Actionable 18 Steps to Treating Separation Anxiety
Treatment Protocol: Phase Four
The owners have now built up to a 30-minute out-of-view absence while remaining in the house, which in most cases represents significant progress. They have incorporated many openings and coming and going in and out of the front door along with very brief absences outside with the door open. The dog is able to go his bed on cue and to do a relax/stay for a duration of at least 30 seconds to one minute, two cues the owners have ideally been using every day as a part of their not-following routine. It’s time to move on to exiting the front door in earnest and building up some duration outside. In addition you will add in some important cues to the absence so that the dog can desensitize to the real sounds of being left alone.
Goals for Phase Four:
Building up to longer absences. In this phase, you will set succinct criteria as you do exercises in which you build up duration during absences outside of the house (now with the front door closed) to 30 minutes. In addition, you will add in some important cues relating to out-of-the-house absences as well.
Solidifying the dog’s independence in the home. Many owners slacken their commitment to the not-following routine during this stage—and you need to make sure that doesn’t happen. If the routine has been consistently carried out, the owners should now begin to see their dog regularly choosing not to follow them.
Making the most of technology. You will be relying heavily on web-based technology from this phase forward.
Tasks for Phase Four:
Increasing time out the front door.
Introducing out-of-the house absences with door closed.
Recommitting to the not-following routine.
Building duration of out-of-the-house absences and adding in cues.
Using technology to set criteria more effectively.
In most cases, this phase and beyond is where you will spend the bulk of your time. This is probably not surprising to you, as building up duration in actual out-of-the-house absences is key to any separation anxiety program.
Increasing time out of the house
Even though the first several absences out the front door will be brief, some dogs may still display anxiety. Tell the owners not to be too concerned or think all the progress they have made is lost if the dog gets a little upset when they walk out and close the door the first time. This is a big change, and many dogs express their discomfort at first. It may take many repeated absences to desensitize the dog to the owners being outside the front door, so coach them through the process. Encourage them to be patient and help them understand.
Here many trainers err on the side of too much caution where threshold is concerned. True, a dog should never be pushed to the point of having a full-blown panic attack, but if you have followed all the previous steps properly and the dog is a bit uncomfortable here, don’t stop, and don’t return to a much earlier step. The difference between the owners being on the inside of the front door and the owners being on the outside of the front door is a big mental adjustment for the dog, but persevere.
First, tell the owners to step outside and step immediately back inside several times without entirely closing/latching the door behind them as a warm up, similar to the exercises in Phase Three. Once the dog is completely comfortable with that maneuver, have them step outside, latch the door behind them, and then step back inside. Again, keep having the owners repeat this step; many dogs take several days with this before they are comfortable.
If excessive greeting behavior occurs and the dog can’t calm down after a minute, the absence was likely too long and the criteria needs to be modified.
Recommitting to the not-following routine
Just because the owners need to spend a lot of time practicing absences here doesn’t mean their relax/stay and go to mat exercises should be forgotten. Hopefully, those are old hat by now. Remind the owners to use relax/stay and go to mat on a routine basis as part of the not-following protocol. The more the dog is encouraged not to follow the owners in their daily activities and the more often he is asked to relax/stay, the more quickly he will progress in his treatment.
If the owners have been carefully following the relax/stay routine, all the repetitions and the reinforcement should be paying off by now. The dog should be loving the game and begin to stay willingly. The following of the owners from room to room should have diminished considerably and the dog should be happy hanging out on his mat.
Introducing out-of-the-house absences with door closed
You have now reached one of the most critical stages of the treatment protocol, the point at which the stage has been set to introduce of outof-the house absences with the door closed. Being able to leave their dog at home alone successfully for significant amounts of time is why the owners hired you in the first place. There are a number of techniques and strategies that can be employed to help achieve this, including:
Building duration in small increments, not rushing the process.
Understanding food consumption patterns while alone.
Determining the best cues to use when leaving.
The role of dog walking and day training.
Anticipating common stumbling blocks.
Building duration in small increments
The only way to get the dog comfortable with the front door being closed with the owners outside is to build duration in small increments. Your chief job as the trainer right now is setting these time increments, because few owners opt to keep the pace of the program slow. Faced with a sliver of progress, most owners push forward to the next level right away. It’s your job to help them watch and understand all the body cues so they don’t skip ahead too quickly.
Keep in mind during Phase Three the owners were shown here to desensitize the dog to calmly accept 30 minutes of out-of-view absences. The work you need to do now is really no different. Essentially, this is an out-of-view absence, with the owners now on the other side of the front door. You are just asking them to do more of the same thing, albeit in some cases moving along a bit more gradually. If the dog is not progressing, mix in a few out-of-view absences with the front-door exercises from Phase Three and even the in-view confinement area absences from Phase Two as well. If you are using the Treat & Train, have the owners dispense most heavily when the front door is being opened and when on the outside of the front door.
A time will come when jumping large time increments is possible, even advisable, but that’s not now. If you think it will help, let the owners know that once the dog can be happily alone between 30 and 40 minutes, you will sanction moving forward in chunks of five to ten minutes. Until then, you hold the reins.
