Welcome to part three of our separation anxiety series! You can catch part one here, and part two here. Now that you have your ducks in a row and your dog is prepared, you can begin the process of helping your dog learn to be alone.
As an expert trainer, I’ve worked with many, many dogs who have debilitating separation anxiety—and I’ve seen them make real progress with the right approach. You have to make the right accommodations at first—services like a pet sitter, a specialized trainer, or a groomer who comes to your house. But with time, your dog will learn, and it’s all worth it.
First, let’s review the contract you’ve made with your dog. By never leaving your pup alone, you’re making them a guarantee that there will be no panicking. If you uphold your end of the bargain, your dog will uphold theirs—slowly getting over their fear.
It’s really important to keep that contract. Even one mistake in which your dog is left for longer than they are able to handle can cause regression. In fact, you’re likely to have to start over with your training.
Finding the threshold
I’ve often seen well-meaning owners struggle with separation anxiety training. Why? Many start beyond the dog’s threshold.
If your dog begins to panic within 10 seconds of you walking out of the house, that is where your training needs to begin. Anything more than that, and your dog is already in panic mode.
To find your dog’s threshold for separation
- Set up a camera (you can use a free app like Skype, Zoom or FaceTime, or a wireless device like a Nest) and leave the house. Watch your dog’s behavior on a smartphone or tablet.
- Start a stopwatch as you close the door, and watch your device as you walk far enough away so that your dog cannot hear or see you. Take note of what he does when you leave. Watch for pacing, circling, whining, barking, howling, digging, yawning, jumping on the door, urination/defecation, lip licking and other indications of discomfort or fear.
- Continue to watch for 5 to 10 minutes so you see the full range of your dog’s behavior while you are away and take detailed notes.
- However long it takes these anxious behaviors to start, whether it’s the moment you’ve closed the door (or even before you’ve left) or several minutes after, is your threshold.
Now that you know your dog’s threshold, you can begin to slowly desensitize them to longer and longer absences.
In a period of time up to 30 mins total, practice going to the door and stepping outside the house for variable periods of time. For example, if my dog’s panic began the moment I walked out the door, I might start with the steps below on day 1.
- Walk to door and open it a crack [do not step outside]. Close door and walk away.
- Walk to door and step outside, closing it behind you. Immediately return.
- Walk to door and turn doorknob [do not open]. Release and walk away.
Pause for at least a minute between steps to do something “natural” like watching a minute of T.V., straightening up, or washing a dish.
Also be sure not to give your dog too much love during your pauses. You don’t want to ignore them completely, but sitting down for a play session between steps is going to make your next step more challenging.
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Even if your dog is able to be alone for a few minutes before they begin to panic, you can be sure they’re 100% aware that you’re leaving before you’ve stepped out the door.
Part of getting your dog comfortable with your absence is desensitizing them to all the little things you do before you walk out the door. These are called pre-departure cues, and they include actions like
- putting on your shoes
- picking up your keys
- locking the door
Some pre-departure cues may frighten your dog more than others.
When you begin working them into your training, be sure to add only one per day. That way you will be able to more easily identify those cues that trigger your dog’s anxiety.
In most cases, you will want to hold off adding a new cue until you’ve had a couple of days with the previous one.
As you move forward with your training, expect to go slowly. Remember this is called “gradual desensitization” for a reason! You have to move at your dog’s pace.
In my experience, and that of other colleagues specializing in this training, how quickly a dog overcomes their anxiety does not correspond to the severity of the symptoms, the age of the dog, or the breed. Every dog is an individual.
Unfortunately this makes it impossible to predict how quickly a dog can overcome their isolation distress or separation anxiety. One 4-month old Aussie pup I worked with, who was literally climbing the walls when left alone, learned quickly. After just a month of training, he was snoozing on the couch for over an hour at a time by himself.
On the other hand, a very calm, older pug had more trouble. He couldn’t be left alone for longer than six minutes after a month of training.
In 95% of the separation anxiety/isolation distress dogs I work with, training is not a straight line. What we are looking for is gradual (there’s that word again!) improvements over time; a general trend of moving towards longer and longer absences.
Here are some other things to keep in mind as you move forward:
- Breaks are essential. Don’t try to work with your dog on training every day. For both your dog’s sanity and your own, take at least one day off per week.
- This is a high-stress type of training so we need to be careful not to ask too much of the dog. Stick to 30 minutes of training per day total.
- Dogs are terrible at generalizing, which means that if you’re only working on your alone-time training at 10 am every morning, your dog won’t understand that the same principles apply to 3 pm and 8 pm. Be sure to practice at different times of day.
- If you live in a multi-person household, be sure that everyone is involved in at least 1 training session per week. If Mom is doing all the training while the rest of the family is out of the house, the dog will struggle to be left alone when people besides Mom are leaving.
Although dogs respond differently to this training depending on their plasticity and level of sensitivity, it is effective at helping a majority.
The bottom line
Be patient and stick with your training and, if you are struggling to move forward, a Board Certified Veterinary Behaviorist, Certified Separation Anxiety Trainer (CSAT), or a veterinarian can help.