Overcoming Canine Separation Anxiety – A Tale of Empathy, Commitment and Resilience

By Dr Kang Nee, cheerfuldogs.com
CPDT-KA, CSAT (Certified Separation Anxiety Trainer), CPACP (Certified Professional Animal Care Provider), Low Stress Handling Certified Silver.

This is the story of a brave woman, Yvonne, and her equally brave Singapore Special, Princess. Yvonne had adopted two-year-old Princess from the SPCA Singapore in April 2014. Aware that Princess was noise-sensitive and dog-dog reactive, Yvonne embarked on the behaviour modification programme with me, to address these challenges. Little did she expect that she would have to rise to extraordinary heights to help Princess overcome an even greater and more distressing challenge.

Yvonne with Princess (Photo: Darren Yau)

“It is odd to recall life before separation anxiety. The training programme was straightforward on paper, but consumed life so swiftly and in such unexpected ways, it felt like I was suddenly plunged into a different life.

The first year was filled with a sense of entrapment in my own home, cancelled appointments, shirked obligations and perpetual juggling of dog-sitting schedules. Without exaggeration, the one thing that made it possible was the humbling extent of generosity, support and encouragement I received, for which I am truly thankful.

On occasion I was asked if all this was worth it, and it was a surprisingly easy answer when I imagined the life of a dog with separation anxiety: imagine your worst phobia, your absolute worst, one you would jump through a glass window or tear down a door to escape from, one that could make you scream for hours or throw up in fear, and then imagine facing it for ten hours daily. It is hard to compare any of my inconveniences to that.

It has been a rough road, but I got a chance to return a fraction of the love and loyalty that Princess shows me all day, every single day.

what separation anxiety is not

To understand what separation anxiety is, one has to know what it is not. A dog who is suffering from separation anxiety, is not being angry, spiteful or disobedient to get back at its guardians for leaving it alone. It is not acting out to seek attention, or for want of “pack leadership”. And separation anxiety is not a condition that a dog can “get over” on its own.

what is separation anxiety?

The American Veterinary Medical Association estimates that 15% of the 72 million dogs in the United States suffer from some level of separation anxiety. Dogs with “milder” symptoms, such as whining, pacing and intermittent barking are often untreated, and continue to go through a daily ordeal of heightened anxiety. Those with severe symptoms, such as prolonged barking and howling, escapism, significant destructive chewing of property and self-mutilation, are not always so lucky as to remain in their current homes. They face a fate where they may be relinquished to a shelter to wait an uncertain future. For others, euthanasia is a potential and sadly common outcome.

Separation anxiety is a behaviour disorder, where a dog is terrified of being left alone, and it is not something that the dog is able to control. The exact cause(s) of separation anxiety are not defined, but like many behaviour disorders, genetic, physiological and environmental factors may play a role. The onset of separation anxiety may be triggered by, for example, a frightening experience when the dog had been left alone, relocation, changes in the family, a traumatic incident, or because the dog had been regularly left alone for excessively long periods of time. Dogs who are particularly anxious, noise-sensitive or have been rehomed multiple times, may be predisposed to developing separation anxiety.

Separation anxiety (SA) dogs display a range of external behaviours, and the specific behaviours shown vary from individual to individual. They are hyper-vigilant and watch their guardians carefully for signs of their leaving. When left alone, they may bark, whine or howl incessantly, drool and pant excessively, and eliminate when they are usually reliable in their house-training. They may damage doors and windows as they scrabble or gnaw at the structures to escape, or injure themselves in the attempt, ripping out nails or breaking teeth.

Internally, an SA dog is in a constant state of panic – its body is flooded with stress-inducing chemicals, it becomes incapable of coping with being home alone.

Imagine if you were mortally afraid of water and you were thrown into the deep end of a pool. That utter terror of drowning is analogous to the panic that an SA dog experiences, every day that it is left alone at home.

