Updated: Dec 28, 2022
Before I meet with clients by Zoom, I have a little set-up to do first. I have a portable laptop desk that I move into position, move my mini-ring lights in place, get my headset out, and put my laptop on the desk. The other day I was getting ready to meet with a client, and as I walked into the kitchen to get a glass of water I was a bit confused as to why both dogs came along; normally when I walk around the house they ignore me. Then it struck me. Typically when I have Zoom meetings each of the dogs is given a frozen stuffed Kong to keep them busy so I can focus on my client. They have figured out that when I set-up for a meeting it predicts frozen yumminess is coming, and wanted to make sure they didn’t miss out.
Dogs like routine
Dogs are extremely good at discerning patterns and anticipating what happens next. Many times this can work in our favor. When I say “Let’s go to bed” both dogs run up to the bedroom and are already in their crates by the time I get there. They know that when I go out the front door they won’t be coming with me, because dogs only go out the back door.
For the most part dogs like routine because they like predictability. There are studies that young children feel more secure with a routine because they aren’t dealing of the uncertainty of what’s going to happen next. This is true for dogs as well, as long as the routine doesn’t predict that something stressful is about to happen.
Daily routine of owner can cause a dog anxiety
The unfortunate side to this canine ability to identify event patterns is that it can cause problems for dogs suffering from fear related issues or anxiety. Understanding a pattern can cause a dog to become fearful of the steps leading up to the event that was the original cause of the dog’s fear. So a dog who is afraid of the sound of thunder will start to become afraid during rainstorms even without the presence of thunder, and maybe become afraid even earlier in the change in weather – with panic starting perhaps with darkening skies or a drop in barometric pressure.
I've noticed my dog anxious before I leave
My clients often state: "My dog panics when I leave". After additional questions I'm not surprised to learn that the anxiety actually starts before the owner walks out the door.
When working with dog separation anxiety, we are very aware that dogs make correlations to events leading up to their owners leaving the home and leaving dogs behind. Things like putting on work clothing vs weekend clothing, putting on a jacket, picking up a wallet or purse, grabbing keys.
Departure cues will be different depending on the routine of the family, but there is always something different that people do when they’re going out without the dog, as opposed to when the dog will be coming along.
Dogs who see a pattern in these departure cues will start to exhibit anxiety when they see these departure behaviors being performed, even if it’s well before the owner actually walks out the door. The correlation between an owner wearing work clothes and leaving the house without the dog becomes strongly entrenched, and that association causes anxiety. The daily routine of dog/owner separations becomes a signal that tells the dog to start their anxiety.
In some cases the signs of the dog displaying anxiety and stress may be so subtle that they may be missed. Stress signals such as lip licking, yawning and big round eyes may not be registered as signs of anxiety by an owner used to overt signals such as dogs that bark when left alone in a continuous manner.
Departure cues in the dog separation anxiety training plan
So what can you do about it? In an earlier blog post I talked about how important it is that the dog never be left alone unless it’s during training at a duration we’re sure the dog can handle. If the dog is taken to day care or left with a sitter, many of these cues, over time, will lose the association of anxiety because even if they are performed the dog will never again experience the anxiety of being left alone.
Many trainers will have owners perform departure cues randomly throughout the day without pairing it with leaving or even with walking near the door. Sometimes these behavior cues will even be paired with food to change the association from one of anxiety to one of happy anticipation. In other words, pick up your keys, give the dog a treat, put the keys down - without ever taking a step towards the door.
With the method I use to treat separation anxiety we drop departure cues out as much as possible during the initial stages of training. Many times we’re starting at less than a minute, and so to ensure the dog is going to be as successful as possible we remove the additional stressors of things like picking up keys or a handbag, even putting on a coat or shoes if those are a trigger for the dog.
Yes, eventually the owner is going to need to take their keys and purse when they leave the dog home alone. But if we can get the dog comfortable with the leaving portion of the routine we may find that those former triggers have lost their connection to anxiety and it becomes a non-issue. If we find that those departure cues still trigger anxiety, we can work with the dog to change that emotional response before adding them back into the sequence of behaviors performed before leaving.
Working with dogs suffering from separation anxiety isn’t always as simple as building up the length of time the dog can cope with being alone. Departure cues are just one thing that trainers consider when coming up with training plans for their clients. If your dog panics when you leave the house I’d love to work with you and help you and your dog get back on track to enjoy life!