If your dog has separation anxiety it will help if you ignore them for a few minutes before you leave, and for a few minutes after you return home.
This is common advice I see on the internet not only posted by well-meaning armchair dog behaviorists, but veterinary clinics, some professional dog trainers, and animal welfare organizations. I believe this recommendation came about because you don’t want the dog to become over-excited before you leave, or when you return. The goal is relaxation, not anticipation. Since this advice is so prevalent and promoted by canine experts, it must be valid, right?
I’ve had a very different experience working with my separation anxiety clients over the past two years. With separation anxiety training the owner leaves the house for the period of time that won’t trigger anxiety in the dog. Each training session consists of multiple departures and returns, with 30 to 60 seconds between repetitions.
Ignoring the dog
I first noticed an issue with ignoring the dog when I watched video of a client’s training session and saw that with every repetition the dog was increasingly becoming stressed. I also noticed that during the session the owner didn’t acknowledge the dog in any way; just walked past him as if he wasn’t there. Her behavior during this training session was likely influenced by that common advice I wrote about at the beginning of the post.
On a hunch I asked the client to look at the dog as she walked in and calmly greet him each time. The next video I saw was very different. The dog was much more relaxed during the entire training session, and continued to make good progress with this small change in the departure exercises.
It was shortly after this experience that I came across a pilot study that was done with a small number of dogs and their owners. Ten dogs were tested two different times by being separated from their owner. Each separation involved handing the leash over to a stranger, while the owner went out of sight for 3 minutes. For a minute during one separation the owner ignored the dog before leaving. With the next separation the owner petted the dog for a minute before leaving.
The results of the study were: “When dogs were petted before separation, they displayed behaviors indicative of calmness for a longer period while waiting for the owner's return, and their heart rate showed a marked decrease after the test.
To be clear, this was only a pilot study with an extremely small number of dogs and more research needs to be done. Additionally, the study did not target dogs that suffer from separation anxiety. However, after reading this study I started asking many of my clients to calmly pet their dogs before walking out the door during separation anxiety departure training.
In one case I was on Zoom with a client going through a training session live. As I watched, I could see the dog standing in front of the door with the tail dropping lower with each repetition as the owner walked out the door. After several repetitions I asked the owner to sit on the floor with the dog and pet her before doing the next repetition. By the end of the training session the dog was completely relaxed and laying on her side while the owner walked out, and remained in that relaxed state until the owner came back in.
Enthusiastic departures and arrivals
A related myth to making sure you ignore your dog for a period of time before you leave and when you come home, is that being overly enthusiastic when you come home can cause or exacerbate separation anxiety. The theory here is that when the human is around things are fantastic, but when the human isn’t home things stink.
Although the pilot study I referenced above may not be credible because of the small sample size, there is another study that was published in the Journal of Veterinary Behavior in 2020.
This study explored whether highly excited departures and greetings influence separation-related behavior in newly adopted dogs. In the first experiment, dogs exposed to high arousal interactions did not show an expected increase in specific behaviors when left alone.
The second experiment, involving owner surveys, yielded unexpected results: dogs with reported separation anxiety experienced slightly lower arousal levels. This contradicts the researcher’s hypothesis that “dogs with reported canine separation anxiety would have been exposed to higher arousal levels during departures and arrivals.”
Overall, the study suggests that high excitement during arrivals and departures may not play a causal role in the development of increased separation-related behavior in newly adopted dogs.
While the advice to ignore a dog before leaving and after returning home is widespread, research shows this may not be a good approach, especially for dogs dealing with separation anxiety. The conventional wisdom is challenged by both anecdotal evidence and emerging studies. Although the cited pilot study with a small sample size shows there may be benefits to petting a dog before departing, further research is necessary to draw definitive conclusions.
The approach of calmly petting the dog before departure, as suggested by the pilot study and supported by practical experiences, shows that ignoring the dog may not only be unnecessary, but could be detrimental to the training. Professionals working with owners on separation anxiety need to consider the individual needs of each dog, and see what kind of departure and arrival interactions will be most beneficial.
The study published in the Journal of Veterinary Behavior offers additional complexity to the discussion, suggesting that highly excited departures and greetings may not necessarily contribute to separation-related behavior issues in newly adopted dogs.
These studies show that a one-size-fits-all strategy of owner-dog interactions may not be appropriate when performing behavior modification for separation anxiety. Dog owners and trainers should remain open to adapting their methods based on the unique needs and responses of each canine companion.