This is Part Two of Briar's story in which Team Briar discusses the impact that many common "recommendations" had on his overall anxiety levels.
Crying it Out
The number one suggestion I hear for owners of SA dogs, as well as the first thing I tried, is also one of the most potentially damaging pieces of advice – “let them cry it out”. Common advice often includes the notion of refusing to “give in” to the dog by ignoring them and only returning when they are behaving ‘appropriately’. Owners are urged to simply let their dogs bark, contain them in escape-proof crates, and hope that they will eventually “get over” whatever is prompting them to act out in their owner’s absence.
Approximately one week after I brought Briar home, I started to notice his vocalizations when I left him in the penned-off space I had created for him in my bedroom. He had a weak, frail voice and a pitiful silent howl that was hardly audible. I believed myself to be in the right by thinking that early on, I needed to make something clear. The little mutt would not be able to demand my attention with his barks and I would see to it that whenever he was vocalizing, he was not to be visited or paid any attention to. Seconds of waiting turned to minutes, and minutes turned to hours. His panic increased steadily the more I left him to experience such distress. He began having potty accidents and coating himself in his own drool from hyper-salivation when I left. I had to take him potty, I had to feed him, I couldn’t leave him alone forever – even though the barking never stopped. I did my best to wait for even so much as a second of silence, but he continued to worsen. After a couple of months, Briar became so afraid of being left that he refused to enter my bedroom on his own. It was the day when I saw him trembling at the threshold of the room that finally broke me. It was heartbreaking to watch my little dog, who I already cared so intensely for, shake in fear as I tried to beckon him into what should’ve been a safe, pleasant place.
At the time, the concept of letting Briar “cry it out” made sense under the premise that he would “get used to it”, or otherwise become desensitized. While it may be the case that some dogs eventually appear to settle down, the process of crying it out is better known to dog trainers and psychologists as a procedure called flooding. The subject is quite literally flooded with the stimulus, or ‘scary thing’ that causes them fear. In the case of dogs with separation anxiety, this ‘scary thing’ is being left alone. While the intention of the procedure is to desensitize the subject to what scares them, there is a serious risk of the procedure backfiring. Rather than becoming less worried, the subject can become more afraid of the ‘scary thing’. This happened to Briar who instead of learning there was nothing to fear, learned that each time I left him was just as scary as the last. His fear was exuberated. Once I realized what was happening, I stopped forcing him to cry it out and looked for other options.
Another common piece of advice SA dog owners may hear is to use food. The concept of using a dog’s favorite treat as part of their training is something many people are familiar with – why wouldn’t this pleasant method of training apply to training a dog with separation anxiety?
The first issue that may come to mind is the fact that it is very difficult to do anything by way of training if you aren’t even home. To remedy this, many people look to food toys and puzzles. A quick web search is likely to tell you that providing a dog with a stuffed Kong, a pile of bully sticks, or even a remote-controlled feeder in your absence can aid separation anxiety training. The dog will be distracted and may even learn to enjoy being left alone if they get food. A seemingly sound concept.
Unfortunately, if solving separation anxiety were as simple as leaving some treats out before heading out, many of us would’ve relieved our dogs of their fear a long time ago. Sadly, many dogs with separation anxiety experience a sort of anorexia during absences. I often tried my best to leave Briar with some kind of food before leaving with the hopes that it might at least help calm him. It didn’t take long before I began to notice his bowl still full of kibble after an absence. In his distressed state, he was in no mood to eat. Even steak, which he would otherwise gobble up like a piranha, could go untouched if he knew I had left.
Dogs that don’t experience a lack of appetite during the stress of separation may still eat or feel compelled to eat. These dogs may be temporarily distracted, or they may rush through their meal and begin to panic upon finishing. The most perceptive dogs may even learn that the food predicts the owner’s exit and begin to panic at the sight of their owners preparing a puzzle feeder.
After I failed to see success with the cry it out method and food toys, I looked to a more proactive, training-based approach that I had read about in a book. Since Briar was struggling when he was separated from me, I had thought it might be a good idea to work on training him to stay. I read about this sort of training online and thought that such training exercises might help him feel more independent. We started working on the “stay” behavior and I began teaching him to stay on a mat. I used treats to teach him rather than a tether so as to avoid the possibility of making him frustrated or distressed. Briar learned fast however he didn’t seem to improve much whenever I left. As a matter fact, he continued to grow worse as before whenever I left.
The training proved helpful in teaching him to stay and arguably served as a relationship building exercise. However, it didn’t help much in teaching him that there was no need to panic when I left the house. So, while I can’t quite say that the weeks we spent teaching stay on a mat went to waste, it wasn’t a super productive use of our time and I regret not spending that time elsewhere.
Time passed by and we eventually decided to enlist the help of a certified separation trainer who introduced us to a process called systematic desensitization. The process consists of exposing Briar to absences that produced only a very tolerable, mild level of stress, and slowly increasing the difficulty. The complex procedure was simplified by the trainer, and we eventually began to see progress.
The time we spent trying other methods served as a useful learning experience, but if I could go back and simply begin with systematic desensitization or better yet, with a trainer, I absolutely would. And I recommend anyone reading this to do the same! It might be hard to take well-intentioned advice with a grain of salt but considering the unregulated nature of information from the web, friends, and family, it’s always best to check with the experts!
TEAM BRIAR, current client