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Separation Anxiety: Simple, Effective Positive Conditioning for Short Departures

separation anxiety

Simple Conditioning for Short Departures

When dealing with separation anxiety in dogs at a mild to moderate level, one part of the full treatment plan is conditioning the dog in a positive manner for short planned departures. This article will provide a very simple plan for how to work on this with your dog.

Please look through our Separation Anxiety Article for the full discussion and resource listing to assist with your dog, especially if they are more in the moderate to severe category. That article provides general information on separation anxiety, medication, resources to find a behaviorist, resources to find certified separation anxiety trainers, as well as books and online self guided programs. If you need more detailed help, then check out that article!

How to conduct departures for separation anxiety in dogs

Some separation anxiety treatment plans introduce detailed protocols to try and decouple departure cues. I personally am not fond of those because in my experience it is devilishly difficult to actually succeed in accomplishing that. Anxious dogs tend to be extremely good at observing your routines and body language.

It never hurts to try and foil the dog by changing up your long term departure cues – but I bet you cannot fool them as easily as you might think. If you miss one tiny detail in your usual ‘leaving for the day’ routine – you can almost bet that they will NOT miss that one tiny detail. Thus they will not act or react as they normally would and all that grand effort to work on decoupling can go right down the tubes.

For that reason, regarding changing departure cues, I prefer to keep it short and sweet. My preference, in short is, to stop the high energy extravaganza of leaving AND returning. Do NOT make a big deal about leaving the house for any reason, and likewise, do not make a big deal about returning for dogs dealing with separation anxiety.

Keep leaving and returning extremely low key with an anxious dog. Super nonchalant. Provide their cue and/or a lick treat to get their attention and leave without a great deal of fanfare. And when you return, do not make a huge happy joyful party of it either. Just come in, go about your business for 20-30 minutes or as long as needed for the dog to settle down. Only then should you sit down and greet them. Keep both parts of leaving and returning very ‘no big deal’.

Understanding a simple positive conditioning plan

It is a bit easier to try and positively condition the dog with separation anxiety to understand and accept short planned departures and returns. There are various protocols for this, and this one below is very simple, which only tends to be useful for mild to moderate cases.

The idea is to give them a clear cue and a physical event (certain treat appearing) that they learn to associate with a brief absence and return. Why? Consider that many dogs with extreme separation anxiety will not tear up a car when left in it for a few minutes (of course there are exceptions). But they learn early on that <alone in the car> is always short and sweet. They have learned by repeated short trips, that being in the car will be a short absence. It is a very clear cue that they learned quite easily on their own.

Often dogs that suffer from separation anxiety have already taught themselves that when you do a certain series of events that you will definitely return at around X time in the day. And so they stay calm and non anxious when they see that certain series of events – it is their cue. For example, when you <get up, shower, make coffee, pour coffee in a travel mug, and get your car keys from your purse> then they have learned that this means you will be gone and return about 6 pm that day.

Routine changes, moves, etc. can disrupt their established self taught cues and result in the manifestation of separation anxiety. Sometimes they just have no cues if you have been home all the time and suddenly start going back to work. They have no frame of reference learned for that yet. You can help by teaching them a new cue that you can easily use as needed to remind them that you will definitely be back!

So your goal is to slowly make the same sort of positively conditioned cue for when you leave and come back. If you can get them up to 3-4 hours of ‘safe’ alone time, then it can be easier to get a dog sitter or friend to come in and help break up longer required absences. This will help keep the conditioning progressing forward for dogs with separation anxiety.  

Training a Short Departure Cue for Separation Anxiety

1. Identify their safe place

Some separation anxiety dogs do better in a smaller open area than in a crate because their anxiety is worsened by barrier frustration. Understand that there is nothing humane about confining a terrified dg that is freaking out from a full on panic attack in a massive iron crate that is indestructible. You may have solved a house damage problem that way, but you are doing nothing to stop the dog’s terror and mental distress with that alone!

You will need to figure out what works best as a safe place for them which they also react to well as a safe area. Some can be crated, some are better in a room, or confined in an exercise pen or baby play pen that is open on top. Some will not tolerate a close door, but will cooperate in a room with a sturdy wall mounted pet gate. You have to experiment and figure that out for your individual pet. 

Hopefully they have learned to perhaps tolerate a crate well when you are present for short period. If so then that is a great way to start – with them in that crate while you are home and present, and they can be confined for only as long as they stay calm about it.

2. Identify their safe time frame

Identify if your dog has some period of time that they will tolerate being alone with an awesome treat (or not) in the safe area. The time frame that they can consistently stay in their crate (or room) without distress in your absence will be their starting ‘safe’ time. It may be very short initially. You may have to start with a calm safe period in the crate while you are present and work from there.

3. Identify their favorite most awesome treat

Next you figure out a super amazing treat that they absolutely adore.  Something amazing like a peanut butter filled Kong or a frozen peanut butter lick mat, or a bully stick with the end shoved safely in a Kong. Experiment and figure it out!

4. Train a short departure cue for separation anxiety management

Once you have a pretty good idea of what the ‘safe time’ in their mind already is, then you can try introducing a cue each time you leave for planned short conditioning events ONLY. A planned short conditioning events means where your sole purpose is to watch and listen closely and return before the dog gets overly anxious or freaks out. You can do this several short times in one day or numerous times over the week as you have time.

For your cue, choose a word or phrase that will be the same every time, and that will only be used when you KNOW you will NOT exceed their ‘safe calm’ time frame away. Initially, I prefer a phrase paired with a specific long term treat that will only come out when there will be a short planned conditioning event.

So for example, in a happy attention getting voice say, “Be back soon!” and you give your dog the <chosen awesome treat>. NEVER give the <chosen awesome treat> if you are not sure when you will return. Only use this cue and treat when you are planning a careful short departure conditioning event.  And initially you only leave for the defined ‘safe’ time.

Once you have established the cue and positively conditioned it for the safe place and the safe time frame then you can start trying to increase the safe time they are left alone. The most ideal plan is to get a indoor security camera so you can watch from someplace close outside. The goal is to return before they get anxious! And you only increase the ‘safe time’ span by small amounts slowly over time, preferably never allowing them to reach any truly anxious level.

Over time, if you are careful not to go ‘away’ for too long, too fast and let the panic attack get going, then your dog will learn to understand that when <chosen cue and treat> happens, you are leaving BUT you WILL be back shortly. This conditioning and the cue will help establish in their mind that this particular departure cue means you will be back in short period of time – but you will definitely be back.

Some dogs will chill out to the point you can use the verbal cue and any super duper time occupying treat, but some get very focused on the specific treat initially chosen as part of the cue. Some will progress to not needing the defined cue at all. You will have to see how it goes for your individual dog.

Again, this is a very simple protocol best for early mild to moderate cases of separation anxiety in dogs. More severe cases tend to need more detailed plans and professional assistance. You can always seek out a separation anxiety certified trainer to assist you!

If you can get them up to 3-4 hours during which they will be calm and quiet, then it should be easier to work them toward longer time frames as needed. Plus with that, you can often arrange to come home or have a friend or sitter come in and break up their alone time to help with their progression.