Interview with Malena DeMartini about Separation Anxiety in Dogs

“Separation anxiety is fixable... If people just understood that this is fixable, and it gave them that hope, that would make me thrilled.”

Interview with Malena DeMartini, pictured here with her dog, about treating separation anxiety in dogs

By Zazie Todd, PhD

Malena DeMartini’s second book, Separation Anxiety in Dogs: Next Generation Treatment Protocols and Practices, was published in September this year. It brings her latest protocols for helping dogs with separation anxiety to dog professionals and interested dog guardians. I had the honour of writing the foreword, and I caught up with Malena to learn more about why she wrote the book. 

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Zazie: Because this blog is read by a very wide audience, let’s start with the question, what is separation anxiety?

Malena: I’m really glad you asked because not everyone really understands it. There are two things I’d like to say. Separation anxiety is a bit of an umbrella term that we use much like as if I was to say “Pass the Kleenex” and you would know I was referring to “Pass the facial tissues.” Separation anxiety is a little bit of a misnomer, and there are many expressions used that are better suited for the actual issue at hand. Currently, the wave of popularity is moving towards talking about separation-related behaviours, which is a much more appropriate way to discuss these issues. But let’s say we’re going to use the common term, because that is what the average household dog guardian has heard. 

In talking about separation anxiety, what we are really referring to is a veritable panic attack, a fear or phobia about being alone. And that usually, not always, refers to being alone in the home environment. So your dog may not like to stay alone in a hotel room, but that probably isn’t separation anxiety. If he cannot stay alone in his own home, and when I say alone I mean without mom, dad, siblings etc., it doesn’t necessarily mean other pets. Other pets can be present and separation anxiety can still be there.

And the one additional thing that I want to say about what separation anxiety is, it is what we often refer to as an irrational fear. It is irrational to us as the human being, like “I come back every day! Why would the dog be upset about this?” But it is absolutely not irrational to the dog. They are in full-blown panic about alone time. And I just want to remind people that there are irrational fears that human beings experience all the time. If you are afraid of flying and I tell you, you’re more likely to get injured in a car crash than on a plane, you can’t suddenly say oh yes, now I’m not afraid. You don’t have control over irrational fears.    

Interview with Malena DeMartini about her new book, pictured, called Treating Separation Anxiety in Dogs

Zazie: Why did you decide to write this book?

Malena: My first book was published in 2014 and at that time I knew no one other than myself that was working with separation anxiety in the manner that I was working with it. And I was very adamant to write a book that was useful for clients and trainers, but I was also very intimidated to write something that bucked the system. So I really soft-pedalled it, and I incorporated things that in my opinion are absolutely not harmful, but they’re not necessarily the most efficient and effective direction to go. An example of that is teaching a dog to relax on a mat. It’s a great behaviour, it’s not going to hurt anything. Will it propel your separation anxiety protocol? No, it really won’t. And so it was a lot of those things that were really common suggestions in the industry, and I thought I should incorporate those things because that’s what everybody feels comfortable with. And I’m very proud of my first book. I actually feel that there’s nothing in there that is egregious or wrong… I just think that there are more effective means for getting from point A to Z, and not just more effective but more efficient. Boy, if you’ve got a protocol that takes 2-3 months or 6 months or a year, the efficiency aspect is very important. So that’s one reason.

The second reason is a combination of two points. At the time that I wrote this book, I had about a hundred CSATs [Certified Separation Anxiety Trainers] that had graduated, and so I had a collective wealth of knowledge about everybody’s cases. It was no longer just Malena out there with her lone sailboat in the middle of the ocean! I had all of these CSATs replicating what I had been doing. So we were able to collect a lot of fantastic data, and it also gave me a new sense of confidence that I did not have when I wrote that first book. And then in combination with that, the data that we collected from the CSATs, there has been a tremendous amount of research in the past four decades but even in just the last 6 years with regards to separation anxiety and I felt that that was important to incorporate.

Zazie: I think it’s going to be such a useful book for people. But I have a question that goes back even further to before you wrote your first book. How did you get into working on separation anxiety cases in the first place?

