What is Separation Anxiety? (and other big questions)

Michael Baugh CDBC CPDT-KSA CSAT

Dog Separation Anxiety is a label we attach to a syndrome of behaviors. Dogs, when left alone, who do one or more of the things listed below are often referred to as “having” separation anxiety.

  • Barking
  • Whining or crying
  • Howling
  • Digging at the floor near exits
  • Scratching doors and walls
  • Chewing around doors and windows
  • Losing control of their bladders or bowels
  • Panting
  • Pacing

Some trainers refer to this as dog isolation distress, as it only occurs when the dog is alone. They reserve the term separation anxiety of dogs who have attachment to one specific person. Nonetheless, Separation Anxiety is widely accepted as referring to dogs who panic when left alone without humans in general. It sticks. So, we’ll go with that term.

Dog Separation AnxietyDid I cause my dog’s separation anxiety? Probably not. Let’s go ahead and lift that weight off your shoulders right now. Your dog’s behavior is not your fault. There’s a lot of emerging research about separation anxiety but specific causes still elude us. It’s safe to say that attention, love, allowing them on furniture, or staying home with them for many hours a day are not causes. Lot’s of folks do those things and there’s just no significant correlation to suggest a link to separation anxiety.

How do I know for sure my dog has separation anxiety? Your Certified Separation Anxiety Trainer (CSAT) can do a live video assessment of your dog when they’re alone to help you determine that. You can also set up a live video link yourself without a trainer monitoring. Leave and watch your dog’s behavior on your phone or tablet. Do you see any of the behaviors listed above? Does it look like your dog is panicking?  If so, separation anxiety might be the problem.

My dog follows me everywhere. Is that separation anxiety? No. This behavior, whether you find it cute or annoying, shows up in a ton of dogs who have no other indicators for separation anxiety. Interestingly, some dogs with separation anxiety don’t do this at all.

Will my dog grow out of separation anxiety? It’s doubtful. I won’t say that there aren’t some dogs who adapt and appear to resolve their own behavior. There probably are some. However, they would be the exception to the rule. The more common trend is the separation anxiety behaviors solidify and sometimes intensify over time.

Will medication help my dog’s separation anxiety? Only a licensed veterinarian or veterinary behaviorist can prescribe or even consult with  you about behavior medication related to separation anxiety. FDA approved medications do exist. Are they right for your dog? I don’t know. We do know that in many cases medication in combination with behavior training can be effective.

Can separation anxiety be cured? I don’t use that exact word. But, it can certainly be helped. Certified Separation Anxiety Trainers (CSATs) like myself have had excellent results extending the time our clients’ dogs can spend alone quietly and calmly. It’s a fairly straightforward process. However, this does not always mean the process will be easy. A CSAT dog behavior coach can help you navigate the tricky parts and assist you so that your dog’s training will go as smoothly as possible.

How long will it take? Your CSAT dog behavior coach can help you set your dog up to succeed as fast as your dog is able to go. We bring our A-game to the process and we help you and your dog find your A-games as well. We also help you set and track measurable goals. The exact speed of progress is different for each dog. It can also vary (speeding up and slowing down) throughout the course of training. Broadly speaking, we suggest people think in terms of months not weeks.

Can I do separation anxiety training on my own? You can. In fact, in my opinion we CSATs should all be teaching our clients how to work on their own after they’ve worked with us. There are also good online courses for dog separation anxiety (and more in development). We can recommend some of our favorites.

Do separation anxiety trainers come to my home? Usually not. That’s actually good news. It means you can work with the CSAT of your choice no matter where you live in the world. Separation anxiety training is a clear process designed to teach your dog to become more comfortable (calm) staying on their own. Having someone come to your house to teach your dog to be alone doesn’t make much sense once you think about it. Come over. Now leave. Then, of course, there’s be the question of how we monitor your dog when we do leave. Better to have the video link set up from the get-go so we can help monitor and assess  your dog’s alone-time behavior no matter where we are.

Is separation anxiety training expensive? Yes and no. It depends on who you ask. Compared to a 6-week basic obedience class, yes it’s very expensive. Broadly speaking a multi-month course of separation anxiety training with a credentialed trainer is comparable to a multi-week board and train. It’s much better value for money. You are getting months of daily customized one-on-one coaching. CSAT dog behavior coaches are very transparent about pricing. My separation anxiety prices are on my web site.

