There are three primary components to training a pet to not experience separation anxiety. For most dogs all three components are necessary, but it depends on the dog and the degree of anxiety.
1. Most dogs require some form of “medication” to lower their anxiety level so that training can be successful. At Birdneck Animal Hospital we prefer to start with more natural forms of treatment, so an oral herbal antianxiety supplement and/or a pheromone release collar are usually recommended. If it is found that these treatments are not effective enough or if the pet shows very severe anxiety, we will then recommend prescription antianxiety medications.
2. The second step in treatment is desensitization to the cues that you are about to leave. Doing the behaviors you normally do before leaving (such as picking up your keys, putting on a jacket, putting on your shoes, and even opening the door) but not going anywhere can help to desensitize your dog to those cues. It is also helpful to ignore your pet when you do come home and he or she is extremely excited. Wait until your pet is calm and relaxed before giving any attention or treats. You want to give positive reinforcement to being calm, not to being excited.
3. The final step is the actual training that lets your dog learn that you are returning and that he or she will be okay. This takes a lot of time and patience on your part.If your pet has not already been trained to lie down and stay, you must train him/her to do that first.
For this training we will use a toy during the training. Preferably it is a new or seldom used toy. Your pet does not have to like the toy. It is to be used as the signal that you will be returning. It also will only be used during the training exercises until you have gotten to the point that you can leave the house for hours without your pet becoming anxious, then you will always put down the toy before leaving. The toy should not be used for play.
Put your pet in a down stay in an area where she/he often lays down.
Put the training toy (let’s call it a red ball but it can be any toy) down in front of her/him. Walk a short distance away. If you pet remains calm, return, give praise and a very small, very tasty treat. Repeat this several times getting just slightly further away each time. When you are done with training, pick up the “red ball” and put it away.
At each daily training session get further and further away. Eventually you will go around a corner out of sight. Prolong the time out of sight each time. Eventually get to the point where you open and close the front door without going out, go out for a few moments, go to the car and open and close the car door, etc. The point is to very gradually increase the amount of time, distance and the anxiety “triggers”, without your pet becoming anxious. If at some point your pet does not stay calmly in the down stay, go back a step or two and reinforce that step of the training and take smaller steps the next time. Remember to put the “red ball” downat the start of each episode, give praise and a small yummy treat as a reward for being good, and pick up and put the “red ball” away at the end of each exercise. If your pet makes a mistake, don’t scold or punish her/him. That will only increase anxiety. Just call her/him back to the training spot and take a smaller step, so you can end the exercise on a positive note.
Separation anxiety is stressful for the pet and the owner. The training is often not easy, but with patience can usually be successful