window in Indy's cognition, and by providing for one of his fundamental needs as a high-drive, super-intelligent breed of dog, Indy today is proudly proficient at nearly fifty different canine cues.
Next, I had to train Indy to be able to stand on his own four paws independently. To do this, we started with a deceptively simple but extremely detailed protocol designed to desensitize Indy to movement and sound. To do this, I had to incorporate elements of distance, volume, variety, and physical proximity to anything that might inform Indy that I might be leaving. With painstaking slowness, Indy began to experience desensitization to a great many precursor cues to departure.
While working on the above, Indy could practice calm sitting or lying down behaviors. Critical to this process was ensuring that at no point did we exceed Indy's ability to remain calm and un-anxious during the work. It meant revisiting many stages of the protocol many times, endless amounts of revision and rehearsal, and a calm, patient approach on my end. Some days I was certain we'd never succeed with the work, but we persevered.
Ideally, when training your dog to be alone, you want to completely avoid any and all signs of an anxious state of mind. Habituated behaviors are difficult to modify, and the longer they are left unaddressed, the more difficult the process of rehabilitation.
There are a few more things you can do if your dog suffers from separation anxiety like ours does. To start, it is critical to end the drama of entering and exiting the house with your dog. Be sure to engage in calm, collected acknowledgement before you leave and after you return every time. Do not be tempted to make a huge fuss for any reason when you're returning home, or when you're leaving.
If your dog paces and circles you anyway, offer a lovely stuffed kong or a delicious bully stick as a way to channel that anxious energy productively. Long, firm strokes across the back and warm scratches all around the ears can also help your dog relax when aroused by unnecessary anxiety
While working through all of this, please understand that I did not do it alone. In fact, the vast majority (if not all) dog parents with a dog that suffers from acute separation anxiety will need a support network to succeed in the abatement of separation-related anxious behavior.
Utilizing dog sitters, family members, good friends, and even bartering services with other owners of dogs that suffer from separation anxiety will all help you navigate this incredibly challenging set of behaviors. If your dog will tolerate a crate, you can use one for very short periods away once your dog is able to tolerate a few minutes of alone-time entirely free of anxiety. Many dogs may require pharmaceuticals to help gently and gradually adjust the neurochemistry behind these anxious behaviors. It is very important to note that this particular course of action must always be paired with a systematic behavior modification protocol to achieve the desired results.
Separation anxiety is a challenging and difficult set of behaviors to remedy, but even in the most severe cases of separation anxiety with our dogs, there is hope. With the help of a talented canine behavior professional, the diligent application of hard work and mindfulness to your dog's emotional and mental state of mind, doing this work with your anxious dog can be the cornerstone of understanding between you that will last a lifetime. If you're just starting out, it may feel impossible, and that is COMPLETELY normal. Just know that you're not alone, and that help is out there for you and your dog.
Camille Salter is the founder of All Dogs Toronto and a certified, knowledge-assessed dog trainer (CPDT-KA). She is the author of two books on dog behavior: Pandemic Puppy, Decoding the Dog Park, and the Big Book of Dog Training.