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Behind The Scenes: Separation Anxiety

Read through my pre-training write-up determining how to best help a dog struggling to be home alone.


Two dachshunds on a chair watching out a window
Murphy and Tuna uncertainly watching as their owner leaves.


Finn the rescue collie-mix is exhibiting signs of separation anxiety. He howls, cries, paces, and ignores anyone else in the house when his human leaves. He will scratch the door repeatedly, break the blinds, and do odd repeated circles in his kennel even though he is allowed to roam. He is so exhausted by the time his human comes home he crashes and falls asleep almost immediately every time.

Factors Relating to the Dog

Is the behavior learned or instinctual?

Separation anxiety is a learned behavior, but some dogs can have a genetic predisposition towards being more anxious. Sometimes a big change or event in the dog’s life can bring out the anxiety when left alone, where previously the dog appeared fine. Another way separation anxiety can occur in an otherwise sound dog is if something traumatic or scary happened to the dog while left alone.

This means since it is not instinctual (like chasing, barking, or herding) it can be trained to a different behavior or outcome more easily. Instinctual traits (chasing, barking, herding, etc) are inherent traits literally written into dogs’ DNA where in some cases, nature will win out against nurture.

Reinforcement history of the behavior

With separation anxiety, some dogs will develop “rituals” they perform when their humans leave the house. Finn for instance, now allowed free roam of the house, runs to his open kennel and repeatedly does circles on the interior of the kennel. He does this off and on until his human comes home. Perhaps in his brain, his behavior somehow caused his human to come back to him. His human coming back home while he is in this panicked state of mind reinforces that next time Finn is left alone he will panic and do circles again. This will make the behavior harder to change because reinforcement of separation anxiety is a tricky thing. Finn has to know and figure out that there are other ways to express their discomfort at being alone. Right now, he thinks doing odd things like scratching the door until it's a mess and doing odd circles will get his human back.

Socialization History

Proper socialization to being alone as a puppy and young dog could have been significant in how a dog handles alone time as an adult. With Finn, he was a stray that literally just showed up on the front step. We have no idea how his background could be affecting his training and behaviors in his new home. For the sake of how his behavior is now, we are going to say that Finn never had any socialization to the concept of loneliness. This will make the behavior harder to change because we don’t know the level of exposure he’s previously had to being alone, or whether or not something scary happened to him while being alone in his past that we don’t know whether to avoid or not.

Age of dog

Finn is of unknown age, but presumed to be between 1-3. Sometimes with separation anxiety, a young dog might mature out of it. This doesn’t really have any effect on what we might do to help Finn with his fear of being alone.

Ease of motivating the dog

How does this affect the behavior issue? Luckily, Finn is a super motivated dog and almost seems content enough to train just off of pets and praise. To be sure though, we will be using high value treats and rewards to help Finn with his training. The fact that he is happy to sit down with a yummy filled Kong makes treating his separation anxiety much easier, because we can show him there are more relaxing and rewarding ways to spend his time waiting for his human to come home.

Number of triggers and how easy they are to work on individually?

How does this affect the behavior issue? Finn has identified the patterns to his human leaving, like his owner sitting down to put his shoes on, and the car keys jingling as he goes to walk to the door. Lucky for us, these are easy triggers to recreate and work on desensitizing to. This makes treating the anxiety MUCH easier than say a dog who is only terrified of the large street sweeper that passes through randomly. Small and easily handled triggers means an easier training plan to execute.

Bite history/severity

Finn has no known bite history, so we will proceed with caution anyways just to be safe. This will have no bearing on our training and management plan for separation anxiety.

Presence of warning signals

Finn perks up and starts to pant when his owner gets ready to leave. We can use this as a gauge for whether or not he is stressing more while training on desensitizing him to his triggers through the training plan.

Dog’s training history and impulse control

Finn is a very easily trained dog, and takes to new requests from his owner very quickly. I suspect this will help him better understand a new way to behave when we leave him alone starting in quick second bursts. This will make treating the anxiety easier for sure.

Dog’s exercise and mental stimulation outlets

Finn is a herding dog, so he has lots of energy that needs expended. He either gets to go on a walk with his owner or a run, but as it is summer time and very very hot out here, he does not get as much exercise and stimulation as he might possibly need. An under stimulated or exercised dog can lead to mayhem and mishaps when left alone unsupervised, negating our efforts to treat the anxiety.

Other dog factors such as size and learning ability

Finn is a medium sized dog with a whip fast mind. He picks up new tricks very quickly which should aid in treating the behavior issue.

Factors Relating to the Dog Owner

Daily living environment

Finn lives with two other dogs and his human’s roommate. This will make his behavior easier to change because the other dogs do not exhibit separation anxiety, and having a roommate home will help in the training plan on treating the anxiety. Part of the plan stipulates not leaving Finn alone too early in the plan negating any training efforts to reduce his anxiety when left alone in short bursts of time.

Handling/training skills

Finn’s owner has completed several training courses with his other dog (from puppy class to advanced training) and enjoys handling and training his dogs. This will help in implementing a training plan as a new challenge to overcome!

Time/willingness to manage

Finn’s owner works from home currently and understands the importance of managing not leaving Finn home alone too early or too long in the training plan, which aids our efforts in treatment.

