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When Are You Coming Home? How to Ease Separation Anxiety

Alone again

Separation anxiety is a problem many dog owners face. Some dogs are merely bored when left alone and find their own ways to amuse themselves (often through behaviors humans don't find particularly amusing). Other dogs are genuinely distressed when left alone—or even when a certain human or animal leaves the household.

Mild cases of separation anxiety often can be treated with training by the family, with or without guidance from a certified trainer or behaviorist. More severe cases may require the intervention of a veterinary behaviorist who can prescribe appropriate medication while a training protocol is implemented.

dog looking and waiting by the window

The dog's point of view

No one can know what a dog is thinking (at least until they invent a voice box like the one in the movie Up). Nevertheless, it seems reasonable to assume that a dog with separation anxiety either doesn't have a good sense of time (a minute away feels like an hour feels like an eternity) or worries that each time his owner leaves he may not come back.

To make matters worse, dogs are such careful observers of human behavior that they are quick to learn all the things humans do before they leave. These routine tasks can include seemingly innocuous actions, such as turning off the TV or changing into nicer clothes, as well as more obvious pre-departure cues, such as picking up car keys or putting on a jacket and shoes.

Dogs with separation anxiety learn that these activities often signal an imminent departure, and become stressed in anticipation. That means your dog may be tense before you even get near the door, and the anxiety can reach unbearable levels by the time you lock the door behind you.

For this reason, treating separation anxiety is a two-pronged process. On the one hand, it’s important to teach the dog that whenever his owner leaves, it’s reasonable to expect him to return. On the other hand, the dog must learn to be calm about all the steps an owner takes before leaving.

Is it boredom or anxiety?

The first step in dealing with separation anxiety is making sure that it really is separation anxiety and not just boredom. Many dogs left loose in the house with nothing in particular to do find "interesting" ways to amuse themselves. These activities may include exploring the kitchen counters, going through the dirty laundry, chewing on the couch, and barking out the window at passing squirrels, to name just a few. Some dogs may urinate or defecate in the house because their housetraining isn't really solid.

On the other hand, dogs with separation anxiety tend to exhibit one or more of the following behaviors:

  • Trembling, whining, pacing, excessive panting, or drooling, both as you prepare to leave and while you are away
  • Sweaty footpads (look for wet footprints)
  • Loss of appetite, both as you prepare to leave and while you are away
  • Continuous barking or whining while you are gone
  • Repeated house soiling
  • Chewing or digging at potential exits, often carried out to an extreme that results in injury

Neighbors often let you know if your dog is barking while you are out, but a more reliable way to check is to set up a video camera when you leave (a tape recorder or baby monitor can help, too). If your dog spends your entire absence staring at the door while pacing and whining, or alternates between digging at the front window and chewing at the front door, ignoring the tasty food toy you gave him before you left, it is likely that your dog has separation anxiety. If, on the other hand, your dog settles in to dig all the food out of the food toy, then takes a short nap, and finally heads over to chew on the couch contemplatively, he's probably just bored.

It can be hard to figure out if a dog actually has separation anxiety or is just entertaining himself in your absence. If you are having trouble determining what is going on, it may be helpful to consult a certified trainer, a certified applied animal behaviorist, or a certified animal behavior consultant.

Other hints to reduce boredom

Many of these suggestions are helpful for dogs with separation anxiety as well, but they are rarely sufficient for dogs that experience severe distress at departures.

  • Schedule a dog walker to walk the dog in the middle of the day.
  • Enroll the dog in doggy day care a few days a week.
  • Increase physical activity when you are home (walks, games of fetch, etc.).
  • Clicker train when you are home. Mental exercise is more exhausting than physical exercise in many cases, and sleeping dogs don't get into much trouble.
  • Try scent training (great mental exercise), both when you are home and when you are out. For example, if your dog is housetrained reliably, leave food items hidden around the house for your dog to hunt and find while you are out.

My dog is bored. What now?