An SA dog experiences terror at being left alone, in the same way a person who is afraid of water, is terrified of drowning. (Photo: Dreamstime)

what about the human?

Resentment, anger, frustration, incomprehension, distress, heartbreak – these are the emotions that swirl endlessly in the minds and hearts of guardians of SA dogs. Incomprehension – after all, we always come back, so why is Fido anxious? Anger and frustration – when they return to a scene of costly destruction and angry complaints from neighbours. Heartbreak – when they finally understand what their dog is going through daily, and tough decisions have to be made.

In the case of Yvonne, she was initially unaware of Princess’ separation anxiety – there were no complaints from the neighbours, Princess appeared to be happy when Yvonne returned from work, and all seemed normal. One day, she noticed raw patches of skin on Princess’ front paws, and found bloodstains on the floor by the front door. A videocam captured the full extent of Princess’ panic in the 8-10 hours she was home alone each day. Within one minute of Yvonne’s departure, Princess whined and paced between the front door and a bedroom. She stood or laid by the front door and scrabbled frantically at the door for minutes at a time. Panting heavily, she paced again, rarely settling for more than a few seconds before the entire scene repeated itself until Yvonne returned, like a video caught in an infinite loop. When Yvonne returned, Princess greeted her with wild delirium. Her body language indicated that she was not just excited, she was highly stressed.

Princess in panic mode: she scrabbles frantically at the door, injuring her paws and leaving blood stains on the floor. (Photos: Yvonne Chia)

empathy, commitment, resilience.

The path to resolving separation anxiety is a journey that seldom marches along in a straight line to success. It dips, climbs, twists and turns like a roller-coaster track. This is a natural part of the learning process for any dog, and even more so for an SA dog. It calls for Herculean levels of empathy, commitment and resilience from an SA dog guardian.

Evaluating a dog for separation anxiety begins with ruling out other possible causes for the behaviours shown, e.g. are the potty accidents due to incomplete house training? Is the dog barking in a crate because of confinement distress or because it has not been crate trained appropriately (see Nee Kang, “Slaying the Crate Monster”, SPCA Bulletin, Oct – Dec 2013 Issue)? Does the dog receive sufficient and appropriate physical exercise and mental enrichment to rule out boredom-related behaviours? For senior dogs, is canine cognitive dysfunction a contributing factor?

Once separation anxiety is identified, each training session is crafted to set the dog up to succeed as its guardian(s) execute their planned departures and absences. This is done through a process of systematic desensitisation designed to keep the dog below its anxiety threshold when the guardian(s) leaves the house. If the dog is kept below its anxiety threshold, it will not panic and therefore, it will not exhibit the undesired behaviours. Over time, it begins to relax during the guardian’s absence.

S.O.S.! To help resolve separation anxiety, an SA dog needs a community of support working in tandem with systematic desensitisation protocols. The training goal is to always keep a dog below its stress and anxiety thresholds so that it is no longer panicking, and can learn to relax for increasing lengths of time. This means that other than during training sessions, the dog must never be left alone for longer than it can cope with at any time. Yvonne’s support community includes friends and animal care professionals like dog sitter, Jeffrey Lee of cheerfuldogswalking.com, who has to be reliable and punctual in arriving at 6.30am every morning before Yvonne leaves for work (Photo: Darren Yau)

In Princess’ case, her initial anxiety threshold was below one minute, thus we started with Yvonne making extremely short absences of a few seconds. We also identified those actions made by Yvonne (known as pre-departure cues) which provided salient signs to Princess that Yvonne was about to leave, e.g. picking up her bag and keys, opening and closing the front door, locking it, the sound of her putting on her shoes, the sound of her departing footsteps, the sound of the elevator, etc, and weaved these salient pre-departure cues into the training sessions.

Based on Princess’ responses in a training session, the next session is designed to increase, decrease or maintain the duration of Yvonne’s next absence. The entire process is extremely dynamic, with Yvonne, Princess and I working closely as a team, almost on a daily basis. Our barometer of progress is Princess – her body language tells us if we are setting goals at an achievable level and pace for her.

