The Fundamentals of Your Separation Anxiety Training Plan

In part one of this series, I shared my dog Escher’s story and my personal experience managing his separation anxiety. If you can relate, keep reading for tips and advice that might help your anxious dog.

Disclaimer: This is all based on my personal experience with one dog

I am not a professional dog trainer, behaviorist, or medical practitioner. I am a professional pet photographer who has lived with one anxious dog for five years and has observed lots of other anxious dogs in shelter/rescue/new home environments. You should always visit your vet to rule out any medical issues before starting a training plan. If you can afford it or if your dog’s behavior is dangerous to himself or others, you should consult a Certified Professional Dog Trainer (CPDT) and work closely with them to develop a rewards-based, fear-free training plan. Remember that all dogs are individuals and what works for Escher may not work for your dog.

I should also mention that Escher’s behavior while alone rarely involves destruction of property or self-harm, both of which are very common behaviors with severe separation anxiety. He did have a random month of counter-surfing and mess-making (with flour, coffee beans, cans of cat food, and the trash can, to name a few) that I still don’t really understand and he did recently destroy part of my office door when he accidentally closed the door on himself in our new apartment. But most of the time, Escher expresses his separation anxiety in the form of barks, howls, pacing, and occasionally peeing on his bed. I do not feel comfortable giving advice for dogs who get destructive while alone; please consult a professional trainer. However, here in New York City where we live in old apartment buildings with thin walls, the barking and howling is often the bigger, more urgent problem. So here is what has worked for us…

First things first: time and patience

Repeat after me: This will get better with time. The number one thing that all dogs with separation anxiety need is time. Time to learn a routine, time to gain confidence, time to get used to a new space. That means the number one thing YOU need is patience. Patience with your dog, patience with yourself, patience with your neighbors. There will be times that you fly off the handle and scream at your dog. There will be times when your neighbors make you want to give up. And it’s totally okay to have those moments. But try your best to take a deep breath (okay, a lot of deep breaths) and remember that this will get better with time.

To maintain that patience over time, be sure to celebrate the tiniest of tiny victories (i.e.: I left for 2 minutes and he didn’t bark!) and frequently reflect on how far you and your dog have come. Keep a written log of your dog’s progress and review it whenever you feel like you’ve hit a dead end. Find a friend or a community that understands separation anxiety so you can lean on them when you need some support. I always found the Reddit Dog Training community to be very helpful and supportive. Go to your community for advice, but don’t forget to share the victories as well.

Remember: The first week (and in many cases, the first month) are always the hardest.

Photos above: Escher at the ASPCA Animal Shelter on the day I first saw him, the day I met him, and the day that we decided to adopt him.

Make a plan, start small, and practice often

Consistency is key when it comes to any dog training, but especially for separation anxiety. If there are other people living with your dog (spouse, kids, roommates), it is very important for you all to be on the same page and doing the same things. Allow one person to take the lead or work together to come up with a “leaving protocol” like a checklist of things to do before leaving. You will have to coordinate your schedules to make sure your dog is not alone longer than he is comfortable being alone nor left alone multiple times per day. It’s also important to foster open communication between you and other caretakers so you can learn and make changes together. In the early years, Jon and I had a shared spreadsheet to track times we left, what we did before leaving, which toys/treats we gave to Escher, and how he reacted. I cannot stress enough how important it is for everyone in the home to be on board with the training plan.

I have also heard that it helps a ton to develop a routine and stick to it as much as possible. I regret not having done this more in the beginning and I should probably even be doing this more now, but working from home and having flexible hours means that I am home a lot. I have no doubt, though, that Escher would have gotten used to a 9-5 schedule much quicker than my sporadic routine-less schedule.

Photos above: Escher’s first few weeks at home when he was emotionally, physically, and mentally exhausted. Most adopted dogs need 2+ weeks to decompress after leaving the shelter or foster home.

Once you have a solid plan, practice practice practice! In the beginning, you should try to only leave for short periods of time and gradually work your way up as your dog gets more comfortable. But that’s not really realistic when you have a job and need to make money for that dog food, right? I get it, you have to live your life! Not just because your dog needs to practice being alone and not just because you have obligations, but also because you need and deserve a break from your dog. You are not perfect and your training will never be perfect. Accept that you will have to make some sacrifices in the beginning and do your best to arrange your schedule with your dog’s needs in mind.

