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Dogs with separation anxiety often start showing signs of anxiety when their guardians prepare to leave the house (e.g., picking up keys or putting on a coat). An anxious adult dog or new pup may try to prevent you from leaving the house by following you, barking, howling, pacing, jumping on you, or bringing items to you (e.g., toys, socks, etc.).
The first step in treating separation anxiety is to break the cycle of your dog’s anxious behaviors by teaching him/her that your comings and goings are no big deal. To do this, you’ll need to desensitize your dog to your departure cues (e.g., picking up keys, putting on a coat) and walking to the door.
Desensitization is a gradual process that involves exposing your dog to his/her trigger (in this case, your departure cues and the thought of being left alone) in a controlled and safe manner while simultaneously teaching your dog how to stay calm. The goal of desensitization is to spend time getting your dog used to his/her trigger, slowly and gradually without triggering your dog. It just takes a few minutes a few days per week to start helping your dog become desensitized to your leaving the house.
Desensitization should be done in small steps and at a pace that is comfortable for both you and your dog. If your dog starts to show any signs of anxiety or stress (e.g., panting, pacing, whining, barking), you are progressing too quickly and need to go back to a previous step.
Let's go through a step-by-step guide on how to train your dog to stay home alone happily and not get anxious when you start preparing to leave the house.
In the previous guides in this series, we went through levels 1,2, and 3 of how to make the door a bore for your dog before you leave the house. Making your leaving a non-event for your dog is the first step in preventing separation anxiety. Why? Because if your dog doesn’t think something bad is going to happen when you leave, he/she won’t get anxious. Simple, right?
In this guide, we're going to put all of the pieces together and show you how to help your dog create a positive association with alone time. If you haven't yet, I highly suggest you revisit each step in the previous level 1, 2, and 3 trainings before getting started with level 4 in this guide. It's important your dog is successful at all of the previous levels before moving on to the final level of this training.
At this point in training, your dog should be pretty comfortable with your leaving and coming back. If not, go back to level 3 and work on that until your dog is ready to move on to level 4.
In level 4, we are going to slightly increase the amount of time you're gone with some added desensitization to your shoes. This level should only be attempted if your dog is truly comfortable with your leaving and coming back in levels 1-3. It's important not to move on to the next level until your dog is successful at the current level.
Remember, the below training will not cure or prevent separation anxiety in an adult dog or new puppy immediately. The point of this training is to help your dog feel more relaxed when you start to leave the house. You can work on this for a few minutes per day with your dog and gradually increase in difficulty only as your dog is comfortable.
**For these separation anxiety training sessions to take place, your dog needs to be able to see the door. If you're crate training in a different room, ask me for modifications in the Community discussion in the Anxiety Channel.**
This level is a bit more of a challenge, but remember, we are working gradually. Adding in too much too soon will set your dog up for failure.
The goal of these exercises is to make the door boring with some added desensitization to your shoes. The goal is not adding in a lot of duration for longer periods outside of the door. This training is laying incredibly important groundwork for your dog to be comfortable being alone.
Practice this exercise for a week or so. Some days just do level 1 and some days focus on the more challenging steps of level 4. If your dog is showing signs of anxiety at level 4, go back to level 3 until your dog is ready to move on.
If your dog is responding well and you want to challenge him/her a bit more, you can start adding in a little bit more duration to level 4. Set up a dog camera and instead of returning after 2 seconds after closing the door in step 6, wait 5 seconds before returning. Watch your pup on the dog camera and return immediately if you see any signs of anxiety in your dog.
If your pup does well, a few days later add a few more seconds gradually until you can get up to 1 minute. Remember, we are just trying to get your dog used to being alone for short periods of time in an increment he/she is comfortable with. This is not about leaving your dog home alone for hours on end.
If at any time your dog starts to show signs of anxiety, go back to the last level he/she was successful at and work up from there again. Dogs are incredibly resilient, but this is a process that takes time. Be patient with your pup and I promise you will see success!
Now that you've gone through level 4, hopefully your dog is more relaxed at the thought of alone time. If not, go back to levels 1-3 and continue to teach your dog over short periods that he/she can feel safe when you're getting ready to leave. Or jump to other step-by-step guides in the Anxiety Channel and learn how to help your dog stay calm outside of the house or what to do if your dog is barking at visitors in your 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!
DISCLAIMER: The content of this website and community is based on the research, expertise, and views of each respective author. Information here is not intended to replace your one-on-one relationship with your veterinarian, but as a sharing of information and knowledge to help arm dog parents to make more informed choices. We encourage you to make health care decisions based on your research and in partnership with your vet. In cases of distress, medical issues, or emergency, always consult your veterinarian.