The first step, though, is free. You can follow this link to set up a free 30-minute separation anxiety call. I’m sure you have questions I didn’t cover here. You can ask those on the call. And, of course, I’ll get to learn more about you and your dog. And yes, it’s really free. You can sign up for your first 4-week training package on that call. But, you don’t have to.

For me this is the big question: Is there hope? Yes! Absolutely, there is hope. Countless dog guardians have walked the path to recovery from separation anxiety ahead of you. And, I’m here to walk it with you – every step of the way – as long as you need me. Seriously, if you have read this far you’ve already taken the first step. Let’s keep going.

 

Michael Baugh is a Certified Separation Anxiety Trainer based in Texas. He also helps families with dogs who have other behavior issues including aggression.

 

 

Dog Training – It’s About the Relationship, Silly

Michael Baugh CDBC CPDT-KSA CSAT

We’ve come full circle. The truth is good dog trainers have always known that teaching is about relationships. It’s not so much “leadership,” (Do it or else). It’s more about cooperation (Let’s work on this together). We’ve known this even though for a while it looked like we forgot.

To some extent or another too many of us became fix-it trainers. Dogs became a list of problems to solve. Our business coaches told us that’s what clients wanted – results, nothing more. We knew they were wrong, but we changed our business plans and turned our web sites over to them (at no small cost). And, fix-it we did. We stopped the crummy behavior from happening and taught the shiny new behavior instead. We packaged it up as solutions and modifications like we were tricking out cars. All the while, we still knew. This is about the relationship, silly. The human, the dog, the team.

It’s all come full circle. Relationships are the thing again, and rightly so. Maybe it was Covid. I learned a whole new way of living with my dogs, as you probably did too. It drew us closer. It taught us new lessons. Deeper ones, I think.

Take notice. The world slowed down, at least a little bit, at least for a little while. I could (and did) spend hours just watching my dogs. I watched them sleep. I watched what they paid attention to. I noticed what they did more often and in greater detail. And here’s the other thing. I noticed them noticing me. They watch us, follow us, and listen to us far more than we give them credit for.

Communicate. That’s the beginning of communication, this shared noticing. There have been a number of studies that suggest dogs understand our meaning far better than we understand theirs. They read our facial expressions, our voices, and even our casual gestures and accurately interpret our intent. We know this, if we are paying attention, because of how they respond. They have their own gestures and expressions. It’s been called a language of sorts, and we can learn it. This is the bedrock of training, mastering the give and take, the quid pro quo, the rap-and-riff of our interactions with dogs. It’s like good improv. A little something from me a little something from you. A conversation.

Turn towards, not away. All we have to do is to lean into this truth. Dog training is not a top-down endeavor. It’s a back-and-forth. Our dogs have intention. They are thinking and feeling.  Psychologist John Gottman taught this concept in the context of marriage. When our partner reaches out (Gottman calls this a “bid”), the more we turn toward them to engage and exchange, the richer our marriage will become. There is a parallel here for all relationships, including the learning relationship we have with our non-human friends. Your dog, I guarantee it, is always bidding. He’s exploring his agency in the world, gambling, engaging, experimenting. Turn towards that behavior, towards your dog, not away from it. Connect. Collaborate. Build shared understanding. Add fluidity to learning. Create trust.

This is not etherial pie-in-the-sky thinking. It’s foundational. There is certainly a time and a place for fixing problem behaviors. There’s a place for teaching cool skills and even tricks (tricking out your dog). If you’re focused on the results alone, though, you will struggle. In fact, often the struggle is all you will see. I wonder sometimes why it all feels so difficult. What if we chose to see our dog instead, this other life in the room? What if we were open to the conversation? I see you and I smile and I know you know what that means. I see your bid – for attention, for engagement, for a chance to choose this or that. How could I miss it? You’re here, breathing and thinking and real.

I see you. I see your bid. And I turn toward you. How could I not, you delightful, crazy, adorable, sometimes problematic, dog.

Michael Baugh teaches dog training and behavior in Houston, TX. He specializes in aggressive dog behavior and dog separation anxiety.