Time/willingness to train

Finn’s owner understands the training plan laid out step by step detailing how to reward Finn for staying relaxed while left alone for 30 seconds to a minute at a time. Him seeing Finn excel at these short bursts and not getting up to panic gives the owner hope to keep continuing, which is vital in treating the separation anxiety. The hardest part of this is always getting the owners to stick with the training and not just fall back into their old patterns when Finn had the separation anxiety to begin with.


The Solution:

  1. The key points of a management plan

    1. In order for this training plan to work, a good deal of management is required. The owner will have to find a way to leave Finn during his absences where he will not be anxious. The training plan requires lots of mini training departures throughout the days each week, and if his owner goes and leaves for 8 hours in the middle of this, it’ll cause a panic in Finn and erase all that hard work. It’s a hassle, but it’s one of the most efficient ways to help separation anxiety. The owner could have his girlfriend or friend come over to stay with Finn while he is gone, or take him to a friends’ or girlfriend’s house. The owner luckily works from home so this won’t be too hard to manage. Having a roommate also helps in ensuring Finn won’t be left alone for the first month of training. The owner could also take Fin with him, or find a dog sitter for when both the owner and roommate are gone. Ensuring Finn also has plenty of mental stimulation and exercise prior to an absence can help calm Finn’s mind as well.

  2. The key points of a training plan

    1. Quiet comings and goings, not making a large deal out of hello’s and goodbye’s.

    2. Begin counterconditioning and desensitization to triggers as the owner prepares to leave.

      1. Putting shoes on, grabbing keys, etc.

      2. We need to compartmentalize every one of those individual triggers, and condition him to expect them to mean something good, or nothing at all. Triggers are the stimuli that precede you walking out. Grabbing your keys for instance, five times a day, jingle your keys without leaving. Ignore Finn while doing so. Definitely don’t do this near a time when you are actually leaving though! That is desensitization. For the counter conditioning, what you’re going to do is give him something really high value… It’s the only way to create the positive association. I'm talking nasty wet dog food smushed into a gross bone type deal. Something that will hold his attention for longer than tossing a treat on the ground. Once he is fully engaged with the treat, perform a trigger that precedes you leaving like jingling keys. Walk over, take away his treat, then give it right back and jingle your keys again. Repeat a few times then take treats away for good and go about your business like normal. What is happening is Finn is hearing a trigger like jingling car keys and feeling happy rather than stressed about an impending departure. A few hours later, repeat this but add another trigger like sitting to put shoes on. Repeat the earlier steps several times then stop. Every day, gradually add steps to actually leaving the house while Finn works on his holy grail treat. After a few days and we are sure he does not react at all to hearing the keys, pick up keys BEFORE giving him the treat, then put on shoes. This is the actual counter conditioning (keys first, treat second) that will teach Finn the association to happy feelings with all the “leaving” triggers. A typical separation anxiety treatment schedule skews heavily to the early stages of departure, where some dogs take up to 1 month of getting relaxed with the “leaving” triggers. Once you reach the point you can walk out the door, it’s usually faster and easier to expand that absence to 5 seconds, 1 minute, 5 minutes, an hour, etc.

  1. Key points to keep in mind when presenting the plan

    1. Level of detail a client receives

      1. Finn’s owner is very intelligent with a masters education, and is very technologically driven and enjoys complex problems with difficult solutions. He likes puzzles. Keeping that in mind, I feel I could give him a fairly detailed and word heavy plan about how I intend to treat Finn. Seeing as he has already completed several dog training classes before, he is also likely familiar with dog training verbage. I would give him the same level of detail as I would expect myself to receive from a fellow dog trainer.

    2. What would determine the level of work given to client

      1. Even though Finn’s owner is intelligent and problem-solving driven, he is fairly busy and likely won’t divulge more than 30 minutes a day to this solution.

    3. Creating motivation to follow the plan

      1. Motivation for his owner actually completing this plan is showing promising results from quick little excursions of 30 seconds to a minute. Seeing Fin catch onto the game of “if I just relax here for a second my owner will come back” is amazing for the owner to see and pushes them to want to keep at it!

    4. Setting proper expectations for results

      1. Owner must understand it is not his dog being ornery just when left alone, but that his dog is TERRIFIED of being alone. Fixing terror like that in the brain will take time but it is worth the effort of continuing through the plan when in 1 month your dog is relaxed when you come home and not frantic from an hour of pacing and howling. Emphasize that the plan skews heavily towards the first 4 weeks of training, but that the absences can increase in length after that. That being said, a plan like this is very standard and common in treating separation anxiety and has a high rate of success.

    5. Managing expectations as the plan progresses

      1. I have a step by step guide I created that takes the owner and their dog through a 6 week training plan of building up time of absences. It’s very clear on where the dog should be at each stage, and does not purport “amazing results in one hour or your money back!” at any point. If the owner does it right from the start and doesn't rush things, the dog will catch on. Dogs move at a slower pace than us, and it takes time to change the pathways in their brains.

If you believe your dog is struggling with separation anxiety, please reach out and schedule a free consultation with me to discuss how best to help your pup.


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