• Dana Rebaza

The Quick-Fix for Dog Separation Anxiety

When you live with a dog that panics if left alone, the world feels incredibly small. You can't leave them alone without fearing what they may do to themselves or your home. But inevitably, you have to be able to walk out of the door without them.

The most common complaint I hear from parents of dogs suffering from separation anxiety is that they feel like a prisoner in their own home. Your faithful companion that you love so much starts to look more like a ball and chain. A thought that feels crummy to admit.

I have been there. I have felt the snowball effect of a dog that panics when left alone. The way in which their anxiety started triggering my own anxiety about leaving home without them - unsure of what I would find on my return. The rising desperation that comes from a distraught dog and angry neighbors. The confusion of all of the conflicting advice out there.

It may feel like desperate times call for desperate measures. Taking advice from anyone who will offer us a little bit of hope. That $60 homeopathic remedy. The $120 collar. The $500+ crate. They all seem like the quick-fix we need. Anything to stop the barking, escaping and destruction.

The truth about quick-fixes

Unfortunately, quick-fixes may come with a high cost. Like Athena, who made a trip to the ER after trying the latest homeopathic. Like Molly, whose anxiety only worsened after the bark collar. Like Buzz, who caused thousands of dollars of damage after escaping yet another crate.

Although much of the common advice out there may not end as disastrously for your dog, the cost of taking the wrong advice is often more lost time and money.

When you live with a dog suffering from separation anxiety there is a sense of urgency to help. Help your dog stop panicking. Help curb the destruction of your property. Help stop feeling like you're drowning. Help fix whatever is broken. There is no time or money to be wasted.

Having survived and overcome dog separation anxiety - both as a dog parent and a trainer - I can honestly tell you that there is hope. There is hope for you and your suffering dog. Take a deep breath. And then take another. You're going to want to slow down long enough to hear what you may not want to hear.

The best way out of separation anxiety is to slow down long enough to reframe your dog's emotions around being left alone. Think about it. If you fell off a cliff every time you walked out your front door, how long before you stop even opening the door? How hard would your fight to never experience that again?

Trying to power through the scary thing, which in your dog's case is being left alone, will not solve your problem. No amount of containment is going to stop your dog from panicking. No attempts at distracting them will convince them to stop spiraling. What will stop your dog's panic - and therefore, problem behaviors - is reframing what it looks like to be left.

That is why the emphasis of dog separation anxiety training is on reframing absences. This is the only quick-fix out there: reframing absences such that your dog is no longer pushed to panic when you have to leave. Sure, it may not be as quick as pushing your dog into that crate made of steel or fitting them with the latest in bark collars. But it is more effective.

So what does that look like? Reframing absences involves enlisting the help of folks and services that can keep your dog company during the times you can't be with them. By ensuring that your dog is no longer reliving their panic nor rehearsing their problem behaviors, you give yourself back some immediate freedom.

Think of this approach as finding your dog's tribe. By creating a support system of your dog's biggest fans, you are most likely to succeed in overcoming dog separation anxiety. Why is asking for help so important? Because crowd-sourcing alone time allows you to actually leave your dog and live your life right now. It also gives you a solid foundation from which to begin alone training - at your dog's pace and ideally with the help of a Certified Separation Anxiety Trainer.

Finding your dog's tribe

Dog separation anxiety is hard enough. The idea of putting together a team of supporters can feel daunting. Whether you work long hours, are tight on cash, or your dog is not dog-friendly - I promise there is a tribe out there for you. And your tribe is easier to find than you think!

I want you to think about all the reasons - big and small - that you have to leave your dog alone. Write them all down and give them an event name. For example: grocery store run, take out the trash, check on neighbor, pick up children from bus stop, etc. Next to each event, write down the time it takes to get in and out the door.

Put your pen down and take a look at your list again. Which events could your dog occasionally accompany you (or a housemate) with? Taking out the trash? Walking to the bus stop? Coffee with a friend? Picking up an order from the drive thru? Put a check mark next to those events. These are events that you can commit to reframing for your dog all on your own.

Now I want you to make a second list. Write down the names of all of your friends, family, and neighbors - all on the same line, side by side. Next, ask yourself who might be able to help with some of the events you wrote down? Would your neighbor like to come over and sit with your dog while you go for a run? Would your friend be happy to host a puppy play date with their dog in their home? Can your parents check in on their grand-pup every now and then?

List any events that do not have a check mark under the names in your second list. These are the first people you can start inviting into your dog's tribe. Make it easier on yourself by thinking of it as an opportunity to get closer to others. I don't know a single person in this pandemic who couldn't benefit from more human connection.

It can also help to think of ways to express your gratitude. Can you offer to leave dinner for the friend that comes to sit with your dog? Would you offer a puppy play date for the neighbor that did the same for you? If you are comfortable and capable of offering monetary payment, then that's also an option.

Finally, I want you to consider some untapped resources: dog care services. These services come with varying price tags depending on your location and level of care. No matter what you think you can afford, it's worth considering any options that won't break the bank.

Start with your personal weekly or monthly budget for dog care. We all have our reasons for choosing this budget, so there is no need to explain it to me or anyone else. Write down that number. Let this serve as boundary in choosing services.

Next, consider which options are most viable for your dog. Is your dog a candidate for daycare? Would they benefit from more exercise or lounging at home? Depending on your needs, look into dog daycare, dog sitters, and dog walkers.

A simple google search will let you know which professional dog daycares and pet sitting services exist in your area. If there are none, or the selection does not work for you, look for home-style daycares and independent dog sitters. You can access your local options via apps such as Rover or Wag!.

Don't forget to check your local community board for dog tribe recruits. If you have access to one, try posting about what you need help with. Avoid asking for advice about how to treat separation anxiety for the same reasons you would avoid searching for advice about your personal health in these platforms. Instead, focus on recruiting enthusiastic supporters of you, your dog, and your mission.

Remember to think outside the box. For example: can your order your groceries online and do curbside pick up with dog as your co-pilot? Can you occasionally take your dog with you to work? Do any of the people who currently work with your dog (vet, daycare, or pet store staff) have a reliable side gig caring for dogs? Are there dog training students or rescue volunteers that need the extra experience?

Reframing hope

Finding your dog's tribe is a process, but it is often a lot easier than we realize. Despite how overwhelming dog separation anxiety can be, the truth is that you are not alone. None of us are. And that's coming from someone who is very independent, has moved around a lot, and always has a very full plate.

Whatever your circumstances, there are more people out there rooting for you and your dog than you think! Taking the time to build up your dog's tribe will go a long way in helping you successfully resolve your dog's separation anxiety. Having people on board to help you manage your dog's panic is the only quick-fix out there that is worth it.

Trust me, it feels good to have the support of others and be able to share the load of caring for your anxious dog. Moreover, having time away from your dog can be very healing for you, too, especially when you're just starting out with alone training.

Know that how heavily you rely on your tribe will vary over time. It is likely that you will need a robust system of support in the beginning stages. Then, you can dial back that system, as you work with a Certified Separation Anxiety Trainer and your dog improves. Until one day, you have reached your alone time goals!

I know that day may seem far out of reach right now. The truth is that it is only out of reach if you refuse to try. So, get out your pen and paper, and start building your dog's alone-time tribe. When it comes to freeing yourself from dog separation anxiety, this is the best next step you can take. In doing so, I think you will find that people want to help you and your dog over this is - all you had to do was ask.

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