By setting goals that match her pace of learning, Princess is relaxed enough to nap during a training session, instead of scrabbling at the door in panic when Yvonne leaves.
(Photo: Yvonne Chia)

Progress and success hinge on one extremely critical commitment from an SA dog guardian – an unbreakable “promise” that the guardian must not and will never leave her dog alone for a longer duration than it can handle.

Thus if today, an SA dog can only manage one minute being left alone at home without panicking, its guardian must not leave it alone for more than one minute. Over time, as the dog is able to consistently relax, the duration of the guardian’s absences is systematically increased in a way that ensures these increases do not trigger an anxious reaction from the dog. A guardian must also never take a huge leap in the training process, i.e. assuming that if their dog is able to cope with being alone for 30 minutes, that it will be “fine” if they leave it for one hour. When guardians take leaps in the training that are beyond what their SA dog can handle, they risk causing their dog to regress and panic again.

This requirement to suspend absences understandably causes consternation for any guardian – what about those times when they do have to leave the home to work, run errands, go to the gym, collect mail, meet friends for dinner, etc? How would they live their life, if they were never to leave their dog alone at home?

Working with your CSAT (certified separation anxiety trainer) is like having your personal coach, strategist, cheerleader rolled into one. (Photo: Dreamstime)

We come full circle to Yvonne’s heartfelt sense of “entrapment in her own home”, an emotional and financial toll which would have driven many dog guardians to abandon the training altogether. But despite ups and downs, Yvonne, and other SA dog guardians from around the world, have found it in themselves to dig deeper into their compassion, empathy and love for their dog to rise above and beyond the usual level of duty of care. They find ways to galvanise a support network that is akin to the best crowd-sourcing effort – a village of empathetic friends, family members, pet care professionals and volunteers to keep their SA dog company for those hours when they are absent from home. As a CSAT, I am part of this village for Yvonne and Princess – as trainer, strategist, personal coach and cheerleader. Together we ride out the rough bits and cheer when we cruise along.

For an SA dog like Princess, we do not yet know where the journey to resolving her separation anxiety would end. Princess has been making progress, and at the time of writing this story, she showed that she could be comfortable being left alone for 35 minutes. Some dogs overcome it faster than others and never look back. Other dogs need the help of medication to kick-start the learning process. Some dogs may need someone to be there to break up a long day. But as long as we work within the anxiety thresholds of each SA dog, we will see accumulative progress, resilience and improvement in the quality of life for both dog and guardian. Every success is celebrated because every tiny second or minute that becomes anxiety-free for an SA dog, means that the guardian is no longer completely house-bound. A 30-minute anxiety-free absence means that the guardian can grab a quick meal at the coffee shop downstairs, or take a short walk. A one-hour anxiety-free absence – a small world of possibilities begins to beckon.

For Yvonne, “The positive emotions that came with working with Princess’ separation anxiety were less conspicuous, so I was often taken by surprise by their depth and intensity. I felt pride and a sense of achievement at seeing this little dog conquer her fear in a way few of us would ever even attempt to do. I learned to treasure her every happy moment, and in turn I was happy too. Most of all, helping Princess taught me love and true acceptance – even if she struggles with what other dogs find easy, even if she is imperfect by that definition, Princess has always been the best dog in the world to me. Never had I expected to get as much as I gave to our separation anxiety training programme. To my surprise, it made my world a brighter place.”

Princess in a happy moment. (Photo: Yvonne Chia)

For more information about separation anxiety – visit http://malenademartini.com

An extract of this story was published in The Pet Professional Guild’s “BARKS from the Guild, Issue No. 23, March 2017, pages 38-40” at https://issuu.com/petprofessionalguild/docs/bftg_mar_2017_online_opt

Dr Kang Nee, certified professional dog trainer (CPDT-KA), and certified separation anxiety trainer (CSAT), specializes in the treatment of canine separation anxiety. Together with separation anxiety expert, Malena DeMartini and a team of 36 CSAT colleagues around the world, Dr Kang hopes to alleviate the stress and frustration of SA dogs and their guardians.

