In order to effectively teach your dog that being alone is no big deal, we need to first accurately read what “no big deal” looks like on your particular dog. When it comes to separation anxiety, most of us know what a clearly panicked dog looks like: pacing incessantly, vocalizing heavily, scratching at doors, etc. No one is going to argue that these guys are upset and need our help.
But what if your dog is displaying more nuanced signs of stress? What if they fixate on the exit point, lick their lips, drool, or engage in repetitive behaviours (e.g. sit, down, walk to door, repeat)? These can be trickier to spot and even when we do, our hopeful brains might negotiate with us to convince us that our dog doesn’t really look anxious.
And to add to the intricacies, each dog is a study of one. They don’t follow a standard manual that groups body language into black and white categories. Each dog communicates slightly differently, so we also need to become literate in our particular dog’s unique language. This isn’t to say that there aren’t common indicators that a dog is upset; there most certainly are. Doggie Language by Lili Chin beautifully illustrates them all, in addition to providing thoughtful guidance on how to consider the whole picture.
Why does this matter in separation anxiety training?
It would behoove all dog lovers to learn the basics of dog communication. After all, we humans are the ones who have imposed our cultural norms on them, not the other way around. So the onus is on us to understand how they interact with this wildly unnatural environment we’ve immersed them in. But guardians of separation anxiety dogs in particular have a duty to pay close attention to the subtle behaviours these sensitive beings use to express their emotional states. And to respond without hesitation when they need our help.
Well, because we want to have their backs. We don’t want them to feel that excruciating feeling of panic. It breaks our hearts. That’s a given.
But there’s another, perhaps less obvious reason: Because this level of fluency in body language can make all the difference in reaching your separation anxiety goals.
Let me explain.
During a formal separation anxiety training protocol, guardians practice regular training “missions” in which they systematically leave their dogs home alone for varying durations (and approximations) of absences. While they are away, they watch their dogs on camera to ensure that the mission isn’t more than their dog can handle. This is paramount. If we push separation anxiety dogs over their anxiety threshold during an absence, we are teaching them that absences aren’t safe.
Each time they experience panic while home alone, the integrity of their safety net is compromised. And if you fail to recognize that subtle lip licking, those too-frequent yawns, or the faint whimpers, then you’re pushing your dog past their threshold. Do this repeatedly, and that safety net might break.
Beyond the Basics
As mentioned above, I strongly advise everyone who interacts with dogs to understand the basics of dog communication. Knowing that a dog who is growling wants space, for example, is absolutely essential for public safety and dog welfare. Likewise, guardians should know that a dog who is bouncing around like a rocking horse during play is enjoying the interaction. This type of knowledge is really the foundation of sharing your life with a dog.
But guardians of SA dogs will benefit from a deeper dive. They should also know the more subtle signs of stress mentioned previously. Below are some examples.
Can you spot these in your dog?
Conclusion: Body language literacy for all, but especially for separation anxiety dogs
As a reminder, a high level of fluency in dog body language is particularly important for separation anxiety dogs for two reasons:
- These dogs are sensitive. And we are their advocates. We wouldn’t let them be bullied at the dog park or taunted by neighborhood kids, so we certainly aren’t going to let them experience that excruciating feeling of panic from being left alone. Being able to read the exact moment the panic begins means we can intervene before it escalates to destruction, heavy vocalization and potential self-injury.
- It will help us reach our training goals more efficiently. When you start a separation anxiety training protocol, you make a promise to your dog: “I won’t leave you for longer than you can handle ever again.” Break that promise, and your progress will be slowed.