Separation Anxiety: Stop the madness

Our dogs’ bodies are designed to elevate particular physiological functions when they need an immediate boost. These include rapidly escalating blood pressure, heart-rate and respiration. Blood is pumped to the extremities to oxygenate muscles that might be needed to fight or flee. The brain shuts down pain receptors that might cause it to slack its fight or flight because of being damaged from hunting or defending itself. In nature this process works most of the time. In captivity it can lead to problems. Sometimes the animal gets the signals wrong and jacks itself up for no reason.   It should be noted that the “symptoms” of separation anxiety can be duplicated by other types of events. If you startle a reactive dog these internal processes are translated into aggression or panicked flight just like in nature. If a dog panics in a shelter at the end of a slip-lead, a shelter worker will simply “ride the pony” until the animal becomes passive. If an animal control officer has to handle a violent dog on a control stick, they also ride the pony and efficiently transport and then confine the animal. This occurs hundreds of thousands of times each year with no reports of emotional trauma or mdog-catcher-pic-mens-712415075ajor physical damage. I worked around this for eight years and watched routinely as aroused animals seemed immune to the results of their violent struggle. Once in a kennel calmed down as if nothing had happened. Stopping the arousal solves the problem in shelters. They do not have the time or money to gently conduct a violent dog to their truck or from one kennel to another. They certainly don’t have time to coddle every dog that over-reacted to the process of being there. They let it ride.

The process is the result of the sympathetic nervous system triggering increases in heart-rate, blood-pressure and respiration. It is a temporary event. This often leads to muscular trembling, panting and tense muscles. This can last for as long as 20 minutes from a single occurrence. It can then be retriggered and the symptoms will be repeated.

One of the behavior problems commonly connected to this physiological process is separation anxiety. Considering the amount of damage a dog can do when it freaks out while alone, I think anxiety is a huge understatement or a reference to the trainer/behaviorist’s limited experience. Some dogs injure themselves and cause massive damage to their surroundings. Dogs can break out of wire cages, bite CrateBloodtheir way through kiddy gates and wreak havoc, all because they sense they have been left alone. That is where my perspective differs from the mainstream. I think that behaviors that end in blood and trauma need to be stopped immediately. I did that when I worked in shelters and animal control as an expected, ethical part of my job. This carries over to veterinary ethics that demand that staff moderate injury whenever possible – even if the means to doing that isn’t pretty. Methods that do not address this possibility tend to be low-order solutions that work, kind of, with dogs whose anxiety is limited to vocalization and drooling. Because the mainstream describes these dogs as ‘anxious’ rather than ‘panicked’ they attempt to “change the underlying cause” and construct tedious programs that mostly perpetuate the owner’s anxiety. In essence, their programs revolve around linear habituation. Leave for ten seconds. If that works, leave for 20 seconds. If that fails go back to ten seconds. This often leads to sleep deprivation as the owner has to get up at four in the morning to make it to work on time. Meaning it is not a practical solution.

Cut to the Chase:
The best way to stop separation arousal is to stop the arousal before it gets to the panic stage. There are several ways to do this. Before I proceed, I am suggesting punishment as a component to stop the arousal. It is only a brief part of an overall solution. This is no different than the dog catcher who restrains a violent dog while plucking porcupine quills from its nose. The solution is not entirely a matter of needle-nose pliers and two strong people. A discussion of that solution is going to give detailed information about how to hold a dog so that you can provide necessary care. Once the dog is passive you can smear Neosporin all over it and feed it liver treats to make everything rosy.

E-Collar or Bonker:
Let the dog decide

There are two practical tools that can be used to rapidly suppress arousal; an e-collar or a bonker. If you are unfamiliar with the bonker you can watch its use on my YouTube channel (wilkesgm1) and read about it elsewhere in this blog. The key to using punishment is to follow the rules. Your first rule is to pair a marker signal with the tangible consequences you intend to use to stop the behavior. Click, wrong and no.