Malena: I oftentimes say separation anxiety chose me, I did not choose it. And frankly if someone had said very early on, you’re going to start specializing in separation anxiety, I would have tucked tail and run with disbelief. When I graduated Jean’s Academy (The Academy for Dog Trainers) the very first – well technically it was the second, I started with one dog walking client that turned into a training client – so the very second client that contacted me was a separation anxiety client. She was this lovely woman. I remember the case clearly, it was about 20 years ago now. She said my dog Guinness has what I think is separation anxiety and I really need help. I was very green, right out of the Academy, and I said I know you will definitely need some training support with this but I’m really new. I don’t think I’m your gal, but I’m happy to give you referrals to other trainers. And she burst into tears on the other end of the phone and she said, “Okay well if you’re going to give me these referrals can you make sure that these people will maybe work with separation anxiety because you’re the seventh trainer that I’ve called that has said that I don’t work with separation anxiety.” And I heard this woman’s heartbreak, and the reality was I knew I was going to give her three names of three people that would say, “I don’t work with separation anxiety.” I wasn’t going to do it intentionally but I knew very few people that really would work with separation anxiety. 

"Separation anxiety is a veritable panic attack, a fear or phobia about being alone."

So I said, listen, I’m going to be fully transparent with you. I know the principles for working with separation anxiety and I have an idea. I’ve never done it before but if you’re willing to be patient with me and we’ll learn about this together, it's going to be trial and error, then I’m happy to work with you and see what we can accomplish. 

Well I was really lucky because Guinness the dog, who we used to say “Guinness, go to your pub! Go to your pub, Guinness!”, was very cute. Guinness had been rescued as a stray, found very ill and very emaciated in a gas station bathroom, and they’d only had him for a few weeks. So we started this protocol, and you can see where this is going, we started working this protocol and within a month or two Guinness was like, “I’m fine staying home alone.” He was no longer riddled with worms and fleas and he had put on weight. So quite frankly it was a rags to riches story, and he would have with time, in my estimation, probably have been fine without our intervention. I feel like we gave him a softer place to land, a nice gradual way to get there, but I think he would have figured it out all on his own. But of course, I didn’t know that at the time and I thought, look at me, I’m a superstar, I fixed this separation anxiety case. 

And I live in the San Francisco Bay area and word spreads very quickly, it’s a small community. So people immediately were like, I hate separation anxiety cases, Malena fixed one, I’ll send them to her. So I suddenly started getting this flood of separation anxiety cases. So my very second case, a dog named Orville, I used all the same protocols and principles that I had used with Guinness, and it crashed and burned. We made no progress at all. And I was also very transparent with them and I said I had this great success but I’m not sure if this is exactly how to work with your dog, but we were making no progress. And I was still getting all of these referrals. And it was at that moment that I realized I have a choice here. I can become like everybody else and say ooh I don’t touch that stuff, or I can start doing the research and being really transparent with every client that I take that we’re going to try stuff. It might not be the right stuff but we’re going to try stuff. And it took about ten years of trial and error with all those sepanx cases to really hone and refine and distil it down to what I do today.

Zazie: Since then, you put together the CSAT program and you have all of the data from there, so you bring a huge amount of expertise to this book. One of the things that is a central tenet of what you do is suspending absences so as not to leave the dog alone for any longer than they can handle. Can you say something about why that is so important?

Malena: I can.  Not only do I want to say something about that is important but I would like to tell you that that is probably the most controversial aspect of what I do. There are a lot of people who feel that that is far too high of a bar to expect from a client, from an average guardian. They say it will never happen, they will never do it, no one will ever commit to that. So before I get into a bit of information about managing those absences, I want to tell you that I collected some data from this year, 2020. It was from January and is about a month-and-a-half old, so there’s a lot more since then, but since January we’ve had 2398 potential separaton anxiety clients contact us. Of those, we collect very specific data about every person that contacts us, by which I mean Malena DeMartini, not all the CSATs. Of those, about 50% were either already suspending absences or they said I am happy to do that, you don’t have to explain to me why, I’m totally on board. So that’s already a big number, but there’s even a further number. An additional 35% of those prospective clients said, if you explain to me why then I can probably do that. So 85% of 2,398 people were already on board. So when people tell me that no one will do that, I adamantly disagree and so does the data that we have.

"When we get to 1 minute, we do a zoom session with the client where we both pop a bottle of champagne." 

