We Separation Anxiety Specialists (and probably many others of different professions to be fair) have a well known saying when we talk about Separation Anxiety training: ‘Slow and steady wins the race’.
What we mean by this, is that rushing things won’t result in any kind of resolution for your dog’s Separation Related Problems. However, the gold standard of systematic desensitisation and some other clever behavioural modification will be your key ingredients to helping manage your dog’s isolation distress and reduce or prevent Separation Anxiety in as little as two weeks.
First, Cover the Basics.
Here’s something useful to know: Many dogs who struggle with being left alone are not having their basic needs met. These needs could be some of the following:
Appropriate amount of physical exercise: Just like with humans, exercise is a great stress reliever and can really help a busy dog (and mind) to switch off. Going on sniffy walks and letting your dog explore places rather than compulsive fetch sessions will give you the best results to tire them out. Why don’t we like compulsive fetch sessions? Compulsive fetch sessions can cause a huge spike in adrenaline and your dog will find it hard to relax after and during their walk.
Mental stimulation: Using enrichment devices, puzzle toys and positive reinforcement training will activate the SEEKING part of your dog’s brain. This will be a great help with problem solving which in turn helps them with their overall coping skills.
PRO TIP: If you want to learn more about a dog’s emotional systems, Jaak Panksepp has a brilliant TedX talk.
Species-Appropriate Nutrition: Poor nutrition can have a large impact on behaviour – no matter if you’re a dog, horse or human. Make sure your puppy is eating nutritionally complete food right for their age and size to keep them the calmest and happiest they can be. If you have questions about what your puppy should eat, take a look at our article.
Low key arrivals and departures: We know you must be over the moon every time you see your puppy, and sad every time you need to leave them. It’s alright for you to express your feelings to them, but just make sure you don’t overdo it, especially when on your way out. It can over excite them and lead to anticipation of your return…finding themselves alone after that must feel pretty sad, don’t you think? Makes sense to downplay the departure right?
Lights, Camera, Action
Recognising what’s going on with your puppy when you actually leave is very important.
Are they in a crate? Are they free in the house?
If we don’t know how and when they react when we’re gone, it will be tricky to begin working on Separation Anxiety training, so it’s key that we understand what their threshold is. By threshold, we mean how soon they showed signs of panic or anxiety in anticipation or after you leave the house.
PRO TIP: Knowing this kind of information can also help us work out if your dog has Separation Anxiety or if them ripping through the bin and racing around the house is actually a sign of boredom. Maybe they’re just having a party when you’re gone, when the fun police aren’t around!
How to prepare
- Make sure your puppy has had an appropriate amount of exercise. A tired dog is often a happy dog, especially because they’ve had a chance to go to the toilet.
- Don’t leave them hangry! You know how terrible this feeling is. Low blood sugar makes everyone irritable, so make sure they have happy full tummies!
- Cameras are going to be of great help here. There are a whole bunch of them available on the market for monitoring your puppy when you leave them for all different budgets and needs. These ones by Wyze are wallet friendly and work well.
How to do it
- Set your cameras up – the more cameras the better. We want to see our puppies from every angle and height, not just their best sides.
- Make sure you can view the cameras on your phone, so you can watch your puppy live as you leave. You’ll get bonus points if you can record it and watch it again later in slow-mo… dog body language is very subtle and slowing it down will allow you to spot everything in detail.
- Note down what they do when you leave. What did they react to? Was it your coat? The door closing? The deadlock?
- Leave for a minute or two and start the timer from when the door closes to observe your puppy’s body language.
Symptoms of separation anxiety in dogs
Here are classic symptoms of separation anxiety in dogs you want to look out for:
- Lip licking
- Increase in blinking
- Pacing and restlessness
- Weeing or poo-ing by a previously house trained dog
Help them love their confinement area
We understand your wishes to confine your puppy somewhere safe when you leave the house. After all, chewed furniture and puddles are no fun to come back to.
However, it’s simply the truth that some dogs hate it! In fact, rather than thinking of their crate as a safe, cozy den, they actually become more anxious when they are inside it than when they’re free in the house. You may also hear this called Confinement Anxiety, Containment Phobia or Barrier Frustration.
Some will do better with a crate though. Personally, my preferred set-up for a puppy is a crate with a playpen attached or placed inside a baby-gated confinement area. But if you reckon that it’s safe to have them free in the house, there’s no reason why you shouldn’t.