You will find a detailed sample plan for this stage in Appendix 3, but how you end up setting the criteria for the length of time you leave the dog alone greatly depends on the dog. Some dogs need to crawl forward at intervals of a few moments, testing the owners’ commitment to the limit and requiring your very best cheerleading efforts. Other dogs are able to move forward in intervals of whole minutes provided you maintain a variable schedule. For example, gone for one minute, gone for three minutes, gone for twenty seconds, gone for five minutes, then opening and closing the door without exiting, etc.
As you no doubt already know, every dog is unique, which is why criteria setting is so crucial. What will determine your success more than anything is your ability to read body language, explain the necessity for trial and error for the owners, be supportive and compassionate and have the best cheerleading routine in town.
Remember that the most important thing you are doing with these dogs is teaching them to be relaxed when left alone, not just to have them eat when left alone. Some dogs won’t eat during absences ever, and this is fine. When practicing your absence routine, you want to determine if using the game of Find It with food bits, interactive feeding toys, or Kongs and bully sticks will be useful or not. With many dogs, just having them settled in their confinement area with no additional game or activity is ideal, and you can proceed with the exercises. Choose the activity (or lack thereof) that promotes the most relaxation for the dog. And make certain that when the owners are doing their exercises, they practice for a sufficient amount of time once the food has run out if they are using food. The only exception to that rule is for owners using a Treat & Train. This tool is useful for dogs who react badly when their food runs out. You can wean such dogs off the Treat & Train later when they are more stable about being left alone, but not in the early stages.
Assessing and incorporating departure cues
As the layout of every home is different, you need to determine what types of departure cues (sounds or actions that the dog thinks lead to the owner leaving) should be used to desensitize the dog. For example, if the owners live in an apartment building with a main front door, you have to incorporate that as part of the departure routine once you have built enough duration. If the owners live in a house with a garage—and leaving means pulling out their car—you need to work that in. Simply put, what you will be doing here is adding in these cues at the time that they naturally fall into the routine and making sure to spend extra time there if the dog is particularly sensitive to their use. Some trainers place more emphasis on these departure cues than I do. I find spending tons of time just opening and closing the garage door without an actual departure to be cumbersome and often confusing to the dog. I feel it should be incorporated into the routine at the time in which it would fall naturally, and then repeated to a point that the dog is comfortable.
The same goes for desensitizing the dog to most other departure cues and the entire departure routine. Instead of devoting time to each and every departure cue in the owners’ getting-ready-to-leave routine, owners should use their time to build up duration absences. The more obscure absence cues (i.e., putting on makeup or fixing a lunch for the day) can be added in after some duration has been accomplished. Do take note of the significant cues the dog pays particular attention to and incorporate those into your absence. But the absences need to be realistic—no need to rehearse wearing bunny slippers—unless you wear them all the time!
The one cue so potent it shouldn’t be ignored is carrying keys (and locking the door if that is part of the package). Most dogs use this particular cue to discriminate between real and rehearsed absences, so tell the owners to incorporate carrying their keys from the get-go. Around the time the owners are able to close the door and stand outside for ten seconds, incorporate locking the door as part of the routine. For most dogs, you can add in other departure cues down the line a bit when the dog is comfortable with absences. For example, once the dog is comfortable being left alone for ten minutes, the owners can integrate other departure cues such as bringing a purse or briefcase. When you do this, always shorten the duration of the absences a bit, but generally these cues can be easily integrated with repetition.
Note that the exception to this routine inclusion of pre-departure cues is the dog who is strongly attached to specific pre-departure cues. Typically, these are dogs who have been left alone quite often. I have seen dogs who are fine with brief departures as long as the owner wasn’t wearing work shoes, but the moment the work shoes were on, the dog would wildly block the front door or attempt to escape through it. For cases like that, you do need to work intensively on the individual departure cue causing the extreme anxiety. Shoes on, shoes off, repeat, repeat, repeat. There is no need to use treats in this training scenario as this sometimes just gets the dog into “performing” mode as if he is expected to do a behavior. The simple act of straight desensitization works perfectly here. Shoes on, one step toward the door, shoes off. Repeat ad nauseam. Build criteria slowly from this point forward. While doing these exercises, the owner can still work on absences wearing non-work shoes to build up duration simultaneously.
Putting on shoes or jacket, or grabbing your purse or briefcase can be triggers for some dogs, particularly those that have been left regularly and have learned routines. If that happens to be the case for your clients you need to incorporate that into their protocol. For most dogs, however, I genuinely suggest building up duration absences and worrying about the little bits of departure cues down the line a bit. Here, when Erik puts on his shoes and gathers his keys and backpack, his dog Dude gets worried—so repetition of this activity will be required.
Dog walker and day training
At this stage, I highly recommend using a dog walker so you can mix up the timing of absences to happen both before and after the walk. When you have worked up to an out-of-house absence lasting ten minutes or so, you can tell the owners to coordinate their absences with the dog walker. The beauty of this approach is that the dog gets a big reward (the dog walk) at the end of the first absence, and is also introduced to the experience of coming into an empty home at the end of a great bout of exercise to practice the second absence.