If your dog is freaking out before you even get out the door, you might need to start even smaller by going through the motions of leaving without actually leaving. Put your shoes and coat on, shoulder your bag, grab your keys, and…sit down to watch TV. Try doing this a few times each day, gradually working your way up to leaving for a minute, then 5 minutes, then 20 minutes, and so on. The goal is to desensitize your dog from the things that trigger his “oh no she’s leaving and never coming back” panic alarm. I could write out a whole training plan and talk endlessly about the concept of remaining below threshold, but instead I will refer you to these professional sources who have already done a great job on this topic:

Don’t make a scene when you leave

Take a moment to consider the things you do when you leave and whether those things could be triggering your dog’s panic alarm or even rewarding the panic behavior. Even something as simple as saying “Bye, I’ll be home soon!” could set your dog off. It’s hard to resist reassuring and coddling your dog when she’s obviously freaking out, but you can do it! Try to play it cool while you get ready to leave, avoid rushing around, and simply slip out the door when it’s time to go. Jon and I even go so far as to put our bags, coats, and keys outside the door so Escher doesn’t see us pick them up before we head out. Sometimes I even sit down in a chair for a few minutes before leaving if I suspect that he’s starting to panic. He’s very smart, but taking a seat like that still fools him into thinking that I’m staying. He goes back to playing with his treat toys and I very quietly slip out the door. By the time he notices that I’m gone, he’s more interested in digging the peanut butter out of his toy than panicking about being alone.

Spy on your dog

I am trying to keep my advice limited to things that don’t cost a ton of money, but here’s one thing I insist you buy: a webcam. We use Nestcams because we got hooked into the system many years ago, but now there are cheaper options that work just as well. Since alone time is the problem, it’s really important for you to observe what your dog does while he or she is alone and then take note of what does and does not help. How long does it take her to calm down? Is he standing right by the door and howling? Does he only bark when he hears noises through the door? Is she ignoring her toys and treats? Is there a certain toy or treat that keeps her more distracted? All of these observations should guide your plan and help you understand your dog a bit more. If you’re able to record from the webcam, record a video before starting your training plan, share it with your trainer, and later use it to remind yourself how much progress has been made. I recently discovered this video of Escher from July 2014 (probably the first time I ever recorded him alone) and it makes me realize how far he has come and how much we have learned along the way!

Build confidence with tricks, training, and games

This advice applies to any sort of dog anxiety: Basic obedience, tricks, and training games will do wonders for your dog’s life AND your life. Working on these things will help your dog build confidence with the added benefit of draining some energy. Training games are also a great alternative to a long walk on rainy days. Pick up the book 101 Dog Tricks and start having fun with your dog!

Trick training was incredibly important for me and Escher back in the early days when his behavior made me cry on the kitchen floor. It helped us build the strong relationship we have today and it helped me focus on what Escher did well rather than what he couldn’t help but do bad. It still comes in handy today when Escher is feeling nervous around new people or when we need to distract him from another dog. He loves to give high fives!

Photos above: Escher performing high five, up high, and bow.

A tired (or medicated) dog is a happy dog

It’s always a good idea to take your dog on a long walk or play some games to drain some of that anxiety-fueling energy before you leave. Escher has always been a relatively low energy dog, but he went through a phase in 2015 when it seemed like he saved up all of his energy for alone time. That’s when I started taking Escher on long walks to Central Park and we did urban agility (often called barkour) all over the place. The long walks and climbing up on things tired him out physically while the tricks tired him out mentally. It was a ton of fun for both of us, helped us develop our relationship, and gave him more confidence. You can see some of our adventures on Instagram: #EscherClimbs.

Escher is now 11-ish years old and spends 90% of his time snoozing in his bed. Our walks are rarely longer than 20 minutes and his old man legs prevent him from doing the urban agility he enjoyed in his youth. Energy is not really an issue for us anymore, but we still walk him right before we leave and recently we have added in a new energy-buster: medication.

We knew that moving would be tough for Escher and we expected to see a resurgence of separation anxiety while he adjusted to the new apartment. After an especially bad day which resulted in the destruction of my office door (more on that in part 3), he was especially panicky about us leaving. In order to prevent more harm to him and our apartment, we decided to look into medication. We tried Holistapet CBD oil first, but didn’t see much of a difference (side note: many of my friends rave about CBD for their dogs and I think it’s a wonderful drug so it’s worth trying). The vet recommended a daily dose of Prozac and an as-needed dose of the sedative Trazodone for whenever he’ll be left alone. We have been doing that for a few months now and I have no regrets. We recently tried leaving him without Trazodone just to see if he really needed it. Within 10 minutes, Escher had torn down a gate and was fully ignoring all of his favorite treat-dispensing toys. Our takeaway: Trazodone4Lyfe!

To be honest, I really wish we had tried medication sooner. It takes the edge off and puts him in a state of mind where he can learn that being home alone is okay. I resisted trying it because it seemed like the easy way out, but mostly because I didn’t want us to become dependent on a life-long, potentially expensive medication. Medication isn’t an option for everyone, but if you can afford it and your vet recommends it, then I suggest trying it. You’re not taking the easy way out; you’re doing what is best for your dog.

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