Email: kangnee999@yahoo.com  | Website: cheerfuldogs.com   |   Facebook: cheerfuldogsTraining/© Copyright 2017. Kang Nee, cheerfuldogs.com

Keeping Your Senior Dog Young

Article contributed by Kang Nee of Cheerful Dogs.
Ph.D., CPDT-KA, Low Stress Handling Certified Silver, Pet First Aid Certified

Growing old is part of life. While it’s normal for a senior dog to slow down, there are many ways to keep that grey muzzle twitching inquisitively. And those canine grey cells humming actively.

How can we keep our senior dog young?

You start from day 1 when your puppy/ adolescent/ adult dog joins your family – through training, games and a good quality diet that enrich your dog’s mental and physical well-being throughout its life.


Cognitive dysfunction syndrome (CDS), similar to Alzheimer’s in humans, is a condition that may affect senior dogs. Behavioural indicators of CDS include:

  • disorientation
  • changes in how the dog interacts with family members, e.g. loss of interest in interacting
  • increased anxiety
  • decreased activity levels
  • changes in appetite
  • altered sleeping patterns
  • potty accidents

These may also be indicators of an underlying medical condition. It is important to rule out medical causes with your vet before self-diagnosing that your dog has CDS.

Keeping Rover engaged and thinking is one way to slow down cognitive decline. Here are some games you can play, using force-free, reward-based training and low stress handling methods.

Instead of feeding Rover’s meal in a bowl, hide the food in an interactive toy, like a Kong or Nina Ottosson’s range of food puzzles.

It’ll take Rover a longer time to extricate the food, with a low-impact game that engages both his mind and nose.

My 8-year old senior dog, Kiyo plays with the Nina Ottosson dog casino puzzle. He uses his nose to locate the treats, his mouth to remove the bone-shaped pegs, which then allows him to use either his nose or paw to open the drawers to get his treats. Starting Kiyo on games like these when he was younger helps to hone his skills over time. That way, he doesn’t get frustrated when faced with the challenges of the puzzle at a senior age.

My 8-year old senior dog, Kiyo plays with the Nina Ottosson dog casino puzzle. He uses his nose to locate the treats, his mouth to remove the bone-shaped pegs, which then allows him to use either his nose or paw to open the drawers to get his treats. Starting Kiyo on games like these when he was younger helps to hone his skills over time. That way, he doesn’t get frustrated when faced with the challenges of the puzzle at a senior age.

brush up on obedience skills. Makes it fun and enjoyable.

Don’t think that “sit”, “down” “stay” and “come” cues were only for Rover when he was younger. Have quick mini-training sessions to weave what Rover already knows into your daily routine:

  • Rover sits before the door opens and he goes for a walk.
  • Rover lies down before he gets a belly rub.
  • Rover stays before you feed him.
  • Rover practises his recalls with a hide-and-seek game that can be adjusted to his level of stamina and mobility.

Kiyo and I practise loose leash walking wherever we go. When the human and the dog at both ends of the leash are engaged with and attentive to each other, they share a special moment of companionship that lasts a lifetime.

Teach Rover to Target

Old dogs can still learn new tricks. This opens the potential to many low impact games that exercise Rover’s mind and maintain physical dexterity and condition.

  • By teaching Rover to target a ball with his nose, he can learn to push the ball towards you.
  • By teaching Rover to target your hand, you can guide him in a game of weaving between your legs.
You don’t need the fast weaves of an agility competition to have fun with your senior dog!

You don’t need the fast weaves of an agility competition to have fun with your senior dog!