Tell the owners to set up their first absence as per the program and to be ready to go about ten minutes before the dog walker arrives. Obviously, the dog walker should be briefed in advance and be on board with the process. She needs to understand that ten minutes means ten minutes, not twelve. Time things precisely or have the dog walker silently text the owners when she is ten minutes away. (Silent because dogs are masters of discrimination and quickly learn a phone call predicts the dog walker.) The owners can leave the dog as they usually do and ten minutes later the dog walker will show up for a lovely romp in the park or good long leash walk. The reverse happens at the end of the walk.
The first few times, the drop-off absence may be more difficult for the dog—to be dropped off in an empty home is a new experience—so keep it brief. Tell the owners to have the dog walker leave the dog with something fabulous, like a bully stick, and keep the absence as brief as five minutes if necessary. Within a few practice sessions, the dog will get the hang of the routine and you can begin to increase the duration of both pick-up and drop-off absences considerably. Because the owners are using video throughout this process, you will be able to increase criteria based on what you are seeing. If you see calm behavior over the course of a few days, increase absences on either or both ends of the exercise by several minutes. This process works extremely well to desensitize the dog to 30 to 40 minute absences within a few weeks time, and it also gives the owners a chance to run errands away from the home.
Day training is where a trainer works with the dog during the day while the owner is absent. If you offer this service then consider working in tandem with a dog walker or a daycare. For owners who use daycare because they work during the day, either you or a dog walker can make a huge difference. If the owners can’t rehearse more than one absence per day, the trainer can rehearse some for them. Common wisdom says this doesn’t work, but that’s not the case. I have proven with my clients over and over that rehearsed absences from a third party can help tremendously. The trainer can pick up the dog from daycare or from the dog walker, bring him home, and practice the absences at the current criteria level. And because the trainer is not the key attachment figure, she can often push the criteria a little further than the owners would be able to. Either way, the dog experiences positive absences, and that’s what you want to rehearse.
Dog walkers can truly make a difference in helping to extend the time of absences on either the front or the back end. I have been so grateful to many a dog walker for helping out with my separation anxiety protocols, and the owners typically enjoy the break they offer for errand running and the like.
The out-of-house absence phase is where most separation anxiety treatment programs run into trouble, often even falter and fail. Here’s why: Trainers and owners, on the whole, give up. Not that they can be blamed for giving up. What do you do if the dog hits a plateau here and can’t seem to be budged?
The answer is perseverance and creativity. Remember, most dogs can overcome separation anxiety, so when a dog isn’t making progress it’s time to switch tactics. Split the timing up in different increments. Use different food-dispensing toys. Remove food items all together. Change the placement of the barriers or remove them if need be and see what difference that makes. Find whatever thing will let the dog handle brief absences successfully and build on that.
Turn the case on its head by asking yourself a bunch of sleuthing questions. Are the morning absences always more successful than the evening ones? Concentrate on those for a while. Does the dog tend to be more relaxed after having eaten a meal, after recently being exercised, or only when a particular amount of downtime has happened in between each absence? Does adding noise (such as classical music or a white noise machine) to the confinement area help? Is it time to incorporate medication or adjust the dosage?
Good notes from the owners will help you here. Comb through those, searching for things you can change that might make a difference.
Just don’t change things all at once. As in any scientific endeavor, you need to change one thing at a time to know what is causing positive or negative results. After you change one thing, for example removing a barrier, wait at least a week before you decide whether it had any affect or not. When starting or changing medications, follow the guidelines for how long they take to reach a therapeutic level.
Using technology to set criteria effectively
At a bare minimum, tape some absences during this phase. That way, you can view them and adjust criteria based on what the dog displayed during the taped session. But if you opt to take your use of technology further and integrate webcams, it can be a huge asset in this phase. You can watch absences live from your location and can tell the owners in real time to stay out longer or return sooner. And well-timed entries can make all the difference if you are hitting plateaus—just one more way to be creative, really. Plus, the owners can watch the dog on a smartphone if they have one and can themselves determine the appropriate duration of absences based on what they see.
I can’t stress enough the usefulness of being able to watch in real time versus after the event. Each time you or the owners watch the dog during absence rehearsals, you develop a better understanding of the dog’s body language, which is a big advantage. Just don’t expect—and wait for—the dog to relax completely. Some dogs never get to the point of snoring on the couch; that shouldn’t stop you from moving on to the next time increment. Tell the owners it’s okay to move forward as long as their dog is not showing signs of anxiety. A dog who is lying down with head up watching is perfectly acceptable, even those sitting for a while are fine.
Even though I have worked with these cases for over a decade, it never ceases to amaze me how many separation anxiety dogs will sit quietly for hours on end during their behavior protocol before finally relaxing enough to lie down or before putting their head down. It always happens, though, and you can almost always see it coming. It’s as if the dog finally realizes that sitting up while waiting for mom is just more effort than it’s worth.