If your dog is bored rather than experiencing separation anxiety, review your dog's housetraining protocols, teach your dog to engage with appropriate chew toys, and make sure your counters are clean, dirty laundry is out of reach, and so on. In some cases, especially with young, active puppies that are still learning the rules, it may be best to confine your dog to the kitchen, laundry room, bathroom, or even a crate when you leave. That way your dog has fewer opportunities to do things you don't like. Use food toys or other chew toys to give your dog something to do in the confined area. You can find a variety of boredom busters in the clickertraining.com store.

Ideally dogs should not be crated for more than four hours at a time (except at night—many dogs are comfortable being crated overnight for eight or nine hours). For puppies younger than four months old, one to two hours is often as much as they can handle. The crate should be introduced systematically, using positive reinforcement, and crate confinement should be kept as short as possible until it is clear that the puppy or dog has adequate bladder control. Note that breed and size do affect bladder capacity. If you and your dog are new to crate training, this excellent article by Casey Lomonaco will help get you started.

Find and control anxiety triggers

If you have a dog with separation anxiety, the first thing to do is figure out exactly what triggers that anxiety. Is your dog fine as long as a certain family pet is home, but unbearably anxious when that pet goes to the vet? Is your dog content if your spouse is home even when you leave? Is your dog content as long as there is some human in the area, even if it's not a member of your family? Before you start treating the separation anxiety, first figure out what situations cause it.

Once you know what conditions trigger your dog's anxiety, you must commit to managing the environment so that your dog is not subjected to those conditions while you are treating the anxiety. This is extremely important, because each time your dog gets anxious due to a stress-inducing departure, you undo some of the beneficial training and progress. The fastest, most effective separation anxiety treatment requires avoiding high anxiety situations until the dog has learned to be calm when the key people or animals leave.

Depending on your dog's triggers and on the situation, there are options for controlling the triggers. Take the dog to daycare daily, have a dog sitter come in and stay, have the dog go to work with the person to whom he is most attached, leave the dog at a friend's house, or find some other solution that balances your resources and your dog's needs.

Once you have found a way to manage your dog's anxiety while you work on the separation anxiety, set aside a few minutes each morning and evening, and possibly an entire long weekend, to do some desensitization training.

Determine pre-departure triggers

Begin by figuring out the pre-departure triggers for your dog's anxiety. For example, does your dog start to pant or whine when he sees you pick up your purse? How about when you put on your aftershave in the morning? Start a list of the events that occur before the person or animal in question leaves the home, making the list as comprehensive as possible. Evaluate each entry on the list, using a numerical scale like the one below:

  1. Causes no anxiety; dog does not seem to notice
  2. Dog notices but is completely relaxed
  3. Dog notices and tends to stare
  4. Some signs of stress observed in dog, such as panting or drooling
  5. Many signs of stress observed in dog

Keep this list as your baseline. For items that are a 1 on this scale, try one or two repetitions a week of the desensitization protocol described below, just to be sure those events don't develop into problems. For items that are a 2 or higher, follow the protocol below until each item is a 1.

Desensitize individual pre-departure triggers

For each identified trigger, go through the following process at a time when there are no plans for you (or the person/animal involved) to leave the house:

  1. Figure out exactly when your dog starts to react. For example, does he react as soon as you walk toward your purse, when you actually pick it up, or somewhere in between?
  2. From the point where your dog begins to get anxious, take a small step back (this may be a literal step back, or a reduction in the distance you move your hands, etc.). Repeat the trigger behavior between one and three times, depending on what your dog can handle. If your dog responds in a stressed manner after you have done the behavior just one or two times, stop and don't do the behavior for a third time.
  3. After doing the behavior one to three times at a level that is just below what your dog seems to find stressful, walk away and go back to doing whatever you normally do.

Work on your dog's pre-departure triggers individually one to three times at random intervals throughout the day. If your dog seems stressed after a few of these short sessions, stop practicing and go about your day as usual. Over time, practice each of the triggers until each item can be graded a 1.

Combine pre-departure triggers

When your dog is calm about each individual pre-departure trigger, begin to combine triggers. Combine them in random order as much as possible before you start putting them together in their proper order, even if that does not seem logical. For example, pick up your keys and then put on your socks (assuming you normally do the reverse). Then take off your socks, put the keys back, and go back to whatever you would normally be doing in your home.