To help your puppy enjoy being in their playpen, crate or any other baby-gated confinement space, make sure to do the following to create positive associations to the area:
- Play games in the area
- Give them puppy safe bones and chews
- Feed them their meals in the area
We have a (fantastic, if we may say so) full guide on teaching your puppy to love their crate.
While many puppy books might say things like ‘keep leaving them alone for 5 minutes per day’ the truth is if your puppy can’t be left for even 30 seconds, then starting off like this will really not help. Apologies. What actually happens when you leave them longer than they’re ready for (even if the book you’re reading says to keep trying….) is that they become even more sensitive to you leaving; making the training go backwards not forwards.
PRO TIP: Go back to Lights, Camera, Action and work out their threshold. If you’re not even getting closer to the front door, then that’s our starting point.
Start Out Easy
Make sure your puppy has had their needs met. Before you do this exercise, they’ll need some exercise and to have gone to the toilet.
- Have your puppy in their crate or confinement area
- Give them a stuffed Kong or puzzle toy, and sit nearby so that they can still see you but you’re not in the area (pretend to read a book or do some work).
- Do this for a couple of times a day for the next few days.
- Let them finish their puzzle toy, and see if they settle and snooze after it’s finished. Did they? Yay!
- Once you’ve done this for several days, increase the distance between you every day or two.
PRO TIP: When you’re doing this exercise, your puppy should be happy and settled. with this setup. If they’re upset in their confinement area, you’ll want to go back to helping them love their space.
Ignore the Door: Teaching Door Desensitisation
The door. One of the biggest hurdles for dogs with Separation Anxiety is owners leaving via the front door. To them, the front door is a portal that swallows you whole to another dimension which you may never come back from. To help them stop looking at the door as such a terrible thing, we need to go through a process called Desensitisation.
DID YOU KNOW: Desensitisation is the gold standard in Separation Anxiety training that works by gradually exposing your dog to the trigger of you leaving.
This is a great game for dogs who lose it if you go so much as near the front door (remember – you going to that door can be a predictor of you leaving, which leads them to stress). It can also be a great tool to understand the exact point at which your puppy is struggling.
Part 1: Going Towards The Door
In this first part, your goal will be to get close to that door without your dog reacting. They might be interested at first, but with repeated reps we want them to think something along the lines of ‘oh you’re doing that silly thing again, I’ll just chill over here,’ because we don’t want them to panic or feel stressed.
You’re not going to have any keys or shoes or coats, or anything like that involved just yet, it’s just about the door.
PRO TIP: When carrying out this exercise what we’re looking for is a dog who simply ignores the door – any anxiety or worry? Move back down a step and make it easier – you will get there in the end. Slow and steady remember?
How to prepare
Of course, make sure your puppy’s been toileted, fed and exercised before trying this. If they haven’t, that’s enough to make any puppy want to come with you.
It’s quite a straightforward exercise; you’ll notice by the repetitiveness of it. We’re sure you can figure out a way to make it fun.
How to do it
- Walk toward the front door, but stop 2 metres short.
- Repeat 3 – 5 times having a break of 60-90 seconds in between.
- What did your dog do? Any signs of anxiety? If they seem fine and are ignoring the door, you can move to the next step.
- Walk towards the front door, but stop 1 metre short.
- Repeat 3 – 5 times having that break in between reps
- Still no stress or fussing? Brilliant, you can move on. Looking worried, anxious, or hyper vigilant? Better take a break, and go back to step 1 later in the day.
- Walk to the front door and touch the front door
- Repeat as above
- Walk to the front door and touch the door handle
- Repeat as above
- Walk to the front door and pretend to open the door
- Repeat as above
- Walk to the front door and open the door an inch. Then close it back.
- Repeat as above
- Walk to the front door and pretend to step outside. Getting closer and closer to the real deal here.
- Repeat as above
Walk to the front door and step outside and close the door (don’t forget to grab your keys if your door locks automatically!)
PRO TIP: We know it might be tempting to get this exercise done pretty much on the same day, but we don’t recommend doing all the steps in this game on the same day. Spread it out over several days, a week or two is fine, we need to make sure we build their confidence. If your dog struggles with a step, that’s no trouble, just go back to the previous step and take a few more days working on that easy step.
Just so you know, you’ll need to keep repeating the exercise until your dog is truly bored of the door.
Ignore the Door – Part 2
If you can get to your door without your puppy showing signs of stress or anxiety, well done! If so then you can work on this part straight away. Make sure to split it up and take breaks so that it’s not all done on the same day.
