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If you and your dog are dealing with separation anxiety, you're probably asking the question I hear from so many pet parents: "What do I need to do to make everything all right and keep my dog calm, comfortable, maybe even relaxed when home alone?"
The gold standard to help your dog through successful treatment of separation anxiety is gradual systematic desensitization training. This approach is based on the behavioral principle that with repeated non-threatening exposure to a stimulus (in this case, being left alone), a dog will learn to tolerate the situation. In other words, your dog can learn to be calm and happy when home alone!
What works and why
You might be familiar with desensitization in dogs as part of a behavior modification program along with counter-conditioning for issues like reactivity, for example. With separation anxiety, gradual desensitization by itself has proved to be what works.
Counter-conditioning (replacing something that creates negative emotions/negative reaction with something good and a positive reaction/positive association - such as raining treats or other reward based techniques when a scary bike appears) doesn't work with separation anxiety.
The only reinforcement your dog wants is not to be alone, to have you or another human present. Hence, desensitization to gradually get your dog's emotional response to be relaxed when no one is around.
So let's dive in and get started with desensitization - exactly what it is and how to go about it with your dog.
What is systematic desensitization in dogs?
Definition: An evidence-based technique in which the learner (your anxious, fearful dog) is gradually exposed to an anxiety inducing object, event, or place in a predictable manner to help the learner slowly overcome an extreme fear or phobia.
Or more plainly: It's giving your dog gradual exposure to the idea of being alone in predictable baby steps so your pup's emotional response is to find it boring. Then slowly adding more challenging and realistic scenarios based on your dog's behavior.
Where do we start?
What are your dog's "pre-departure cues" & how much do they matter?
Pre-departure cues are signs your dog notices you do before leaving the house that clue your dog in to the fact that you're about to leave.
This could be picking up your keys, putting on a jacket, or getting your bag ready. Anything that is different from the normal routine that triggers your dog that something's up.
Okay, but tell me more...
For some dogs with separation anxiety, these cues matter a great deal. They can send your dog into a tailspin of anxiety long before you've even left the house. Other dogs may not react much to pre-departure cues until you're actually out the door and leaving.
If pre-departure cues are a problem for your pup, jump to the previous guide here where we learned how to make leaving boring for your dog.
Step 1: Establish your dog's anxiety stimulus hierarchy
Assess your dog to establish your dog's starting threshold for alone-time and a PDQ hierarchy (pre departure cues: your dog's triggers to realize you're leaving).
Before any training session with desensitization techniques, observing and establishing YOUR dog's anxiety stimulus hierarchy and timing is critical. Every dog is different. Other dogs who have separation anxiety will have different anxiety stimuli and timing thresholds than your dog.
How to figure out your dog's anxiety stimulus hierarchy and timing:
- Practice normal leaving routine with all elements (doors, keys, locks, wallets, bags, etc)
- Record as many angles as possible, with the most important being the exit door.
- Start a timer as you close the door behind you.
- Stay close to home for a quick return.
- Return as soon as your dog shows signs of fear, and becomes "panicked" - take notes of total duration, what happened and when.
Why notes matter
Notes will help you determine threshold and more easily see progress in helping your dog cope along the way. Also helpful for a trainer if you bring one on to know when/why your dog is likely to respond negatively, etc. You'll be creating a plan for one dog - yours - not for other dogs who may share a similar fearful response and negative feelings, so we want as much accurate evidence as possible.
Watch for excessive vocalization, jumping/scratching at doors, any signs of destruction. If your dog has a history of accidents or self-harm return at first signs of stress from your dog.
(You can make your notes after you're back while still fresh in your mind since things can happen quickly in the moment as you're watching your dog.)
Step 2: Determining threshold & starting point
Determining your dog's "threshold" - the amount of time/exposure to stressors, your dog can currently handle without becoming overly stressed.
- This can be tricky without an expert eye. It's best to underestimate the time to be safe.
- Threshold is based on your dog being alone without any distractions such as food/toys. Leave all normal things in environment.
- After determining threshold, start FAR below that point. The goal is to avoid your dog nearing threshold as much as possible, not pushing to it. That is a common mistake.
- Gradually and carefully expose your dog to predictable absences of varying durations, shorter and longer.
- Fabricate easy wins. ** Adding duration every day is a surefire way to cause regressions for most dogs. Mix it up for the timing of your exposure training, not a linear increase but working in some short periods for easy wins for your dog before going longer again.
- Comfort is more important than duration. Stay under threshold and keep your dog in the comfort zone - a key to forward progress!
Start with periods of time your dog can handle without any fear or stress signs, and gradually add in more difficult situations while maintaining a safe level of comfort.
If at any point during your training sessions you see regression in behavior or an increase in fear/stress related behaviors, slow down the rate of exposure or try a different method entirely.
There is no one-size-fits all when it comes to separation anxiety, so be patient, observant and creative in finding what works for your dog!
Step 3: Gradual systematic desensitization - practice, practice
Start with your dog's least fear & continue up the ladder ensuring your pup is showing no/low level stress responses during your desensitization work.
- Try no departure cues to start if possible
- Shoes on long before you start or outside. Keys in pocket if needed. Layer clothes.
- When your dog can handle simple steps such as your walking out the door, closing it behind you for 2-4 minutes with ZERO signs of stress, consider adding in another challenge (a given stimulus such as keys) slowly.
- Layer in the "new thing" with old things slowly so process remains mostly predictable.
- Always track data - over first several days/weeks
5 Things to look at in observing/assessing your anxious dog:
- Time of day
- Who is involved
- Length of session
- Dog's day otherwise: exercise, enrichment, trigger stacking
- Make adjustments as needed based on your dog's emotions/negative response to set up training with easiest scenarios first: easiest time of day, person, after/before exercise, not on garbage day with dreaded garbage trucks, etc.
If your dog is overly stressed at any point, you've moved too fast. Go back to an easier step that your dog can handle with zero stress responses.
Start with the door open and gradually close it as your dog becomes more comfortable. If progress stalls or regressions occur, don't hesitate to go back to a previous step that your dog was comfortable with and try again.
If you have multiple people in your home, each person should take part in the desensitization process so your dog can get used to all types of comings and goings.
Remember, this is a marathon not a sprint. Each dog is different and will progress at their own pace. Be patient and consistent with your training, and try to stay positive!
Questions & resources...
If you'd like to see what my training plans look like (looks different for every dog... could be wait 35 seconds, could be return at 27 minutes) and what normal progress looks like, you can see both plus videos of actual separation anxiety home-alone assessments, and Q&A from dog parents like you in the video of this live session above covering all this information.
And if you haven't already, you might also want to take a look at all my separation anxiety guides and videos on Dogly in the Anxiety Channel. Just click Separation Anxiety when you get there.
Next up in the Anxiety Channel on Dogly
Now that you've started to learn how to desensitize your dog to you leaving the house, you're well on your way to helping your dog with separation anxiety. Go back to the beginning of this separation anxiety series and learn the signs of separation anxiety or jump to other step-by-step guides in the Anxiety Channel and start teaching your dog how to stay calm outside of the house.
Hop over to the Anxiety Channel if you'd like to ask any of the Dogly Training Advocates who are all certified dog trainers a question in the Community discussion or start any of the step-by-step guides in Environment Anxiety, Crate Anxiety, or Understanding Anxiety.
And if you ever need more personalized training help, please reach out to work with me one-on-one here on Dogly!