Work as many possible pairs of triggers as you can, keeping track of your dog's reaction, until your dog is calm about all of the different trigger combinations. Then begin combining two triggers in normal order. For example, wash your face and then put on your makeup. Again, the goal is for your dog to remain calm as you repeat each pair of triggers.

Gradually build up to three triggers in a row, then to four, and then to longer sequences. You'll know your dog is ready for more advanced challenges when he barely even looks up as you start a long sequence.

As you start to combine triggers, every once in a while do just one of the pre-departure trigger behaviors. In other words, leapfrog between harder and easier repeats, to give your dog "easy" repeats part of the time. Remember to do this throughout the separation anxiety training. Periodically throw in an easy repetition to keep your dog in the game, rather than always making things progressively harder.

More departure hints

  • For many dogs, opening the garage door or starting the car are also triggers. Desensitize those events just as you would other departure triggers. Remember that it's best to practice each trigger individually if possible before putting triggers together.
  • As you begin to leave the house for longer intervals, it can help to have a baby monitor with you so that you can hear if your dog is showing signs of distress. An observer indoors can also be helpful (in appropriate cases), as can a video camera. A book can help you pass the time outside.
  • If your dog becomes stressed at a certain point in the protocol, back up several stages to a previous point of solid success. Build up again in smaller increments until the dog is able to handle the level that had been stressful earlier.
  • Throughout the training, let your dog's behavior guide you. There is no "correct" pace. Some dogs progress quickly through certain stages and are more stressed by other stages, while other dogs progress slowly and steadily. The more attentive you are to your dog's behavior and needs, the faster the training will go.

"Practice" departures

Once your dog can handle pre-departure cues, it's time to practice actual departures. Here is a sample sequence for "practice" departures. As you practice, remember to leapfrog between harder and easier repeats.

  • Take a step toward the door, and then step back.
  • Take two steps toward the door, and then step back.

Repeat, with appropriate increases, until you can take the number of steps required to reach the door, and step back, while your dog remains calm. At that point, add the following:

  • Step toward the door, and then lift your hand toward the doorknob. Drop your hand, but stay where you are, then reach toward the doorknob again.
  • Step toward the door and actually touch the doorknob, dropping your hand afterward.
  • Step toward the door and turn the doorknob half an inch, releasing the doorknob and dropping your hand afterward.

Repeat, with appropriate increases, until you can turn the doorknob all the way, so that the door unlatches, while your dog remains calm. Do not actually open the door. Then, add the following:

  • Open the door an inch, and then shut it.
  • Open the door two inches, and then shut it.

Repeat, with appropriate increases, until you can stand by the door with the door wide open while your dog remains calm. You get the idea, so here’s shorthand for the next few steps.

  • Step gradually into the doorway, and then step back indoors.
  • Step gradually through and past the doorway, and then step back indoors.
  • Close the door behind you gradually, immediately reopening it and walking back indoors.

Once your dog is able to remain completely calm while you walk through the door and close it behind you, begin pausing before you walk back inside. Start with just the briefest of pauses—less than a second—and gradually build up by a few seconds at a time (or even by less than a second at a time) to standing just outside the door for one full minute.

When you have built up to a minute outside, begin taking out your key and locking the door. For a while you may need to reduce the length of time you stay outside (duration) as you desensitize your dog to the door's locking. Once your dog remains calm as you lock the door, begin walking away from the door after you lock it. Do not exceed one minute total time outside before you return and walk back in.

After your dog is fine with you standing outside, with the door locked, for a minute, build up your time outside with the door locked in one minute increments to five or ten minutes total. Then build up to 30 minutes duration in two or three minute increments. When you are able to walk out the door and stay outside for 30 minutes while your dog remains calm, it’s likely your dog can handle longer periods of absence. Nevertheless, it's best to build up duration by about 10 or 15 minutes at a time until you are sure you can remain outside for two, three, or four hours while your dog remains calm.

