One of the best ways to help dogs with separation distress feel calmer when left alone is to gradually desensitize them to it. We go at their pace and help them feel safe in “practice” separations!
 

Set Up

  • A webcam that can be monitored via your phone is a must-have for this training. (Furbo cameras are popular and handy because they can alert you when your dog is vocalizing, but any webcam with audio will do!) You’ll need it once your dog is ready for you to go out the door.
  • You’ll now have two types of separations: Real departures and practice departures. They should “look” totally different.
    • By keeping the practice separations completely separate from the real ones (for now) you will keep your dog’s training scene as a “safety signal”. Eventually, the “safety signal” will become the real life leaving scenario, but we need to work up to that!
    • For your dog’s “safety signal”, you can choose a visual and/or auditory cue. Some possibilities: Playing white noise or rain sounds on an Alexa/Google Home or similar. Hanging a blue or yellow object on the door. Placing a special mat or bed near the door.
    • Whatever you choose, this signal should only go up for practice sessions. Make sure it isn’t playing/present when you really leave.
  • For real departures, for now, continue to leave your dog as you have been. It’s so important to reduce or eliminate real departures if possible. (See Separation Anxiety Management for help and ideas.)

Practice Separation Steps

  • For “practice separations”, you’ll place/start your safety signal and do your practice.
    • Choose a “home base” where you start your separations from. This is often a couch or chair close to the door you exit.
    • You might start with just walking toward the door, then touching/turning the door knob, then opening and closing the door, then stepping outside for a few seconds, then a minute, then a few minutes.
    • Your goal is to start with very short separations and lengthen them as your dog is comfortable. Try to get at least three separations that are successful (Your dog is calm and doesn’t panic) before you make it any longer.
    • If your dog is relatively calm, count it as a success! After 3 successes, you can make the next sessions longer. If your dog panics (barks more than a couple of times, paces more than a few circles, or seems frantic), make the next session shorter.
    • Use a webcam to watch your dog once you start shutting the door.
    • Return to your dog ASAP if they start panicking. Will this reinforce vocalizing/scratching the door? Yes. But it’s far, far, far less damaging than trying to get them to “cry it out”, which can significantly worsen and reinforce their anxiety.
    • See the video from your session for a reminder of how to train this, too.
  • Aim to have a few practice sessions per week (At least 3). When they are very short (Like when you’re only walking toward the door but not through it), you could practice twice a day. Once you’re leaving your home and getting in the car, I recommend a maximum of once a day or every other day.
  • If you must leave your dog alone, avoid practicing that day.

Keeping Track

  • This is a slow-and-steady-wins-the-race type of behavior change. That means even when our dogs are making progress, it can be hard to see!
  • We highly, highly recommend you keep track of your dog’s progress!
  • We’re looking for gradual improvement, but it is normal and expected for this progress to be full of ups and downs. Remembering this can help get you through the “down” days.
  • Here’s a printable document for your counter, fridge, or coffee table!
 
Separation anxiety can be a very challenging behavior to address. We’re dealing with some big feelings and often some strong genetics! We want to help our dogs reach their own maximum potential. Many dogs make a great recovery and continue to need some structure and support throughout their lives to maintain their progress. If you have any questions, please reach out to your trainer, we’re here for you!