I think what is important about not leaving a dog alone for longer than they can handle is that we know very well since the 1950s when desensitization started being implemented particularly for human fears and phobias, we know and have learned that the process of desensitization is a systematic gradual and incremental direction. So we can learn, whatever animal, human, dog, lion, tiger, bear, we can learn in these increments that something is safe. That could be spiders, that could be flying, that could be being left alone, that could be public speaking, that could be heights, that could be anything, but it has to be in an incremental way. And I always say, being terrified of spiders, if I were to go to a counsellor and say, I need to get over my fear of spiders, the counsellor might start with holding up a picture of a cartoon spider, maybe not even a real spider. Then we would graduate to a more realistic picture, and in time we might graduate to a plastic spider but 15 feet away. Let’s say we got to that plastic spider 15 feet away, and the next session I showed up at my counsellor’s and she dumped a bucket of spiders in my hair. The interesting thing about that is first of all, anybody hearing that example would realize, my fear would come raging back in that moment. There’s no way that I would say, oh they’re not so bad because I was okay with a plastic spider 15 feet away. So obviously my fear would come raging back. But I think the even more important aspect of this is that I would lose trust in the counsellor, lose trust in the process, and if I ever wanted to get over my fear of spiders I would probably need to go all the way back to that cartoon image and start at the very beginning because now my fear is even exacerbated. And so it’s that protection of the process that is so crucial for our animals to experience. I often talk about creating a contract with the dog. My end of the contract is I will never leave you alone for longer than you can handle. But the dog has an end of the contract too. If we are never pushing them to a panic point, they will not howl, destroy, eliminate, etc. So they uphold that end of the contract because we’re not pushing them to the point of panic.   

Zazie: So for people to do this, it takes a village, doesn’t it? How do people actually achieve this in practice?

Malena: One of the things that I think I’ve gotten very good at, and I don’t typically brag about my skills, but this is one I’ve gotten good at, particularly with the help of all of my CSATs, creating a village comes down to creativity. When we first speak with a client and we say we’re going to not leave the dog for any longer than they can handle, for some people you can imagine their reaction is oh my gosh I could never accomplish that. Our goal is to explain to them, let’s look at the available resources that you do have right now, and we can utilize some of those, but let’s look at the available resources that you haven’t even thought of yet. Most people think, well my dog doesn’t like to go to daycare, or I can’t afford daycare, I guess I can’t do this protocol. Oh my gosh, that is like 1% or less of the options that are out there. And so creativity to me is when it starts with creating an email blast or a social media blast to all of your friends and family – please don’t put your address on social media by the way. Social media now is a really powerful tool for getting people to share and like and getting the word out. And there’s also conventional directions, like look at the church bulletin and see if anybody is looking for extra yard work for 10 bucks an hour. Well instead of doing yard work, or as well as doing yard work, do yard work while you play with my dog. College students are often great resources because they often are really excited about having a quiet place with great wi-fi and maybe a refrigerator full of groceries or ten bucks for beer money. So those are great resources.

But I’ll give you one example that reminds me of the kind of creativity we’re talking about. One of our CSATs in South Carolina had a client that had just moved to South Carolina. She hadn’t started working yet, she knew nobody there, she had no friends or family, she was truly the island of Ibiza and had no idea how to get the word out there. So what they did was they created a compelling flyer. Obviously all you need to do is put that beautiful picture of the dog with the puppy eyes, that’s a start. And she made this beautiful flyer explaining I love my dog so much, and he’s suffering from this condition that has these symptoms, and I’m really in desperate need of people that can help me watch him either at my home or theirs. Of course this is complicated now for COVID, we have regulations about these sorts of things. But what she did was give a stack of those flyers to the drivers at Meals on Wheels. And they distributed them to all of the home residents. Not only did she get several individuals that contacted her, it got so incredibly overwhelming with the number of people that wanted to help that they had to create an online first-come first-served calendar, because everyone wanted an hour or two with this sweet little dog. To me, I think the creative options are limitless. They’re out there. We have to work to find them though.

Zazie: Who is the book aimed at?

Malena: The book was mostly written for dog professionals. However when I wrote the book with dog professionals in mind I thought about a lot of my savvy clients. And when I say savvy, I don’t mean that they understand learning theory and all sorts of things, but they understand that the dog will need a variety of training techniques in order to help their dog. So I really kept that in mind. I did my very best to not use any jargon that would be confusing, or if I did I really described it thoroughly so that people would understand what I was referring to. So as much as the true intent of the book was for true dog professionals, I’ve already gotten some fantastic feedback from average dog guardians who have read it and said Oh, I really get this now. And that’s fantastic.

