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How to Use Desensitization to Cure Dog Separation Anxiety

Adrienne is a certified dog trainer and former veterinarian assistant who partners with some of the best veterinarians worldwide.

Dogs can be desensitized to gradually longer and longer absences.

Dogs can be desensitized to gradually longer and longer absences.

What is Separation Anxiety in Dogs?

Desensitization can help cure separation anxiety in dogs, but most importantly it's important to recognize true separation anxiety. The term is heavily overused recently and it seems that dogs are often over-diagnosed. Too many dog owners who claim their dog has SA (separation anxiety), in reality have dogs that are perfectly normal or exhibit signs of other disorders.

If your dog barks or howls mournfully the first five minutes you leave the home and then settles down and gnaws on his bone and then goes back to sleep, generally does not have SA.

If your dog chews on your shoes when you are away, he may be bored and under-exercised, he doesn't have to necessarily have SA.

When owners tell me their dog has SA, I ask them to record their dog's behavior when they leave. When they then show me the videos, I can then have a better idea of what they're really dealing with. So what exactly is separation anxiety in dogs and how does it manifest?

Dogs suffering from separation anxiety are in distress when they're left alone regardless of how brief or how long the owner's absence. The following symptoms are often tell-tale signs of separation anxiety:

  • Digging and scratching tailored mostly towards exit points such as doors and windows
  • Howling, barking and whining
  • Accidents around the house in house-trained dogs
  • Pacing and nervousness when you are about the leave
  • Excessive drooling when left alone
  • Velcro-dogs who follow you from room to room
  • Excessively frantic greetings when you come home

What Happens in the Brain of a Dog Suffering from Separation Anxiety?

It is unknown why some dogs suffer from separation anxiety while others don't. There are a few assumptions though on what may trigger this behavior.

If you work at home, your dog likely habituates to having you around, and then when you suddenly start working out of your home, your dog goes under shock when he suddenly finds the house totally silent and can no longer find your comforting presence.

Sudden changes in routines may also create insecurity and uncertainty in dogs allowing fertile grounds for SA to set in. You often see this occur when owners suddenly move, when there's a loss in the family or a dog is rehomed after being in a shelter.

Also, consider that in elderly dogs, a sudden onset of SA can be suggestive of deteriorating hearing or seeing. For more on this read: Why is my senior dog suffering from separation anxiety?

So what happens in the brain of these poor dogs? Through associative learning, day after day, they come to realize that they are going to be left alone. How can they predict it? As very observant beings, they learn to chain together your pre-departure cues.

Most likely, every day you follow a routine your dog is used to. You may grab the car keys right when you are exiting the door. The noise of the car keys, therefore has become a predictor of you leaving.

Soon, your dog notices that putting on your jacket occurs right before you grab the car keys. The act of getting your jacket, therefore, becomes a predictor of you grabbing the car keys and then leaving.

Soon, your dog learns that getting your purse, becomes a predictor of putting your jacket, and then grabbing your car keys and then leaving.

Soon, you'll have a dog that gets nervous when you have breakfast, brush your teeth, grab your purse, put your jacket on, grab your car keys and then leave!

Once left alone, these dogs are a mess. They want to follow you through the door and get frustrated and anxious. They scratch at the windows in hopes of reuniting with you, they dig under the doors in hopes of going under, just as they would do with a fence.

Since they cannot get out, the distress build up more. They'll whine, bark and even soil from the anxiety they feel. Don't assume this is a way of getting back at you for not taking him with you! In reality, these dogs are truly suffering from panic and distress.