 

Tad Goodbyes

Michael Baugh CDBC CPDT-KSA CSAT

His story began on my birthday, March 26, 2011, months before I knew he even existed. A young woman who worked at a vet clinic was driving a back road in rural Southeast Texas when she saw an animal, a dog maybe, or what was left of a dog. I won’t post the pictures. He was eaten by hunger and mange, bent under death’s shadow. The young woman scooped him up and took him to the clinic where she worked. The vet speculated that death might still be near, a day, hours if it took him that night. The woman gave him the simple honor of a name. If he didn’t make it to morning at least he’d leave with that. She called him The Abandoned Dog, the acronym – Tad.

Her name was Tiffany Dieringer (pronounced like Derringer). It’s McKinley now, but she still has the pistol tattoos. When she saw Tad the next morning he was very much alive. He’d survived the night as he would the hundreds of nights that followed. Tiffany is a consummate storyteller, and tell it she did. She wrote about Tad and shared his pictures and before long he had thousands of followers worldwide. She raised money for his medical bills and then started a charity in his name for other dogs. Tad recovered. He grew stronger. The hard lines of his hips and ribs disappeared under muscle and fat and fawn-colored fur.

Weeks turned to months and as his physical wounds healed the emotional signs of Tad’s trauma became more apparent. He barked at people coming in the clinic. He charged and threatened. And eventually he bit someone. He bit hard. It was late Summer when I first met Tad.

I work with aggressive dogs. Tad’s case was not particularly difficult nor was it particularly easy. The truth is his case should have blended in with the hundreds of others. It’s important work, of course, especially to my clients. But, it’s work nonetheless. Just the facts. Here’s the plan. I’ve got your back. Text me tomorrow. I don’t fall in love with my clients’ dogs. Not most of them. Not many of them. None really like Tad. Maybe it was his unfolding story of redemption, the longing we all have for second chances. Maybe it was the fame. So many people around the world loved him and here I was with him, up close, in the room. Whatever it was I remember the moment and I wrote it down the day it happened. “We all know how easy and wonderfully alluring it is to fall in love with Tad online.  It is something altogether different to be with him in person.  For just a few seconds Tad tucked his head into my arms and pressed his forehead against my chest.  I scratched him behind the ears and kissed the top of his head.”

We don’t know what happened to Tad or how he ended up on that rural road dying. We don’t know for sure but it was bad. Tad’s body healed but the injuries to his psyche, some of them at least, were permanent. Tad was often slow to trust and fast to react. There were setbacks. Bites. Days when Tiffany questioned again whether the night ahead would be his last. Aggression in dogs can be fatal, rarely to humans, too often for the dogs themselves. Tiffany cried. I cried. We looked across that threshold more than once and damned if that Abandoned Dog didn’t always pull us back. Tad did what so many folks thought he would never be able to do. He grew old.

Tad settled in as we all hope to when the years start to add up. Tiffany got married. She had a daughter. She started her photography business and left the vet clinic (she took many of the photos on this web site including the banner photo of Stewie). We remained friends, though I hadn’t seen Tad in far too long. She said his last year was the best, no blow ups, no bites. It was a hard year for the rest of us, most especially Tiffany. Covid. Personal shit, and too much of it. Hard all around except for Tad. Somehow, some way, he’d softened and just in time.

It was a week ago as of this writing, November 4th 2021. Tad, slower and heavier, settled down to sleep. Who would have known he would settle so gently under death’s shadow. Who could predict, no one really, that this would be the night he would not survive. It was a mass that ruptured, probably cancer. The blood moved quickly from where it is supposed to be to where it is not. Quickly. It was fast. When Tiffany woke up he looked like he was still asleep. Like nothing had happened. Like the story hadn’t ended.

Epilogue.

Tad died a good boy, an old good dog. He slept and then died as if in a dream that was nearly impossible to imagine those many years before. He died in his own home in his own sleeping spot warm and safe on a cold Fall evening. He died not far from the people he loved, not far from the woman he loved most of all.

 

Related links (in chronological order)

Meeting Tad

Keeping Tabs on Tad

The Tadlands

In Tad we Trust

Good Days and Tad Days

A Tad Improved