Can You Train a Dog Out of Separation Anxiety?
Desensitization is a dog training process based on gradually exposing the anxious dog to the source of its panic attacks. The source of fear can be anything, including rehoming, loud noises, your departure, or the absence of a family member.
On the other hand, counterconditioning involves changing the dog’s response to the anxiety-causing stimulus. The anxiety-causing stimulus can be the same as the source of fear.
Both techniques are very effective and vital for dog separation anxiety training. They relieve separation anxiety in dogs and can be used either together or separately.
How do I Desensitize My Dog to Be Left Alone?
Desensitization is a lengthy training process that requires patience. Here is a closer look at the steps and techniques to desensitize your dog.
Determine Your Dog’s Threshold. The first step of desensitization is determining your dog’s threshold, or what you would call a tipping point. It is at this point that a dog shows signs of separation anxiety, such as drooling, urination, fast breathing, defecating, and destructive behavior.
This step is essential because some dogs have very low thresholds. One dog may be triggered by you simply leaving a room, while another may react only after hearing your engine turn on. By identifying your dog’s threshold, you are able to avoid exposing her to a very strong stimulus that she may not handle very well.
Desensitize With Your Dog Slowly. After determining your dog’s threshold, slowly start the desensitization process. For example, if picking up your keys is your dog’s trigger, pick up the keys three times a day with no intention of going anywhere.
The goal is to get your dog to disassociate the action from a painful experience. If your dog no longer minds you picking up the keys, move on to desensitizing her to a stronger stimulus like putting on your coat and shoes.
Remember to keep it light and never go beyond what your dog can currently handle.
Gradually Increase Your Dog’s Threshold. Keep increasing your dog’s threshold slowly until she is no longer startled by the former triggers. In the later stages, for example, you can open the door but not leave the house.
As the dog separation anxiety training progresses, you can leave for a couple of minutes to an hour. If your dog is still not handling your departure well, you can leave behind some clues that you will be back soon.
For example, you can turn the TV or radio on every time you take out the trash to signal that you will be gone only a short while.
Use Positive Reinforcement in Your Training. Positive reinforcement is a training technique that works by using rewards to encourage good behavior. All you have to do is give your dog something she enjoys whenever she behaves correctly.
For example, you can give your dog a peanut butter treat when she stays calm while you are leaving the house. Over time, your dog’s behavior will improve in hopes of getting the treat from you.
How does Counterconditioning Help Dog Separation Anxiety?
Counterconditioning is part of dog separation anxiety training because it helps change the way your dog reacts when you leave.
You can practice counterconditioning by giving your dog a treat or favorite toy whenever you are about to walk out the door. Simply prepare yourself for your journey, and right before you leave, offer your dog a treat or favorite toy.
After repeating this, your dog will start to associate your departure cues with a positive experience (the treat/toy). That way, your dog will not show symptoms of separation anxiety and may even grow to enjoy her alone time.
Counterconditioning is an effective behavior modification remedy for anxious dogs. However, it may not work for dogs with severe separation anxiety. Severe cases should be managed in collaboration with a certified professional dog trainer (CPDT), veterinary behaviorist, or even a certified separation anxiety trainer.
In some cases, anti-anxiety medications are needed to help treat separation anxiety. This is something you may need to talk to your veterinarian about if your dog’s separation anxiety is severe. Keep in mind that these meds are not a permanent solution and should be used only until the dog separation anxiety training starts to work.
What do You do With Your Dog When You Leave it Home Alone?
When leaving your dog home alone, try to make her as comfortable and happy as possible. If you are wondering how to treat separation anxiety in dogs, here are some of the ways you can do that:
- Provide Lots of Toys. As you prepare to leave, put out some play items like interactive toys or puzzle toys to keep your dog busy and prevent anxious behaviors. Kong toys are popular among pet owners who are trying to fix behavior issues in their dogs.
- Dog Walker/Dog Sitter. A dog sitter will provide some companionship to your dog and prevent your dog from feeling lonely. A dog walker will take your dog out for walks and, if walking other dogs, contribute to your dog’s socialization.
- Doggy Daycare. Depending on the daycare, your dog can get companionship from other pets and humans and also learn some skills. Some daycares even offer training sessions for canine behavior problems like separation anxiety.
- Leave the TV/Radio On. Leaving the TV or radio on can help distract your dog, especially if you put something on that she enjoys. Sometimes, the program does not even matter, as hearing noises is enough to calm the dog.
- Get Another Pet. If possible, get another pet with whom your dog can spend time when you aren’t around. This way, it won’t be such a big deal when you leave since your dog has company she enjoys.
- Offer Crate Time. If your dog loves her crate, use it when you are gone to soothe her anxiety. The dog crate can be a good source of comfort for your dog, especially during stressful times. However, before doing this, spend time in proper crate training.
- Short Alone Times. While these tips can help your dog with separation anxiety, it is best to avoid leaving your dog alone for long periods, at least at first. This will build your dog’s confidence and prevent anxiety and unwanted behaviors in the long run.
Should I Crate My Dog Who Has Separation Anxiety?
Yes, you can crate your dog with separation anxiety. However, this can be done only if the dog likes the crate and does not see it as a method of punishment.
If your dog loves her crate, simply open the door and let her enter the crate on its own. On the other hand, if your dog dislikes the crate, do not force things. Use desensitization to help your dog get used to the crate before using the crate as part of the dog separation anxiety training.
To do this, you can start by opening the crate and letting your dog go in and out during the day. You can then progress to leaving your dog in the crate for short periods of time. Then, increase the amount of time slowly until she tolerates it.
Other training techniques like positive reinforcement and counterconditioning can also be helpful during crate training.