PRO TIP: Desensitisation takes time and can’t be rushed. You may need to work well below your puppy’s threshold so they’re not feeling stressed about you being around the door. Patience is key for this one too! We’re sure you’ve got it.
- Stand by the front door and touch it.
- Repeat 5 times and then have a break of 60-90 seconds.
- Did your dog show any signs of anxiety? Do they look bored? This is a good sign by the way, if they find what you’re doing dull. If all went well, then we’re ready to go to the next step.
- Stand by the front door, press the door handle and pretend to open the door.
- All good? Great. Take a break and come back and repeat later in the day.
- Open front door an inch then close
- Repeat as above
- Open front door and step outside (don’t let door close), step back inside
- Repeat as above
- Open the front door and step outside (close door behind you) and then step back inside.
- Repeat as above.
Open the front door and step outside. This time, close the door behind you and count 1 second before opening; then you can go step back inside.
PRO TIP: Go over this exercise for a couple of weeks to ensure they’re able to ignore the door before you start increasing the time you step outside for.
Building up the time outside
Once you have worked through the Ignore The Door phase, you can give yourself a pat on the back. Now it’s time to start building the time that you leave your puppy alone for.
If they can manage to stay feeling okay for one second with you outside, try a few steps at once with breaks in between of at least 30 seconds and up to 3 minutes. If everything is going smoothly, try increasing the time you’re gone and mixing more steps in.
PRO TIP: A sample training session might look like something like this but will vary for every puppy and dog. But notice that we don’t just keep making it more difficult. Instead, we toggle between easy and slightly harder levels although the training session does end up getting harder the further we go.
|Step||What did my puppy do when I left them?|
|Walk to front door – return||Sleeping in crate – no reaction|
|Walk to front door – open door an inch – return||Sleeping in crate – no reaction|
|Walk to front door – return||Sleeping in crate – no reaction|
|Walk to front door – open door and step outside – don’t let door close – return||Opened eyes at hearing door|
|Walk to front door – open door an inch – return||Remained lying down – eyes open|
|Walk to front door – open door and step outside – close door and count 2 seconds – return||Sat up and looked towards door|
|Walk to front door – open door an inch – return||Laying down in bed – eyes open – relaxed face|
|Walk to front door – open door and step outside – close door and count 10 seconds – return||Sat up at 7 seconds – showed some whale eye and yawned. (Your puppy is probably feeling stressed)|
PRO TIP: Make sure you take breaks between every step and watch them on camera throughout to be able to spot any signs of distress. Feeling like a spy yet?
Sound Masking – how it helps with Separation Anxiety
Noise sensitivity can go hand in hand with Separation Anxiety in dogs – they’re like annoying siblings. However, there is evidence that some sounds are quite relaxing to dogs and can help in alleviating their anxiety, whilst also masking the noises that they are reacting to outside. The general fancy term of this is ‘Sound Masking’, and it’s something that can genuinely help some dogs who really struggle with outside noises.
Studies have shown how slow and relaxing classical music or audio books can reduce stress far more than heavy metal (sorry to any headbanging Guns and Roses fans) in dogs (and probably in people too). It also showed that dogs have a preference for variety in their music taste, rather than being played the same music over and over on a loop. Who knew?!
Stuff you can use for sound masking:
- Radio stations like Radio 4 or Classic FM are rather good, or you could go for hours long Youtube playlists specifically made for dog relaxation – just don’t play the same thing all the time – no one needs an earworm!
- Noise machines are wonderful things to help mask outside noises. They can usually play a variety of ‘colours’ of noise to suit the dog such as:
- White Noise: Has equal frequencies across the range
- Pink Noise: Works on lower frequencies and often sounds like steady rainfall or wind.
- Brown Noise: Even lower frequency range than pink noise, and sounds rougher, like a river roaring or a strong wind (anecdotally, dogs tend to like this one the best, but see what works for your dog)
They all sound like good options, don’t they?
Widening your dog’s social circle
For you and your dog to be successful at Separation Anxiety training, you’ll need to find a way to cut down the time they’re by themselves, so that they are not left longer than they can cope with.
We recommend finding someone to look after your puppy when you need to go out, or workable solutions to not leaving your dog home alone. These people might be:
- A licensed and insured dog walker.
- A doggy day care.
- A neighbour, friend or family member.
- Someone in your community – Local facebook groups or sites such as www.nextdoor.com for someone in your area work rather well.
- Going to dog friendly restaurants and cafes.
- Dog share – Sharing the dog care load with another owner who can reciprocate.
