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Punishing A Dog For Separation Anxiety: Where Does That Get You?


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Separation anxiety is an incredibly serious disorder and even life-ending if the human animal bond fractures or the landlord or condo association says, “that barking dog has to go.” We don’t know exactly what dogs with separation anxiety are thinking – of course – but do know they are obviously really anxious. Here is the so-called dog trainer who was scheduled to appear at Bark Avenue Daycamp in Bartlett, IL. Oct 3 through Oct.4 for seminars. A core group in the Chicago area and many other voices (thousands) participated in social media to sway Bark Avenue to cancel, and here’s hoping Gellman’s not secretly appearing elsewhere in the area. So why are real certified professionals upset about Gellman?

Gellman’s answer to separation anxiety: “Get a f****ing towel. Walk up to the dog. Say no! Bam!” In other words clobber the dog with the rolled up towel. He explains right here (warning: obscene language).

Any issues with the Gellman solution? YES!!!!!!!!!! Here are eight:

  1. You are there if your bopping the dog on the head with a towel the problem exists because the dog is separated from you – not when the pet parent(s) are there.
  2. Gellman suggests you hit the dog (that’s right – he’s saying hit your dog with a towel) when the dog is in the crate. I’m unsure how to do that, since the dog is in the crate. Do you first let the dog out of the crate?
  3. It’s called separation anxiety because these dogs are clearly anxious – very anxious. How does that person the dog loves hitting them with a towel help to minimize anxiety. I suggest this in fact would intensify anxiety – A LOT!
  4. Even IF the dog associates the bonk on the head with barking, perhaps you’ve inhibited the dog from barking but, I can’t fathom how you’ve impacted the dog’s emotional distress of being separated from people in the home?
  5. Dogs with separation anxiety don’t always bark. What if the dog is one who so badly wants to escape the crate he or she injures him or herself, or self-mutilates or has accidents in the crate, or hyper-salivates and shakes. Do you watch on a camera and wait for one or more of these behaviors and then clobber the dog? We know that crating some dogs with separation anxiety only makes matters a lot worse.
  6. Dogs are very trusting but when hit by people, many become emotionally damaged. Is that a surprise?
  7.  Because the dog parents are the dog’s owners, and dogs are pretty much still considered property, it may not be possible to be arrested for animal abuse. No matter, I absolutely think that striking any animal (except in self-defense) is absolutely abusive. Period.
  8. Professionals have proven success with far more humane and scientifically sound ways to deal with separation anxiety.

Let Science Lead the Way Not a Rolled Up Towel

So do I directly have a better way? Yes! Here’s a story I authored with tips, tricks and products that help far efficiently and far more kindly than hitting a dog over the head with a rolled up towel.

Need more? Decoding Your Dog (which I co-edited), authored by ultimate experts, veterinary behaviorists, has an entire chapter on Separation Anxiety and I can assure you there’s nothing in the book about throwing anything at a dog (except treats as you depart).

Here are links to journal stories from the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association regarding separation anxiety in dogs. All these papers by all these experts and you won’t find a mention of throwing anything at a dog.

This piece in the Journal Veterinary Behavior is called Comparison of serum brain-derived neurotrophic factor in dogs with and without separation anxiety. The purpose of this study was to compare serum brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) levels in dogs with and without separation anxiety. BDNF, one of several neurotrophins, is prevalent in the limbic region and prefrontal cortex, which are key areas related to the regulation of mood, emotion, and cognition and indeed BDNF levels were lower in affected dogs.  The point is, this is all about brain chemistry and we’re only beginning to understand what combination of factor may lead dogs to have separation anxiety, but we know it’s not because a towel wasn’t thrown at them when they were young. 

Legendary applied animal behaviorist Dr. Patricia McConnell on separation anxiety – nothing here about doing what Gellman suggests.

Legendary veterinary behaviorist Dr. Karen Overall on separation anxiety – for certain, also nothing here about what Gellman suggests.

Here’s a sort of basic 101 on separation anxiety I recorded a couple of years ago:

Study after study examining separation anxiety in dogs, pretty much impossible for find anything peer reviewed and published anywhere in the world that encourages punishment for dogs with this problem, and certainly not bonking a dog on a head with a towel. What astounds me is that trainers espousing these aversive techniques have any kind of following, people who believe these tactics are in any way beneficial when, in fact, it’s cruel.

And as as sidenote, the use of obscene language may be an effort to appeal to a Jerry Springer audience, or to demonstrate that Gellman is “real” but in my view is a demonstration of a lack of professionalism and ability to intelligently articulate canine behavior.

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Steve Dale is a certified animal behavior specialist who has been a trusted voice in the world of pet health for over 20 years. You have likely heard him on the radio, read him in print and online, and seen him speaking at events all over the world. His contributions to advancing pet wellness have earned him many an award and recognition around the globe.

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