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Treating Separation Anxiety

Because separation anxiety is rooted in fear, we use systematic desensitization to slowly teach dogs to feel better about being alone. As we work, we watch their body language for signs of stress since dogs can’t articulate how they feel about each step. Our goal in every training session is to keep the dog under threshold--ideally fully relaxed, but definitely not ramping up to panic--giving them a manageable experience of alone time.

Unlike with most of my other clients, I work remotely, teaching via Zoom and then sharing training plans that I design for people to practice on their own. A typical session includes several warmup steps of very short absences (5-60 seconds) and then one longer absence (the target duration). While you carry out the day's plan, you watch your dog via a camera to ensure that she remains under threshold. If she struggles, you return. Between each step you take a break (30-60 seconds) to allow your dog to settle or reset. Even if your dog is acing her alone time, you'll still adhere to the plan because if you work past the time, you risk pushing your dog too far too soon and undoing the positive impact of the session.

For some dogs even seeing their humans put on a jacket, pick up keys, or grab a bag can send them over threshold, so we don’t include those steps in our initial training. Instead, the person simply goes out and comes back. Once the dog can easily handle at least fifteen minutes alone, we start adding the leaving cues back in to the training. And for dogs who struggle when their person even approaches the door, we take time to desensitize them to it before we begin any absence training, breaking that process into small steps that gradually bring the human toward the door and then outside.

To ensure that your dog benefits from the training, separation anxiety trainers ask clients to suspend absences aside from their training sessions. For many people that presents a big challenge, but trainers can help create management plans. For example, dogs who are fine as long as someone is home can do well with a pet sitter or a neighbor. For dogs who love other dogs, daycare might be an option. This aspect of the training can be even more difficult if your dog only feels safe with his specific person. If you can take your dog everywhere, this isn’t such a problem, but trainers can also help you find the next best alternative.

While separation anxiety training can feel overwhelming, it can go a long way toward helping your dog feel safe when you are out.

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