PRO TIP: While any old human will do for most dogs, do screen who looks after your dog. Ask them lots of questions, get a sense of their experience, levels of patience and approach to animals.
As my mentor and esteemed Separation Anxiety Expert Malena de Martini says: ‘It takes a village, and the more we can shed light on the need, the greater the village can become.’
When to consult a professional
While many puppies cope just fine with a DIY approach to Separation Anxiety Training, some often need extra support from a qualified professional. It’s no trouble though!
Separation Anxiety can be a quite daunting issue for all parties; for dogs who panic when they’re alone, and for their owners who often feel trapped at having to always be with their dogs. But there are always solutions to look forward to like the services of a Certified Separation Anxiety Trainer or a CAPBT behaviourist specialising in Separation Anxiety – otherwise known as heroes with no capes.
They will provide you with a complete hand holding experience and support you and your dog on the road to recovery. Happy days lie ahead!
Books about Separation Anxiety and coping with Separation Related Problems in dogs
There are many books with lots of supportive advice on Separation Relation Problems too. Here are my three favourites:
These are all very easy to read with clear instructions you won’t have any trouble following. Of course, you can expect great advice and tips on preventing Separation Anxiety. And yes, they are all incredible professionals which I trust with all my heart. Did I sell them right? I like to think so.
Please note there are no recipes for Separation Anxiety Training. Sorry to burst your bubble. Every dog is an individual with different needs and concerns, so being patient and loving are the most important things you’ll have to start off with! If you’re in any doubt then we advise seeking help with a professional Separation Anxiety Trainer.
Separation Anxiety in Dogs FAQs
What is Separation Anxiety?
Separation Anxiety is a panic condition where a dog struggles to be left on their own without human company. It also means over attachment to one specific person where only that person will do – dogs will panic when not with ‘their’ person and cannot be consoled by another human. In my experience this is quite rare, but it can still happen! But in general, Separation Related Distress is more common and is where the dog needs a person around but generally any person will do.
How do I know if my puppy has problems with Separation Anxiety?
Your puppy may show any or all of the following signs if they are struggling with being left alone:
Refusing to eat
Excessive barking or woofing
Pacing or restlessness
Urinating or defecating when they were previously toilet trained
Destroying things such as carpets or walls
Keep your eyes open for them!
How to stop Separation Anxiety after the Corona Pandemic?
To reduce Separation Anxiety in your Pandemic Puppy or newly adopted Corona Canine (how creative have people gotten with these terms?) follow these steps:
Get into a routine: Dogs thrive on knowing what comes next and on you being dependable, so this should be a good base for anything you do.
Practice frequent separations: You may not be going back into the office just yet, but it’s always a good idea to prepare them for when the day finally comes. Again, don’t want to jinx it.
Increase mental and physical exercise: Do sniffy walks and Obedience/Life Skills training outside to tire them out. This will stimulate their seeking, calming their systems of panic, fear and rage. I’m sure this works for humans too – Neuroscientist Jaak Panksepp talks all about these systems here.
Keep greeting and departures low key: We know you’d love a dramatic welcome and goodbye, but it’s better not to over excite your dog on leaving or returning as this can lead to anxiety or anticipation.
Provide lots of opportunity for breed specific behaviours and enrichment: Chewing, digging, sniffing and puzzle toys (you know, all the things that dogs love to do) will all help with your dogs emotional well being.
See a professional: Someone like yours truly who is a Certified Separation Anxiety Trainer, or another of my fellow CAPBT behaviourists specialised in Separation Anxiety will be great. Not bragging by the way. You can find a long list of great behaviourists here.
How to reward a puppy for not howling/being calm when I left the house?
Hmm. Did you know that rewarding when you return can actually lead to more anxiety not less? Perhaps this is the only case where treats aren’t the way to go in puppy training. Shocker.
Rewarding when you return can lead your dog or puppy to feel more excited at your return, which can then lead to an anticipatory feeling, which can make your dog feel more over aroused or anxious. It all comes to a vicious cycle of not such good things.
PRO TIP: If you want to practice out of stays as an obedience exercise, that’s great, but keep in mind that it doesn’t really treat the underlying emotion of your dog panicking when you leave – instead, their brain is switched on to Operant Learning rather than just relaxing.
Want to learn more or worried about your puppy’s Separation Anxiety? Check out the ZigZag app – we have lots of exercises on helping your puppy cope with being home alone and we also have a team of ZigZag puppy experts on hand to talk you through your struggles – 7 days a week!