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How Desensitization Can Help a Dog with Separation Anxiety

There are several things that can be done to help a dog suffering from separation anxiety. As with other behavioral problems, treatment is more effective when the behavior is mild and hasn't had an opportunity to establish. The longer the dog has been rehearsing the behavior, the harder it will be to implement behavior modification. Following are some general tips:

  • Avoid making a big deal when you are about to leave. It may be difficult to resist kissing your pooch goodbye and reassuring him that you will soon return. Feeling sorry for your dog will only confirm in your dog's mind that something bad is going to happen. Also, since you are likely to do this every morning, your goodbye ritual soon becomes one of the cues your dog associates with your departure.
  • Avoid making a big deal when you come back home. As tempting as it is, you don't want to reward those frantic greetings which are a typical symptom of SA. Just enter the home, ignore your dog, put away your stuff, and once he's calmer say hello to your pooch in a calm way.
  • It's quite drastic for dogs to see their owners at home all day during the week-end and then suddenly disappear on Mondays. Leaving your pooch something that smells like you may help him feel your presence a bit more. Also, leave safe food-dispensing toys around so your dog can keep occupied in your absence.

Using Desensitization to Help a Dog Suffering From Separation Anxiety

Desensitization is a behavior modification technique where a dog gets gradually and systematically exposed to a situation or stimuli he fears.

In the case of separation anxiety, the target goal is to have the dog habituate to an owner's absence through set-ups. Dog Counterconditioning can be added on top of desensitization to power up the results.

In counterconditioning, you are changing a dog's emotions towards the feared situation or feared stimulus. Following are some ways to desensitize a dog to being separated from you.

  • Train your dog that it's OK for you to walk around the home without him following you. Train your dog a sit-stay and down-stay and build up on it. In this case, you're working at a small distance, just a few steps away from your dog and then you'll be gradually building more and more distance.
  • Take advantage of doors in your home to rehearse fake departures. Tell your dog to sit-stay in your bathroom, get out the door, then come back in, gradually increasing your time away. Then practice sit-stays with you finally exiting the real door.
  • Counter-condition your dog to associate your absence with something good. When you are about to leave the room for some time, give your pooch a stuffed Kong that will keep him entertained during your absence. What you are doing here is you're working on a differential reinforcement of incompatible behavior. In other words, you are putting your dog up for success by giving him a behavior to engage in (working on the Kong) which is incompatible with following you around the house..
  • Desensitize your dog to all the cues you are about to leave the home. You know how we talked about grabbing the keys being a cue, a predictor of you leaving the house? Well, now we're basically re-programming the dog's brain in such a way that all those cues mean nothing. So in other words, you will grab the keys and then sit on the couch. Put your jacket on, grab the keys and then watch TV The you would put on the jacket, grab the purse, get the keys and eat a sandwich. Basically, those cues are now no longer a cause for concern. You know you're at a good point when you grab the car keys and Rover doesn't even prick his ears up...booring!
  • It's very important to never let your dog experience the full-blown sensation of SA during desensitization. Remember: in desensitization it's crucial to expose him to situations (set-ups) that are significantly less stressful than the real thing. Your dog needs to be under threshold. Each dog has a different perception of what is stressful, so you'll need a good grip on what constitute signs of stress in your dog.
  • You can lower your dog's threshold with exercise prior to departing or by using calming aids or medications prescribed by your vet.
  • It's best to employ the help of a professional to help your dog overcome separation anxiety. In severe cases, your vet may need to prescribe medications such as Clomicalm or Reconcile to use in conjunction with behavior modification.

Helping Dog Separation Anxiety through Desensitization

For further reading

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2013 Adrienne Farricelli


Devika Primić from Dubrovnik, Croatia on April 16, 2014:

An informative and very helpful hub to all dog lovers.

Adrienne Farricelli (author) on March 30, 2013:

Thanks for stopping by Monis Mas!

Agnes on March 30, 2013:

Absolutely awesome. Thanks!

Adrienne Farricelli (author) on March 26, 2013:

Thanks for the votes up vocalcoach, I hope it helps you out, best wishes!

Audrey Hunt from Pahrump NV on March 26, 2013:

Wonderful information on treating SA. I will definitely use these tips and thanks. UP+++.

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