  1. Click – you did something that brought you a benefit
  2. Wrong – minor error, try it again
  3. No – don’t ever do that again

It is common for people to think that stopping a behavior is entirely punitive. They don’t bother to create tools for learning across a broad spectrum. This sword cuts both ways – to people who wish to be purely positive and those that wish to be purely punitive. Either way, once they suppress the behavior the leave a vacuum. While that may work in their world, the animal may not generalize acceptable behavior from either being rewarded for passivity. (Which is the least likely method to stop the madness) or punished for arousal.  If it’s a board and train setting, passing the baton to the owner is then more difficult because they are unlikely to know how the passivity was achieved and less likely to know how to maintain it. The owners will have to redo the training using levels of aversive control they are not likely to be comfortable using, or the are back to the sleepless nights after hours of gradually increasing time alone. As ‘board and train’ includes teaching other functional behaviors, creating markers pays off there, too.

Practical Applications:
Note: Make sure you track times during these procedures. If you want to do it right, make sure you’ve already recorded a baseline. You can also use a video camera to record how the dog is now vs. how it will change over time.

  1. Select some behavior or no behavior at all. Say “NO” and bonk the dog. If you wish to make it for some infraction, do not use it to enforce an obedience behavior. Make it something like trying to go out a kennel gate or picking up something dropped on the ground.
  2. Take some aspect of “leaving” behavior and connect it to a bonk. Open and close an exit door. Say “NO” and bonk the dog if he/she is free. If the dog is going to be in a crate, say “NO”, bonk the dog and then put it in the crate.
  3. After pairing the word “NO” to the bonk, leave for real – kind of. Simply go a little further into the sequence. Open an exit door. Walk through and close it behind you. If you cannot hear subtle movement and vocalizations, get a pair of cheap walky-talkies at Walmart or a baby room monitor. You can also use two telephone handsets for this. Leave one by the dog and listen on the other one, outside the door.
  4. At the first sounds of movement, yell “NO”, reenter the room and bonk the dog. If the dog is in a crate, say “NO”, go to the dog, remove it from the crate and bonk it. If this makes your head explode, read this article.
  5. You will need to bonk two or three events that are connected with the early stages of arousal. Don’t wait until the dog is yodeling and thrashing around. Nip it in the bud.
  6. Continue with a broader training program so that the dog knows that there are expectations for performance and opportunities for rewards.WHEN the dog no longer goes crazy after you leave, you can start returning and positively reinforcing the sequence. In essence this is Pavlovian conditioning as you are not trying to strengthen any specific behavior – you are connecting treats with your return. I said ‘when’ in all caps because a truly panicked dog isn’t going to instantly start taking treats after you shut down the arousal.

The most important part of this is applying reinforcement and punishment at their most basic level – to increase or decrease behaviors, respectively. It is no different than a veterinarian using a depressant or a stimulant. The goal is to shut down the knee-jerk arousal that leads to panic – like slapping someone who starts screaming after the elevator has fallen 17 floors and nobody is hurt. (I didn’t actually slap the woman, but I told her I would if she didn’t stop screaming. True story. Chicago Hilton, 1995) Beyond that, the simple but necessary components have to be provided. The use of a marker signal that precedes punishment is often neglected and not considered critical – it is. If you can’t do it correctly you’ll have to practice in advance. It is a natural human reaction to say “NO” and bonk at the same time. That is a huge error. You have to say “NO” and THEN bonk the dog. You must also never bluff. If you say “NO”, the dog gets bonked. If you want to review the rules for inhibiting behavior, take a look at this. and this . You can also scan my YouTube videos at If you have questions contact me at


One thought on “Separation Anxiety: Stop the madness

  1. Hi Gary, first let me say I read all you post and have learned a great deal. I have a male golden you could have used as a picture perfect example. We rescued him at 3, with separation issues, under weight, broken teeth, and had issues with other dogs who want to meet him face to face. We have had experience with force trainers, (who tried to alpha roll him when Buddy would do a down, the trainer about lost his arm), all positive trainers as well as a third way trainer, who said we should just give him up and get a different dog. I love your approach to training and using the right tool, at the right time, in the right way. I hope to see you in Ohio in June.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *