How to build up alone time with your separation anxiety dog

How to build up alone time with your separation anxiety dog

If you’re new to dog training, you may not yet have discovered the magic of “the three Ds”:

  • Distance
  • Difficulty / Distraction
  • Duration

Okay that’s four, but not all trainers seem to agree on the middle one! I think all four are useful concepts, and here’s why……..

Training a new behaviour

Separation training is like any other kind of dog training. You want to train your dog to do something they couldn’t do before, and to do this you need to break the end goal down into lots of little steps. In this way you will help your dog get where you want them to go, without them getting stressed!

What makes it really hard to train a dog with separation anxiety to spend time alone is that if you take too big a step, you might get all out panic from your dog, rather than the mild confusion or frustration you might see if you were training a new trick or cue. 

That’s why it is really important to pay attention to the little steps and how well your dog is doing at each stage. By paying attention to the Ds you can make sure the increments you use to push your dog forward are small enough for them to handle but large enough to keep progressing their separation training. 

Treating separation anxiety by building duration first

A good place to start separation training is to make a baseline assessment, to determine what your dog is okay with and at what point they start to struggle. I can’t recommend highly enough Julie Naismith’s book, Be Right Back for talking you through this process. Try to identify cues that your dog gets worried about (keys, shoes, coats) and LEAVE THESE OUT (yes that’s right, skip them for now!) as well as how long your dog can handle being left without starting to freak out. 

Once you have a starting point, the first thing to build in small steps is the duration of the absence. 

Reduce one D when you increase another

Set your dog up for success and keep everything other than the duration of the absence as easy as possible for your dog. If they struggle with the sound of your keys, unlock the door an hour before the absence or leave it unlocked when you return from their walk. If they freak out when you put on your shoes, leave a pair of slip ons outside your front door.  You get the idea.

Pay attention to other details, like what time of day your dog does best and stick to training at the easiest scenario to start with, whilst you concentrate on building duration. Make sure they are recently fed, exercised, have had the chance to pee and poo. They must have access to water at all times, being thirsty is distressing and leaving water out is not likely to be the cause of any indoor toileting. 

Be patient at this stage and drop your duration any time your dog doesn’t cope well. It might take a while to tweak things to perfection but once you’ve found a scenario where your dog can cope with a second or two of alone time, you can start building that time gradually. By building duration first, you will help your dog to tackle their separation anxiety by showing them that they can indeed cope with time alone. Once they’re managing 15 mins or so duration, you can think about increasing the other Ds.

Making absences more difficult for your dog

Once you have your dog coping with a little alone time without panic, barking, house soiling, or damage to your property, you can think about making the scenario a little bit more difficult. 

Again, you are going to increase one of the Ds, so be ready to make the others easier to help balance things out. Some dogs will be fine at the same duration, but for others we might drop the duration when we introduce something else. Carefully watch your dog for clues as to what support they need from you. 

What makes an absence more difficult?

  • A different time of day (many dogs find earlier in the day harder, particularly if they haven’t been adequately exercised or had a pee and poo recently);
  • Owner behaviours such as picking up keys, packing a work bag or putting on shoes and/ or coat;
  • Different members of the family leaving, or everyone leaving together;
  • Things that have been going on in your dog’s life, for example they got a fright or had a very tiring or stressful day or week.
  • Ask your dog! I once worked with a dog that couldn’t handle hair wax going on. Pay attention to your dog’s behaviour and make a note of anything you think might be meaningful to them. 

It is a good idea to only introduce ONE area of difficulty at a time. Firstly, this keeps to the “small steps for success” approach, but it also means if your dog suddenly does really badly, you’ll have a better idea why than if you introduced a handful of different things together. 

My top tip at this stage is to think about YOUR goals in separation training your dog. If your main aim is to be able to go out to the gym first thing in the morning but your dog has built up duration in the evening, you might start training earlier in the day but with shorter durations to help your dog feel confident. If you want to be able to go out as a couple for an evening meal but your dog freaks when you both leave, you might introduce both of you leaving but start with smaller durations.

Don’t worry, all of the work you did on earlier duration steps will still be there and will help your dog more quickly understand what is happening and accept and feel comfortable with them. Don’t aren’t good at generalising, so by making things easier each time there is a change you help them learn and understand, so they can accept and feel okay!

Introducing the other Ds into separation training

For each new scenario or cue, you will build up again to reach longer durations and most dogs will hit a kind of critical mass and start to generalise much quicker. You will hopefully also find that some of the things your dog reacted to in the past they are no longer bother by. It wasn’t the keys after all, it was the being alone, and once they have learn that is okay, the keys don’t matter!

With my separation anxiety clients, we train mostly thinking about duration and difficulty, gradually building up to scenarios that are more difficult for the dog but more valuable for the client in reclaiming their freedom. 

It is not always apparent where “Distance” and “Distraction” fit in, and to all intents and purposes for separation training any increase in these is an increase in difficulty as well, so we largely treat them as the same.

For example, in early training I usually have owners stand or sit fairly close to the front door when they leave their dog. This allows them to react and return quickly if the dog does panic, but also means we are keeping things easier by not adding in sounds that might be triggering such as footsteps, gates, stairs or car doors and so on. Eventually we will increase that distance, which will potentially increase difficulty too, depending on the individual dog.

So, whilst the Ds are useful, they have their limitations and I would hate any one to get bogged some in semantics. How you categorise the different elements of an absence isn’t as important as breaking them down into manageable pieces for your dog to successfully overcome. I hope you find thinking about the Ds useful though, it is always great to have a framework to help get you started!