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Dog Separation Anxiety Training: The 3 Part Plan


Separation anxiety is a common and distressing behavioral problem affecting many dogs. Research suggests that 20-25% of dogs are reported to veterinarians with separation related problem behaviors (Mills et al. 2014). It manifests when a dog experiences significant anxiety when left alone, or separate from a significant person or persons, often leading to destructive behaviors, vocalization, and even self-harm. This comprehensive guide outlines a 3-part structure to create your training plan to effectively address separation anxiety, empowering your dog to feel more comfortable and confident when left alone.


A dog sleeping calmly while left alone

Part 1: Management - Setting the Stage for Success

Before diving into training, creating a management plan is crucial. This focuses on minimizing your dog's panic episodes related to separation, setting them up for success in the training program. Here's what it often entails:


  • Medication: In some cases, medication from your veterinarian can be a valuable tool. Anti-anxiety medications can help reduce your dog's overall stress levels, making them more receptive to training. This can be even more crucial if your dog has to regularly experience panic episodes related to separation anxiety, but be aware that dogs often aren't fully sedate on these medications and you might still see panic behaviors without training (Part 3).

  • Avoiding Triggering Absences: Ideally, during the initial stages of training, try to avoid situations that trigger significant separation anxiety in your dog. This might involve working remotely or scheduling errands around a trusted pet sitter. Remember, this is a temporary measure, and the goal is to gradually increase alone time as your dog progresses.

  • Creating a Distinctive Management Strategy: If medication and absence avoidance aren't possible, a separate management strategy is essential. This should look entirely different from the training techniques you'll explore later. Here are some ideas:

    • Crates and Baby Gates: Crating and confining can often cause more distress when our dogs are having panic episodes related to separation anxiety. Consult with your trainer and veterinarian if the crate is the safest management tool, and if it even benefits the training process.

      • Tip: Most people utilize crates to prevent destruction and minimize noise complaints, but during your training process your progress is contingent on your dog feeling comfortable, and so the crate, in that context, would not be necessary.

    • Doggy Daycare: Consider doggy daycare services if your dog thrives in social settings. This provides a stimulating and supervised environment.

    • Trusted Sitters: Create a reliable social circle for your dog with their favorite people. People close by can be even more helpful for those last minute emergencies.


Part 2: Enrichment - Building a Stress-Resilient Dog

Similar to humans with PTSD who benefit from "bottom-up" approaches to healing alongside traditional therapy, dogs also benefit from enriching activities that promote relaxation and emotional well-being. Just like yoga and stretching help humans manage stress, enrichment activities provide a "bottom-up" approach for dogs, fostering a calmer state of mind.

Here's how enrichment relates to separation anxiety training:


  • Reduces Boredom: By providing stimulating activities, you offer your dog healthy ways to expend energy and reduce pent-up emotions.

  • Boosts Confidence: Enrichment activities like scent work or obstacle courses build problem-solving skills and confidence, contributing to an overall improved sense of well-being.

  • Promote Relaxation: Activities like food puzzles, chew toys, and calming music can promote relaxation and challenge their brain, directly helping them lower their baseline arousal levels.

Part 3: Training - Desensitizing Your Dog and Building Confidence

Training is where you actively address the root cause of separation anxiety – the fear of being left alone. A cornerstone of this approach is a technique called systematic desensitization:


  • Gradual Exposure: This involves slowly exposing your dog to triggers (cues that lead to anxiety) in a controlled manner. The key is to start at a level that doesn't cause significant distress and gradually increase the intensity as your dog becomes more comfortable.

    • Tip: For more sensitive dogs, you might hold off on adding pre-departure cues like jackets and bags until your dog feels comfortable being left for at least 5 minutes. Addressing the root issue, being left alone, can make implementing these cues much easier.

  • Counterconditioning: This involves pairing the triggers with positive experiences, effectively changing your dog's emotional response.

    • Example: While practicing departures, provide your dog with a highly valued treat, like a Kong stuffed with peanut butter. This creates a positive association with your leaving.

    • Tip: Often, people report "when the treat is gone, they start barking". It's not universally true that dogs won't eat when over-threshold, and it can be confusing to know if/when they went over threshold when eating, so sometimes it's best to stick to just systematic desensitization, and then add these addition training tools once we know more precisely how long are dog can comfortably left alone.

  • Building Duration: As your dog tolerates short absences, gradually increase the duration you're away. Start with seconds, then minutes, and work your way up to longer periods.

    • Tip: Be careful not to always increase time. This can easily burn out your dog, and make training even slower. Plan your training week in advances, and pick 2 "hard days" when the absence is approaching their threshold, 2 "medium days" where it's not quite as difficult, and 1 "easy day" where they're barely even paying attention. Mix up the order of these days to set your dog up for success on those harder days.

Addressing Additional Fears:

Dogs with separation anxiety might also have other fears, like noise phobias or fear of people outside the home. The beauty of systematic desensitization is its flexibility. Tailor the training to address your dog's specific fears:

  • Noise Phobias: Playing brown or white noise at a significant enough volume to buffer external stimuli from triggering your dog can support your training.

  • Fear of People Outside the Home: Practice having a trusted friend approach the house while you're inside. Reward your dog for calm behavior. Gradually have the friend come closer and introduce treats through a closed door. Similar to noise phobias, you can also manage this fear during absences with brown and white noise playing.

Remember:

  • Consistency is Key: Consistency in implementing these steps is crucial for success.

  • Seek Professional Help:  Separation Anxiety training can be incredibly complex, and the success is in the details. Doing a private virtual consultation is a great investment to making sure your training plan is setting you up for maximal success.

  • Work At Your Dogs Pace: When in doubt, slow down. 100% of reports we get during initial consultations is people get stuck because they push too hard.

  • How Long? Think months, not weeks. People that invest time in understanding their dog's unique needs, avoid panic episodes, and meet their enrichment needs, and regularly meet with qualified behavior veterinarians and behavior trainers often see smoother success.



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