Over my 10 years of dog training experience, I’ve helped a number of dogs overcome their separation anxiety. This is a complex process that takes a long time, and requires the help of a trained professional. At a high level, you need to find your dog’s threshold, desensitize them, and counter-condition their response to your departure. If you’d like to work through this with your dog, I’ve outlined the process below. However, if you’re not familiar with canine behavior, I strongly suggest that you contact us to discuss your dog’s issues in further detail.
In order to begin addressing your dog’s separation anxiety, you need to find their threshold. What this means is that you’ll need to determine the amount of time it takes between when your dog leaves to when they start showing signs of separation anxiety. Set up a camera using an app such as Skype, Zoom, or FaceTime, or use a Nest or Arlo camera. As soon as you step out the front door, start a stopwatch, and watch your dog on your phone. Walk far enough away so that your dog cannot see or hear you, and note what they do when you leave. Specifically, look for behaviors such as barking, whining, howling, digging, yawning, soiling, lip licking, digging, or any other indications of canine discomfort. The period of time it takes for your dog to display any of these behaviors is the threshold.
Once you’ve determined your dog’s threshold, you’ll need to desensitize them to your pre-departure cues. These can include picking up your keys, putting your shoes on, picking up your purse or briefcase, donning a coat, etc.
To desensitize your dog to these cues, you’ll need to break the association. For example, pick up your keys and sit down at the kitchen table, or put your jacket on and go in the kitchen to fix a snack. Make a list of each of your pre-departure behaviors, and only work on one per day. This will allow you to easily identify which ones trigger your dog’s anxiety. Generally speaking, you’ll want to work on one cue for a couple of days before switching things up.
Dogs are highly observant, and your dog has had many years to learn the significance of your departure sequence cues. In order to become fully desensitized, your dog will need to experience the mock departure cues multiple times a day for many weeks. Once your dog behaves calmly as you prepare for departure, you’ll be ready to move on to the next step – counter-conditioning.
Canine Counter Conditioning
To begin the counter-conditioning process, work on graduated departures and absences. Start by putting your dog in a down-stay in another room, and gradually increase the duration that you’re out of sight. As in the threshold test, you can set up a Zoom / FaceTime call to monitor your dog, or use a Nest cam. Start with down-stays in interior rooms (such as a bedroom), then move to exterior rooms with exits to the outside of the house (such as a kitchen or front room).
Once your dog is comfortable with you going outside, increase the time you spend outside, and give them a stuffed Kong, treat ball, or food-stuffed toy that they only get when you leave. This will distract them, and will make it less likely that they’ll notice your departure. Whenever you leave, make sure that your dog is calm and settled, and always leave and return in a quiet manner. If you leave them when they are still excited from your return, they will be less able to tolerate the next separation.
Please note that there is no set timeline as to when your dog will be ready for longer separations. Choosing when to make the call is difficult, and owners often make mistakes because they are not patient. Stress signals can be difficult for the layperson to detect, and can be as subtle as your dog licking their lips, or flicking their tongue over their nose. If your dog is pushed too fast, this will inevitably set training back. Again, we would like to emphasize that we strongly recommend that you work closely with us to help your dog.
If you detect that your dog is stressed, return to a duration that they are comfortable with. Over weeks of conditioning, you can increase the length of your departures by a few seconds each session – maybe up to a minute. As shown by the desensitization process, dogs are masters of pattern recognition. Keep this in mind all throughout your training process.
When starting out, vary the length of time that you’re gone so that there is no discernible pattern. For instance, time your absence for 25 seconds the first day, 30 seconds on day two, 45 seconds on day three, 20 seconds on day four, and so on. Once you work up to 5-minute departures, you can vary the time by 30-second increments. Continue to randomize your departure times – 5.5 minutes one day, 6 minutes the next, 4 minutes the next day, etc.
Eventually, you may be able to work up to 30-minute absences. At this point, you have more flexibility in your departure times. One day you can be gone for 25 minutes, the next 15 minutes, and so on. The idea is to work your dog up to a 40-minute absence, then eventually a 90-minute absence. Once they hit 90 minutes alone without getting upset, they can most likely handle 4-8 hours alone. To be safe, start with 4 hours, then work up to 8 hours over the course of a few days.
If you work with your dog twice a day during the week, and several times a day on the weekends, you can accomplish this desensitization and counter-conditioning process within a few weeks. During this time, your dog should not be left alone. If possible, arrange to work from home, or take them to work with you. If that’s not possible, arrange for a friend, family member, or dog sitter to spend time with your dog, or take them to a doggy daycare. If absolutely necessary, medication may also help. However, we recommend that you consult your veterinarian before going this route.
If you have specific questions about the methods covered in this article, or if you would like for us to help your dog’s separation anxiety, contact us. We’d be happy to help.