Zazie: That’s awesome. If there are dog trainers reading this and thinking they might be interested in taking separation anxiety cases, what qualities do you think make a good sepanx trainer?

Malena: I would distil it down to four, although there’s quite a few more. One, and the very main number one quality interestingly enough, is not just a dog trainer or dog professional quality. I think it is empathy. I think every dog professional that is interested in working with separation anxiety has to have empathy. That is empathy for the dog, empathy for the client, empathy for themselves because this is a difficult process. And empathy that exudes and covers this entire process.

I think the next piece, almost equally as important as empathy, is patience. And within that patience, the ability to celebrate tiny, tiny wins. We talk about celebrating approximations. They need to be that celebrate approximation type of person. When we get to 1 minute, we do a zoom session with the client where we both pop a bottle of champagne. We really celebrate these small, small approximations, so patience. 

"50% of people were either already suspending absences or they said I am happy to do that."

And the third is detailed, or willing to work in a detailed parameter. Because these are detailed protocols and we have to look at a lot of miniscule data input points in order to make sure that we’re writing criteria that is appropriate for the dog but that’s also appropriate to move the needle a little bit more on a regular basis. They have to be detailed enough to watch trends in the behaviour, detailed enough to read the dog’s body language. The difference between a dog that’s howling, and a dog that’s lip licking, yawning, and who’s got dilated pupils, there’s a 0 to 60 sometimes from one to the other. So they need to be detailed.

And the last thing, and quite frankly this is one of the criteria for acceptance into my CSAT program, they have to have experience with client counselling. They have to know how to counsel clients when it’s a good day and when it’s a bad day. They have to know how to counsel clients to keep them motivated when they want to give up. They have to know how to keep the client accountable, but in a way that isn’t unpleasant for the client. So that client counselling piece is really crucial. So if I had to pick four, those would be the four. 

Zazie: Is there anything else you’d like to say?

Malena: I think the only thing that I want to say is that I’m not a doctor of animal behaviour, I’m not a veterinarian, I’m not a PhD in learning. And I do internal research but I don’t produce research papers. And there’s a plethora of research out there on separation anxiety. And if I had my druthers, people would look past the fact that there’s no Dr or PhD in front or behind my name, and they would be able to read this book and say there is some information here about how to treat this condition. Because right now in the research, there’s a quote by Dr. Ogata, who’s an amazing practitioner, she’s out in the Pennsylvania area, and she did a literature review and she talks about all of the research that has been done on separation anxiety. And her quote, which I’m going to paraphrase, is that we’ve done all of this research but the etiology and treatment remain elusive. So there’s a lot of research out there and very little on treatment. This year there was a pretty stellar article that approached treatment and talked a little bit about treatment. So I’m hoping the research will go in that direction. My hope is that someone in the research field will see that we’ve now got more than a hundred people using a particular specific treatment methodology that is successful right now. My hope is that, maybe this isn’t peer reviewed research, but my hope is that someone will look at it and say I think there’s something here. 

The final sentence in my book is “separation anxiety is fixable”. If no one takes anything else away from anything that I say, if they just understood that this is fixable, and it gave them that hope, that would make me thrilled.

Separation Anxiety in Dogs: Next Generation Treatment Protocols and Practices is available in the Companion Animal Psychology Amazon store.

Malena DeMartini, CTC, is renowned in the dog training world for her work on canine separation anxiety (SA) disorder. Her book, Treating Separation Anxiety in Dogs, in addition to her newly published book, Separation Anxiety in Dogs, Next Generation in Treatment Protocols and Practices has helped countless numbers of dogs. Her online course for guardians called Mission: POSSIBLE has proven to be an invaluable resource in the industry and the success rate realized there is inestimable. In addition to writing and lecturing worldwide, Malena oversees a team of top SA trainers and runs an internationally accessible certification program for accomplished dog professionals looking to hone their skills. Malena is passionate about furthering education in this field through science-based methods. Resources about separation anxiety and support with training can be found at    

This interview has been lightly edited for content and style.

Zazie Todd, PhD, is the award-winning author of Wag: The Science of Making Your Dog Happy and Purr: The Science of Making Your Cat Happy. She is the creator of the popular blog, Companion Animal Psychology, writes The Pawsitive Post premium newsletter, and also has a column at Psychology Today. Todd lives in Maple Ridge, BC, with her husband, one dog, and two cats. 

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