How to help a dog with separation anxiety

Tips to help alleviate this distressing condition.

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February 28, 2019

How to help a dog with separation anxiety

Separation anxiety in our dogs can be very distressing for both us and our beloved dogs so here’s a few tips on how to address separation distress – including recognising the signs.

Separation distress is a phobia of separation, causing dogs to go into a highly anxious “fight or flight” state: their pupils dilate, they start panting, salivating, pacing around, vocalising/barking and stressing out. In extreme situations, dogs with separation anxiety may toilet inside or try desperately to escape, going so far as to chew through doors or crates to get out. It’s awful and very upsetting.

The best thing to do is prevent separation anxiety from developing in the first place. When you get a puppy, give them time away from you – start with 10 minutes, then gradually increase it to a few hours at a time. A common mistake that caring dog owners make is to ensure their puppy is with them all the time, but this leads to over-dependency and is damaging to your dog in the end.

If your dog already has separation anxiety, here’s a technique you can try.

Put your dog in a Learning State

  • Clip your dog up on its mat. We don’t want the dog to become distressed, so minimise separation at this stage (sit right beside your dog)
  • Click and reward calm, focused, non-soliciting, non-vocal behaviour
  • Teach and practise “sit” and “down”
  • Click and reward independent behaviours e.g. when your dog looks away from you/is relaxed
  • Get your dog into a down position (ideally the relaxed curled position I call Zen Down) – click and throw food rewards between your dog’s legs to encourage it to stay in this relaxed state
  • Continue until your dog is consistently relaxed and calm
  • A good sign that your dog is in a Learning State is if he is accepting treats - see in the images below, in the left the dog is in a Learning State and accepting food, in the right image the dog is not in a Learning State as is unable to eat

In learning state - accepting treats
Out of learning state - won't eat

Desensitisation through graduated departure

The initial graduated departure therapy is started with your dog clipped up and in a calm Zen Down position as in the image below. You’ll need a friend to help you, as they’ll reward your dog for being relaxed as you gradually leave the room for increasingly extended periods. At first, your helper should be someone your dog knows, so it’s not as distressing for you to be moving away. Have your helper begin by giving your dog treats and by clicking and rewarding calm behaviour.

  • Move yourself 0.5 metres from your dog – click and reward, throwing treats between your dog’s legs as it is in a “down” position. If it stands up, ask for a “sit” and “down” again, click and rewarding each position
  • Stay 0.5 metres away for 10 seconds then return to your dog, before they get in an anxious state. Click and reward to relax them
  • Move back to 0.5 metres and stay away for 30 seconds. Click and reward calm behaviour, again, tossing treats between your dog’s legs so it stays in a “down” position. Then return to your dog
  • Repeat the above at 0.5 metres away for 1 minute, 2 minute, then 5 minute intervals
  • Next move to 1 metre away and repeat the above, starting again at 10 seconds, then 30 seconds, then 1 minute, 2 minutes, 5 minutes
  • Follow the training schedule in the diagram below
  • As you move more than 1 metre away, have a friend remain near your dog to continue clicking and rewarding it for calm, non-stressed responses. If you don’t have anyone that can help, you’ll need to toss food rewards between your dog’s legs from a distance – but this is challenging, and prevents you from moving right out of the room which is a very important last step in the therapy
  • You may speed up or slow down the recommended staging depending on how your dog is responding and the severity of its issues
  • Break the stages over a number of sessions – make sure you start at the beginning whenever you start a new session (at 0.5 metres away) for a short time, to ease your dog into the longer intervals
  • Only move to the next distance or time interval if your dog is managing to stay relaxed and calm. If your dog is getting distressed, go back a step. If your dog becomes reluctant to take the food rewards being offered, you’re pushing too far – so back off. You don’t want your dog to get into that state, so watch for signs beforehand that it’s starting to get distressed and ease back just before this moment

Throughout this process:

  • Reward calm, focused behaviours
  • Reward independence such as looking away and non-soliciting, non-vocalising behaviours
  • Keep your dog in a Learning State by clicking and rewarding the Zen Down position

This is confronting therapy for your dog, so pay attention to how they are coping and respond. However, this will require both of you to push your comfort zones a bit – some tough love is needed to progress.

Once you do progress and are able to leave the room with your dog remaining calm, extend the amount of time you are gone for in slow increments each time.

Using another dog for social facilitation

While you're still working through your dog's separation distress, it can be really helpful if you have another calm dog, that your dog gets along well with, to leave with your dog when you go out. The other dog will be calm to lead by example and show your dog that there's no need to be anxious, and will emit calming pheromones that will also help your dog settle and relax. So if you have a friend or neighbour nearby, and your dogs get along, this can be a great way to help relieve your dog's separation distress as you work through your training.

Give your dog access to a social area in the home

Consider where you're leaving your dog when you go out. Most dogs will be happier and more settled if they have access to a main social area in the home (e.g kitchen or living room). If your dog is perfectly house trained and not destructive, you can use a dog door to give them access to inside as well as an outdoor space for more stimulation. If they are prone to accidents inside or have a tendency to chew things (which is common in dogs with separation anxiety), then instead create a restricted indoor area they can access. For example, secure a crate right up against a dog door so that they can come in through the dog door to a crate only, and enjoy that feeling of being in a secure space in a social area of the home while still not having unfettered access to wreak havoc. This can make a big difference in helping a dog relax more when you're not there.

Pet cameras for separation anxiety

Two way pet cameras with treat dispensers can be an incredibly useful tool for helping to manage and treat separation distress, if it's in your budget. I have a separate blog on how to integrate this tool into your training here.

If your dog has severe separation distress and you're unable to make progress just with these tips, extensive Separation Anxiety training is covered in both my Dog Zen book and Virtual Training Schools if you need further assistance with your dog.

Good luck!

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