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Separation Anxiety Training for Dogs

Working from home provides a unique opportunity for training your pup.

by Tracy Krulik, CTC, CSAT
Updated March 19, 2020
A woman wearing a knit sweater holding a dog close on the floor of her bedroom.
Photo: Vlada Karpovich / Pe

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Recently, I celebrated with one of my separation anxiety clients over her newfound ability to leave her dogs alone for three-plus hours without barking complaints from her apartment neighbors. And then suddenly, her employer told her that she could work at home full-time, so we had a good laugh about the irony of it all. Then it hit me: If you’re working from home, it is the perfect time to start separation anxiety training with your dog.

On its face that statement doesn’t seem to make sense. How can dogs learn to be alone if you don’t leave them to go to work? The answer is that now that you don’t have to leave for extended periods of times, you can finally leave in small enough increments that teach your pup that there is nothing to worry about. Let me explain.

How Does Separation Anxiety Training Work?

When someone is scared—dogs, cats, people, you name it—you can teach them to overcome their fear by using a behavioral psychology process called systematic desensitization. Basically, you introduce the thing that is scary but at a level that is not scary.

So, if you want to help your dog overcome their fear, you’d first need to figure out how far away they can be from whatever is causing their fear without being scared. Let’s say that distance is 10 feet away. That means you’d start your training at 10 feet away when your dog is completely relaxed. Great. Let’s see if you can inch a little closer. Nine feet away—still no problem. Eight feet—you’re good. Seven feet—gulp! Way too close. Let’s back ‘er up a bit… 7.5 feet—all good.

Little by little, you move closer, but only as long as your pup still feels fine. The key is controlling that distance so that they can always feel safe.

Understanding Separation Anxiety in Dogs

Let’s apply this to dogs who are scared to be alone now. Almost every dog that I work with flies to the door the second their people walk to the door, turn the door handle, or open the door. Pups are not dummies. They’ve figured out that every time the keys make that jingly sound or the jacket goes on, their people leave through that door, and their terror begins. They tell us they’re anxious by giving us signals.

Dogs with separation anxiety will whimper, stiffen, yawn, lick their lips, bark, howl, jump up to the door knob, scratch and chew the door (or the frame and the floor), lose their bladders or break out of their crates and cut themselves in the process…

All of those behaviors are rooted in fear. Notice how your dog does not do that when someone else is there? They’re scared when they’re alone, and so if you stop scaring them, the “bad” behaviors go away too.

Separation Anxiety Training for Dogs

So rather than thinking of separation anxiety training as something to “teach your dog that you always come back in,” think of it as training to “teach your dog that nothing bad ever happens when you walk out that door.” In order to do that, you have to watch their body language to control how long you are gone.

Find that starting point.

When you turn your door knob, does your dog fly to the door? Then don’t turn the door knob yet. Just walk to the door and then go back and sit down. Can you open the door halfway, but all the way is too far? Fine, only open it halfway until you dog doesn’t even look up when you go to do that. Can you stand outside with the door closed for 1 second, but 2 seconds is too long? Ok! Great info. Keep it under 2 seconds. Get the idea?

Next, build their tolerance.

Pick one or two times a day to do 30-minutes of alone-time exercises, five to six days a week. Practice the actions leading up to leaving your dog alone to teach your pup there is nothing to fear. You’ll do this by grabbing the keys, turning the door, or walking to the door — whatever their tolerance level is. Don’t push them; ensure their body language stays positive. The goal is to show them it’s safe.

  • Always go at your dog’s pace.

  • Make sure your dog has a “safe haven” like a crate or a bed.

  • Only train when your dog is feeling relaxed.

  • Wait 1-2 minutes between each attempt.

Keep Training as They Get Better

As your dog gets used to simple acts like walking to the door and touching the handle, introduce departure-related objects (keys, jackets, purse) one at a time. Mix up the training regiment with easy and more complex tasks. For example, walk to the door and turn the handle halfway; other times, grab your jacket and put on your shoes before doing so.

There will never be a better time to help your dogs overcome their fears of being alone. Teach your dog that nothing bad ever happens when you walk out the door before anything bad does happen. Up to 55% of dogs worldwide exhibit some kind of separation-related problem, so why risk that happening to your dog too? Tackle the issue before it becomes a problem.

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Tracy Krulik, CTC, CSAT

Tracy Krulik, CTC, CSAT, is a Northern Virginia-based certified canine separation anxiety trainer and honors graduate of Jean Donaldson’s prestigious Academy for Dog Trainers. Krulik is also the founder and managing editor of iSpeakDog — a website and public awareness campaign to teach dog body language and behavior.