Separation Training

Can you imagine being a prisoner in your own home and every time you leave, you get a noise complaint from neighbours and you return home to find your precious belongings are destroyed and there is urine everywhere?

This is a reality for many people whose dogs suffer from a clinical panic disorder called Isolation Distress, or more commonly known as Separation Anxiety.

It can happen for a variety of reasons; genetics, trauma, lack of early separation training, illness or injury, a major change in the home (birth, death, moving), and flying in cargo.

Your puppy will NOT “get used” to being alone. It’s a process that must be worked through quite systematically and carefully.

Your puppy is brand spanking new. Before they came to you, they may never have been away from their mom or littermates. This may be the first time they’ve experienced the crate or a puppy pen, or any type of alone-time.

You might be seeing signs of distress when you leave your puppy to step out for a few moments or even when you go out of sight to have a shower.

Have you ever known anyone who experiences panic attacks? They will likely tell you that they feel they have no control over themselves when they are triggered. Dogs with separation anxiety experience symptoms of panic when they are separated from their primary attachment figure or are completely isolated.

We want to prevent this from happening and if you’re already seeing the early signs, we want to get on this NOW as opposed to waiting until it is a full-blown…

An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure!

What does it look like?

  • vocalisations (whining, barking, howling)
  • destruction, especially at or near exits
  • panting, pacing
  • drooling
  • loss of control of bladder/bowels(This is not an extensive list – simply the most common signs that we see.)

When we bring home a puppy and they exhibit whining and barking when left alone, we often mistake them for “puppy complaining” or “stubbornness” or some other construct. Let’s not label our puppy – let’s treat what we see and give our puppy the help they need to have a future full of happy home-alone time.

Subtle signs that your dog is feeling anxious

Dogs are naturally very stoic creatures, however they do have some classic signs of stress and not all of them are obvious!

Typical signs of anxiety include:

  • hyper-vigilance
  • ears pulled back tight to the head
  • wide eyes, dilated pupils
  • lip-licking
  • yawning
  • raising one paw
  • panting
  • shadowing

Baby StepsOur goal is to desensitise your puppy to alone-time so that they can tolerate longer and longer absences without anxiety. It is a gradual experience, as opposed to a more traumatic technique called flooding, which involves us popping our puppy into a crate or confinement area and simply leaving. It doesn’t work with kids OR dogs. We have to take it step by step.

Does systematic desensitisation actually work?

Yes. It absolutely can and does work when it is done correctly.

You have likely been given the “Coles’ Notes” version of this process by Dr.Google – leave for short periods of time and gradually increase the length of the absences until your dog tolerates the absence without barking. Sometimes this works with puppies, and sometimes it doesn’t. You’ll need to monitor them and really track the data to see if they’re tolerating it well.

Should I use treats when I return?

No. There’s no need for food during these exercises. We want our dogs to be bored of our antics.

Should I ignore my dog for 5-10 minutes before and after an absence?

No. That’s not very nice for anyone and it feels awful. Don’t throw a party before or after an absence, but there’s no need to ignore them. There’s no science behind that!

Won’t s/he just “get used to being alone”?

Habituation is the technical term for “getting used to it” and unfortunately, dogs don’t do this very well. Instead, they sensitise; they become more sensitive.

We see this all the time with puppies. We bring them home, give them a great first few days, and then we leave them for four hours to go to work, come home at lunch to relieve them, and then leave again for another four hours.

The first day or two is okay but then the puppy catches on and starts to panic when we pop them into their crate, and boom! We have isolation issues.

These isolation issues grow over time and get worse. Let’s prevent this from going full-blown.

Here is how it looks:In these training plans, you will be leaving the room for short periods of time and then returning to your puppy for 30-60 seconds in between each step. During the periods in between each step, do something boring and relaxing where your puppy can see, hear, and smell you. You do not need to engage with your puppy during this time (nor do you need to ignore them coldly); simply read a book, check your email, or have a tea. The goal at this level is to convince your puppy that you leaving the room is very boring.

A few notes:

PunishmentNever respond to separation-related stress responses with punishment or corrections – we want our puppies to communicate and to know that we will help them if they are in a panic. This includes yelling at them, ignoring them, letting them “self-soothe”, throwing something at the rate, using aversive collars that spray or shock, using a device that emits a high frequency in response to barking, etc.

Invest in a cameraFurbo, Nest, and even Skype or Zoom. They’re all great options to be able to monitor your puppy remotely so that you can keep a close eye and ensure this isn’t becoming a “thing”.

Self-soothingSelf-soothing is a myth in both puppies and human babies. Leaving them to cry it out will create “learned helplessness” and is detrimental to development relating to independence. If your puppy is panicking, come back in and reassess. Going forward, come back before they panic by keeping a close watch via video feed. If you repeatedly return when they cry, you WILL create a behaviour chain that teaches your dog that you always come back when they cry, so caution must be taken to keep them under threshold and return before they cry at least 95% of the time.

Sneaking outNever intentionally or consistently sneak out while your puppy is sleeping. This can feel like a breach of trust and suddenly your puppy is a light sleeper for fear of you leaving.

Stuffed food toysStuffed food toys are fine as long as your puppy gets them outside of absences too – otherwise they only predict alone-time.