2. Keep Rover Moving

If your senior dog has become less mobile, you can include low-impact muscle conditioning games into the exercise routine. Do check with your vet to ensure your dog is physically fit before implementing any exercise regime. These are some conditioning exercises that improve hind leg awareness, strength and mobility.

  • Have Rover stand with his front paws on a low, sturdy platform. Start with as low a height as Rover is comfortable with. This platform could be a thick plank, a low step on a staircase, or anything sturdy and non-slip in your surroundings.
  • Stand facing Rover and slightly lean forward towards him. For many dogs, that slight leaning forward motion will prompt the dog to lean backwards, thus shifting its weight from the front legs to the hind legs.
  • Let Rover hold that stance for a couple of seconds. Praise and reward him with something he likes, e.g. a small food reward, and let him lean forward again. Work in incremental steps, as this exercise can be difficult for dogs who are not used to supporting their weight on the hind legs.
  • At the start, you may just complete one repetition and end the game. With time, as your senior dog develops better awareness of his hind legs and gains strength in supporting his weight on them, increase the duration of holding the stance, the height of the platform and the number of repetitions. He may even be able to sit while keeping his front paws on the platform – a skill that’s not as easy as it sounds!
Fig 4 - balance on wobbly platform

Kiyo demonstrates a “stand-sit” repetition on a skate-board.

Once Rover has mastered the art of balancing his weight on a sturdy platform, you would start all over, but on a platform that’s more wobbly, e.g. FitPaws ® balance discs. Rover now has to engage his core muscles even more to maintain his balance. 

Kiyo demonstrates a “stand” on FitPaws ® balance discs.

Other than the above games, hydrotherapy or swimming are suitable exercises for senior dogs who are comfortable in water. The key is to maintain an appropriate level of exercise for a senior dog so that both its mental and physical well-being are catered for.

3. Dogs with Special Needs

Some of the above games can be adapted for blind or deaf dogs. With blind dogs, one would have to use tactile or aural cues more effectively to guide them. With deaf dogs, tactile and visual cues would be key. One of the most important games to teach these dogs is that being touched is a good thing, so they won’t be easily startled when touched.

Set up the environment to reduce the risk of hazards to the dog, e.g. using non-slip flooring, and arranging furniture and objects so that the dog can navigate a clear and predictable path through the house. Each dog has its own needs. Observe and adapt accordingly so that your special needs senior dog can enjoy a mentally and physically fulfilled life.

In this article, I’ve only skimmed the surface on how we can prepare our dogs for life as a senior. Kiyo and I were able to make the smooth transition from the time he had two good eyes to becoming partially sighted, because of the 4 tenets of training I uphold:

  • Learn to read Kiyo’s body language as that tells me if what we’re doing is working or not.
  • Use low stress handling, force-free and reward-based training methods as dogs can learn effectively without fear or coercion.
  • Be consistent and fair in teaching Kiyo what I would like him to do, instead of focusing on what I don’t want him to do.
  • Working as a team to enrich Kiyo’s life and social skills so that as he ages, these skills remain with him.
Fig 6 - Kiyo at 2

Kiyo at 2, newly adopted.

Kiyo at 8 years old appears younger than when he was 2!

Kiyo at 8 years old appears younger than when he was 2!

If you’re uncertain about how to help and care for your senior dog, do check with your vet. Consult a qualified trainer or behaviourist if your dog has behavioural challenges such as fear, anxiety or aggression.

Useful Information:
  1. Lisa Rodier 2008. “How to Care for An Older Dog. Whole Dog Journal, December Issue.
  2. Kathy Sdao & Lori Stevens 2014. “The Gift of a Gray Muzzle. Active Care for Senior Dogs”. DVD, Tawzer Dog LLC.

Nee is a behavioural ecologist and certified professional dog trainer. Even whilst busy training dogs, she writes articles on dog behaviour modification and training for local and international magazines.

Website: www.cheerfuldogs.com
Email: kangnee999@yahoo.com
Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/kang.nee.9