How to Train a Dog with Separation Anxiety
Now that we have established what Separation Anxiety truly is to your dog, and some steps you can use to identify it and reduce symptoms while you begin working with a qualified dog behaviourist, we are ready to talk about actual training. If you need to catch up on our previous articles, you can read them by clicking the above links.
As I have said before, working with a CSAT is the best way to help your dog overcome separation anxiety. CSATs complete rigorous courses on how to train a dog with separation anxiety and are considered specialists even amongst other dog behaviourists. That said, if working with a CSAT is not possible for you right now, it is still important for your dog’s welfare that he gets relief from this condition. Read on to see what steps you can take at home to help.
Step 1: Identify when your dog begins to panic.
This step is crucial to the training process. If you do not start training your dog from the right point, your efforts will not be effective because your dog is already in panic mode and dogs in a state of panic cannot learn. Identifying when the panic caused by separation anxiety begins should always be your first step. To identify where when this actually happens you can use tools you already have at home.
- Watch what your dog does as you prepare to leave – dogs are very astute at picking up on our leaving routines and this is often the first step in an increase in anxiety.
- Use your laptop or a camera with wifi capability (or record your absence and watch it after you return home) to watch your dog as you leave your home.
- Start timing with your phone or a stopwatch once you have let your home and your dog can no longer see you. Ensure you move far enough away so he cannot hear you, and that you are not visible from any windows. Take notes of when behaviour issues (which we have previously identified here) start taking place. Note barking, howling, destructive behaviour, pacing – all of it including behaviours that are silent such as pacing and restlessness.
- Although often times it is troubling to do, watch your dog for a full half an hour before you walk back inside. This will give you the opportunity to see the full range of behaviours and make detailed notes. However, if your dog becomes extremely anxious sooner come back in.
- Once the behaviours start, you have identified when panic sets in with your dog knowing you are leaving. Please note this actually may occur even before you leave your home.
Starting to Help your Dog learn to be Alone
Now that you know when your dog begins to panic, and what the behaviour looks like, you can begin to address it. Remember this training will not work overnight, and even with an experienced CSAT it can take months to help your dog overcome separation anxiety. It really depends on your dog, the severity of their SA, and how consistent and effective your training is. Of course it is much better not to leave your dog alone at all but if you are in a situation where you have not been able to set this up yet. Here are some pointers that will help.
Before Getting Ready to Leave
Make sure that your dog has had a good walk – plan this so you are not leaving for at least half an hour after you have returned from the walk. Give your dog time to calm down and do not play any highly arousing games before you leave.
Don’t pay too much attention to your dog when you are getting ready to leave and once you are ready ignore him altogether – just calmly leave the house
Keep all arrivals (from you and anyone else, including visitors) very low key. When you come through the door just acknowledge your dog with a quiet hello and go about your business. If arrivals are very exciting that makes your departures even more distressing as your dog is anticipating the excitement of you coming home.
Actions before your leave your home
Dogs are very smart and pay attention to every minor detail that occurs before you leave you home. In fact, you may not even realise you have a pattern of behaviour when it is time to leave. Take a moment and think about what you do when you are going to run errands, and think of the cues your dog may be picking up on. Some examples may include:
- The sound your keys make
- Opening wardrobe doors to get coats
- Closing doors behind you as you move toward the front door
- Shutting off all music, TVs, and lights
- Putting on your shoes
- Checking other doors and windows to ensure they are closed and locked.
You may find that certain cues make your dog more anxious than others. Note these behaviour changes based on your actions so you can begin to practice them with your dog. The goal here is over time to desensitise your dog to these noises and actions. I recommend only introducing one cue per day.
Starting the Desensitisation Process
Systematic Desensitisation is a complex procedure so take thing slowly and don’t move on to the next cue until your dog is totally calm at the cue you are working on. The following are just some things that you can do to start you on your way but this by no means covers what a full professional programme would include.
- Put your shoes on and walk to the door – come back and put your shoes back in their normal place – repeat this a few times
- If you wear a coat or take a bag start to include these one at a time but just walk to the door with them and alternate between shoes, coats and bags
- Once your dog does not care whether you are wearing your shoes, coat of picking up your bag you can start to open and close the door slightly
- Once you have rehearsed this a few times and your dog is calm then step outside the door, close it behind you and come straight back in
- Once your dog is calm when you do this you can start to increase your absence by just a few seconds at a time.
Between each of the above steps, we recommend you pause for between 30 and 90 seconds to do something you normally would do in your home. For example, you could turn on the TV, use the microwave, wash dishes, sit at the table, vacuum, or any other variety of normal household activities.
During these pauses, you should not be overly affectionate with your dog. It is ok to not ignore him, but don’t get him excited with a wild game.
Slow Progress Is Still Progress
For the sake of both you and your dog, please remember this is a very slow process. It takes time and practice to even identify your cues and understand what upsets your dog. I have also have found that there is no easy way to tell you how long training will take. It does not matter if your dog is young or old, or one breed or another. In my experience every dog is unique and needs individual attention. Just know that no matter how long treatment takes, you are helping to improve your dog’s (and yours) quality of life.
Here are some other things to keep in mind:
- Limit training sessions to no more than 30 minutes per day. This training is very stressful for your dog, and you do not want to overdo it.
- Make sure you schedule at least two days a week where you do not plan on training. You and your dog will need a break. Pace yourself and take your time.
- Vary the times of day you train. By varying the times you are much more likely to help your dog understand they can be calm no matter when you leave the house, not just during a particular time of day.
- Ensure each family member is involved in the training. This way, your dog is much more likely to know they can stay calm when anyone leaves the house, and not get nervous based on who is leaving.
- If at any point your dog starts to become anxious STOP the training – don’t try and push him – you must go at his pace – pushing him will make his anxiety worse and be detrimental to progress – think about whether you have gone to quickly and if so then slow down and then slow down again – this is not about speed – it is about learning and every dog will learn at a different pace.
Future Articles and Additional Help
In our upcoming articles we will be reviewing some common myths surrounding SA, and addressing the use of supplements and prescription medications during treatment. Make sure to check back soon if you are considering using prescription medication, we will be going into a lot more detail.
Remember, this training will take time and effort. If you are struggling, I cannot urge you enough to contact me for help. The expertise I can offer is priceless when helping your dog live the best life he or she can. Please, contact us with any questions you have. Make sure to follow us on Facebook for future updates, and tips.