Add a "safe phrase"

As your training progresses and your dog is able to remain calm in more situations, begin to add a "safe phrase" that you say just before you leave for a practice departure. I use "I'll be back" with my dog, but any phrase that comes naturally to you, and that won't be used except during “safe” departures, is fine. Start using the phrase only after you have laid some groundwork walking out the door, and initially reserve it for the shorter departures you intersperse among longer departures.

As your dog tolerates greater duration and distance, begin to use the safe phrase more frequently, but use it ONLY during practice departures when you know you will return before your dog becomes stressed. If you accidentally use the safe phrase before a departure when your dog becomes stressed, stop using the phrase for a while until you have retrained to and well beyond the point where the stress occurred.

When your dog has learned to deal with extended absences of hours at a time, begin to use the safe phrase when you really do need to leave the house. Be careful not to abuse the phrase by using it for departures that extend beyond what your dog has been trained to handle. Your safe phrase is a classically conditioned cue that your departure is safe, so it is imperative that you only use it at times when your dog can remain relaxed.

During training to alleviate separation anxiety, the goal is for the dog to remain as calm as possible at all times.

Keep arrivals and departures low-key

During training to alleviate separation anxiety, the goal is for the dog to remain as calm as possible at all times. Making a big deal out of departures and arrivals undermines that goal. Fawning over the dog as you leave home conveys the message that departures are a big deal. The same is true of grand celebrations when you return home.

One way to help dogs with separation anxiety is to be very matter-of-fact about departures and arrivals. Saying things like, "Poor little Fluffy. I'm so sorry and I know you hate it when you can't be with me, but I have to leave you for a while. You'll be OK until I get back, right?" only adds to the stress surrounding departures. Acting calm and matter-of-fact as you leave the house reduces the odds that your anxious behavior will add to your dog’s stress.

Similarly, if you spend the first few minutes after your return playing with, talking to, or mooning over your dog, the message is that your return is the most important and exciting part of the day. For a dog that is already prone to being anxious about departures, making a big deal out of returning home can exacerbate the anxiety. The dog may spend the time you are away anticipating that exciting return and being anxious that it hasn't happened yet. If you've ever sat around feeling tense while waiting for an important phone call, you can picture what your dog might be going through. Being calm when you return home helps to reduce the tension.

For these reasons, it is helpful to ignore dogs with separation anxiety for between 10 and 30 minutes before departures and after arrivals. Consciously avoid interacting with your dog for at least 10 minutes before you have to leave. When you come back home, say "hi," give your dog the briefest pat, and then do something that doesn't involve your dog for at least 10 minutes. The longer you keep the focus off the dog the better. This routine helps teach the dog that it's not a big deal when someone leaves or arrives.

Can I use a clicker?

There are elements of separation anxiety training where a clicker can be helpful. One is the Calming Yo-Yo exercise described by Aidan Bindoff. Crate training is another area where the clicker can be extremely helpful. Unfortunately, for some dogs the clicker is a bit too engaging, and it's important for the dog to be able to relax and disengage during training for separation anxiety. If you find that your dog becomes obsessed with watching you when you pull out a clicker, you may be better off using an alternate marker (such as a slow, spoken "Yesssss") or no marker at all.

Be patient

Some dogs with mild separation anxiety can be treated effectively over a long weekend. Others may take weeks or months to begin to feel safe when you leave. Regardless of where your dog falls on this scale, one of the elements that may contribute to the dog's stress is your stress. For his sake as well as your own, it's best to relax and be patient about this process.

A certified trainer, certified applied animal behaviorist, or certified animal behavior consultant can help you through the separation anxiety training process with dogs that find departures particularly challenging. For dogs that are so stressed that they are practically incapable of learning, the assistance of a veterinary behaviorist can be invaluable.

The sooner you start dealing with your dog's separation anxiety, the sooner your dog will begin to relax about departures.

Start training now

Whatever your dog's particular challenges, the worst thing you can do is ignore the situation and hope it will go away. The sooner you start dealing with your dog's separation anxiety, the sooner your dog will begin to relax about departures. Even just a few minutes a day of pre-departure trigger training can be extremely helpful, so don't put it off—get started today!

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