How I Overcame Dog Separation Anxiety
Updated: Oct 29, 2021
There's something about Molly
Molly was my second foster dog. She was a beautiful, polite English Pointer mix that landed at the first shelter I worked at. Before Molly, I had every intention of fostering dogs until they found their forever home. But once in my home, Molly fit right in like she was always meant to be there.
When she curled up in my arms at bedtime, I knew that was it. This was my dog. I was so excited to make it official! That is, until the next day when I came home after a long day at work. I found an angry note taped to my front door by my downstairs neighbor. He was threatening to get me and my dog kicked out.
I was panicked before I even opened the door. Unfortunately, the scene inside was no more comforting than the note in my hand. My apartment looked trashed. It was as though my neighbor had broken in and taken his frustration out on my belongings. But, this wasn't my neighbor's doing. It was Molly's.
I was so angry, frustrated, and scared. I felt furious at my neighbor for their menacing note. I felt frustrated at Molly for freaking out the entire 10 hours I was at work. I felt scared of what I was going to tell my roommate, and how tomorrow was going to go. Because I had to go back to work the next day. There was just no way around that.
I don't remember now if I cried or yelled or just lied face down on the carpet. What I do remember is driving straight to the local pet store to ask for help. I had a crate, which seemed to be obvious solution to Molly's destructiveness. But in order to keep my neighbor off our backs - and to keep the roof over our heads - I was going to need a solution for Molly's barking.
The pet store attendant walked me to the aisle with electronic collars. They picked up a collar with a spray can of citronella and explained how it worked. If Molly barked, the collar would release a spray of citronella at her face. This $120 device would solve my problems, they told me. I felt uneasy, but I also felt like I had to try it.
This was 2008. I didn't know anything about animal behavior yet, despite thinking I did. Growing up with dogs did not in fact make me a dog expert. Neither did working in a shelter or a veterinary hospital. Looking back now, I wish I knew then what I know now. At the very least, I wish I had the humility that years of animal training has given me today.
The next day, I left for work, being sure to position Molly's new collar properly for maximum effect. But when I arrived at my doorstep after another long day at work, my heart sank to my butt as I pulled another note off my door. My neighbor was beyond pissed. And I was more afraid than I had ever been.
What followed was a series of missteps, of which I spare you the details. What I will share is that the bark collar did not work. Molly had barked until she emptied the can, which thereafter allowed her to bark to her heart's delight. Except that the barking, the escape attempts, the destruction, the urinating - none of that was an indication that Molly was pleased with herself. It was the opposite.
Despite what well-meaning colleagues, friends, and even trainers and veterinarians told me, Molly was not giving me a hard time for leaving her. Molly was having a hard time. And that's putting it mildly. When I left her alone, Molly was panicking in the worst of ways.
It didn't make sense to me then, in the same way it doesn't make sense to anyone who has experienced their dog's separation anxiety. Why didn't she understand that I was always coming back? Why wouldn't she just grow out of it? Why did she seem to get better, only to get worse later on? Why didn't getting a second dog fix it? I asked myself all those questions and more.
Becoming a dog trainer
Molly was actually the reason I got into dog training. I started off as an aversive trainer - though I didn't call myself one at the time. At first, I tried to intimidate and punish the anxiety out of her. It didn't work. Not in the long run. Eventually, I tried every kind of homeopathic and woo-woo remedy I could get my hands on. Still, Molly remained an anxious little dog.
Our only saving grace came when I accidentally fell into a work-life pattern that allowed me to suspend absences for a while. I didn't call it that at the time. I just called it life. The only way to keep Molly, and my second dog, Lucy, was to ensure that I got help covering the times they had to be left alone.
So, it was by accident that I started a loose desensitization protocol. Leaving Molly alone with her sibling only for as long as Molly could handle. To get this done, I enlisted the help of my roommate, my best friend, and a dog trainer. I also got medication on board.
While we made some progress, I can honestly say that Molly remained a fairly anxious dog for most of her life - in large part due to the way I trained. But her problem behaviors lessened enough that I could refocus my attention on my second dog's reactivity. Unfortunately, when the first dog parent asked me to help them with their dog's separation anxiety, I could not replicate the same success with their dog.
For that reason, I instead focused my career on reactivity and aggression. Just as with Molly, I made countless mistakes with Lucy, and many dogs after that. For years, I used fear, punishment and intimidation to show reactive dogs who was pack leader. Of course, I never marketed it this way - no trainer working in this way ever does. We use language that appeals to dog parents and justifies our dated methods.
While I specialized in reactivity, I deferred clients struggling with dog separation anxiety to any other trainer that would take them. By the time my sweet dogs, Molly and Lucy, hit their senior years, I finally saw the light. I realized that while I had a great track record of compliance, my pack leader ways were only contributing to their anxiety and fear.
Fast forward several years, and I am now a crossover trainer - meaning, I now start with dog emotion instead of disregarding it. Understanding dog emotion changed the game for me as a dog parent and trainer, because it meant that I was now working with my dog instead of against them. Training in this way has only increased compliance and reliability in my dogs, while reducing anxiety and fear.
Overcoming dog separation anxiety
My time with Molly taught me a lot about dog separation anxiety. I know definitively now that there is no such thing as a quick fix. I know firsthand that getting a second dog can end disastrously. I can honestly say that the cheaper solution is often a waste of money. I know that despite all this, dog separation anxiety is treatable. And it starts with a commitment to prioritize their emotional health.
It took until Molly passed away from old age before I was willing to work with dog separation anxiety again. It is now 2021 and I'm a Certified Separation Anxiety Trainer, who is more passionate than ever to give dogs freedom from home-alone panic. Unfortunately, I still see a lot of my 2008 mistakes being made by well-meaning dog parents. They're just following the advice available of friends, colleagues, and even dog trainers and veterinarians, but often at a great cost.
If we have chatted on the phone, then you have probably heard me say that a lot of the advice out there for separation anxiety feels like throwing spaghetti at a wall. You are often advised to try a bunch of things in order to see what will stick. And by stick, I mean you're lucky if it only takes the edge off of your dog's separation anxiety.
As somebody who has suffered through dog separation, I can say that nobody has the time or money for that. What suffering dogs need are immediate solutions. That is why I decided to become a Certified Separation Anxiety Trainer. As a CSAT, my number one priority is helping you and your dog regain your freedom from the trap that is dog separation anxiety.
There are many ways to go about dog training. When it comes to panicked dogs, I trust leading dog separation anxiety expert Malena deMartini and her small army of CSATs. Having completed the rigorous program to become a CSAT myself - including extensive study of and practice in the treatment of dog separation anxiety - I can honestly tell you that you are in the best of hands with any CSAT.
Most of us CSATs have our own stories about overcoming dog separation anxiety. Me, I failed miserably with Molly before finally getting lucky. What I wouldn't give to go back in time and bypass all the spaghetti throwing. That is why I am still training dogs today - to help you bypass wasted time and money, and hop on the express train to freedom from separation anxiety.
There is nothing better than witnessing the relief that an anxious dog, and their humans, feel when they are finally free of separation anxiety. No more barking. No more panicking. No more losing your cool because of the destruction your dog caused. No more crying into your hands because it feels hopeless.
If you are currently in the middle of it, I am sure this sounds almost unrealistic. But know this - there is hope. Dog separation anxiety is treatable.
With specialized guidance and strategic training, dogs that panic when left alone can change. The process isn't always quick, but it is always worth it.
Whether you work with myself or another CSAT, I encourage you to take the next step in getting help for yourself and your dog. I promise that you will be relieved you did.