Dogs can’t speak to us to say how they are feeling, so we have to become fluent in their language—their body language.
By Tracy Krulik, CTC
Your dog goes into a complete panic every time you walk out the door: barking, pacing, whimpering, howling, maybe even losing his bladder and/or bowels, chewing holes in your door or window frame, or even getting bloodied up trying to break out of a crate or jump through a window.
And you’ve tried everything, you say. You’ve gone in and out at different times—something like, out for five minutes, then again for two minutes, then 10, and another time for 20 minutes. You stuff Kongs and play soft music. You’ve tried leaving worn clothing with him so that he can smell you. You’ve plugged in pheromone diffusers.
And yet, he’s not getting better! He might even be getting worse.
Want to know one of the biggest reasons why? Want to know what you can do to fix this? Well, read on, because while a magician can never share her secrets, I, as a certified separation anxiety training can and will!
The secret to resolving separation anxiety is… body language.
Let’s talk about why this happens.
Separation anxiety is a problem rooted in fear (which might not surprise you, given the name). Your dog is barking, pacing, howling, peeing, etc. because he or she is scared to be alone, or afraid to be away from certain people. I’m a card-carrying arachnophobe, and I imagine the panic these pups face when left alone might be something along the lines of how I’d feel if I were locked in a room with a bunch of tarantulas.
If I shouted profanities, wet my pants, and clawed at the door as those little demons scurried around the space, would you think I was doing it to misbehave? I doubt it. After the click of that door latch, my hypothalamus would announce to the rest of my body that “WE’RE IN FIGHT-OR-FLIGHT MODE, PEOPLE! ALL HANDS ON DECK!” I wouldn’t be able to settle down until I was far away from that eight-legged horror show.
It’s the same thing with dogs. If we remove the thing that’s scaring them, the problem behaviors (barking, howling, peeing, etc.), disappear. Thus, the most effective method for stopping all of those unwanted behaviors is to get to the root of the problem and tackle the fear—teach the dog that being alone is nothing to be afraid of.
The gold-standard separation anxiety training method is a process called systematic desensitization. It’s the same method that we use to help people overcome their fears of spiders, heights, airplanes, tight spaces, etc. Basically, we introduce the scary thing at a level that isn’t scary and then build little by little from there.
For the training to work, the dog has to not be scared at all—not “kind of fine,” not “only a little scared,” nothing. No panic. No stress. We’re looking to find your dog’s fear threshold line—the line between totally relaxed and starting to feel stress, and we’re going to work underneath that line.
My own dog’s threshold was 10 seconds. She could handle the first few seconds alone, but by 10 seconds she had crossed the line. Most dogs I train have a threshold within a handful of seconds at most, but I’ve met some whose thresholds were 10 minutes, and even one who was fine for 45 minutes.
But what does this have to do with body language?
This has EVERYTHING to do with body language. Our dogs can’t speak to us to say how they are feeling, so we have to become fluent in their language—their body language. We look for clues like yawning, lip licking, scratching themselves, and even sneezing. Does their face tense? What about their ears? Soft and floppy or up tight and pulled back? Do we see a lot of whites in their eyes? Did they rush to the door when you put on your jacket or grabbed your keys? Are they whimpering, barking or howling? Does your dog growl or even nip at your arms or legs when you try to leave?
Back in the days when I didn’t know what I was doing, and I was trying to train Emma the Beagle to stop barking and peeing every time I left her alone, I did all of those out-and-in exercises. Go out for five minutes, then a minute, then 30 minutes, then three minutes, etc. But no matter how hard I worked, not only did Emma not improve, her anxiety actually got worse.
Can you guess why?
I’m human. I’ll fess up to my mistakes. I never looked for Emma’s fear threshold back then. I just went out and came back in a bunch of times. Emma’s fear threshold was 10 seconds, which means that she was fine for up to 9ish seconds. After that, Fight-or-Flight took over her mind and body. Whereas I thought I was training Emma to stop barking when I left the condo, I was actually scaring her more each time and making her fear worse! We didn’t start to make progress until I determined her threshold and stayed below that (i.e. walk to door, turn door handle, return; walk to door, step out for 3 seconds, return; walk to door, open/close door return; etc.).
Separation anxiety is hard. There’s no way around it. It takes time, patience, a ton of empathy, and, oftentimes, medications and/or supplements. It also takes well-executed training. And the number one thing almost every person who reaches out to me is doing wrong in their training is the same thing I did wrong all those years ago—focusing on the time away without reading their dog’s body language. After months or years of “nothing working!,” it is astounding how much you can accomplish in a short time when you make sure your dog feels safe every time you walk out the door.
Tracy Krulik, CTC, CSATNOVA-based certified canine separation anxiety trainer and honors graduate of Jean Donaldson’s Academy for Dog Trainers, Tracy Krulik, CTC, CSAT is founder of iSpeakDog–a dog body language and behavior website. Krulik trains dogs with separation anxiety for the Humane Rescue Alliance and is a leading separation anxiety specialist in the D.C. area.