Treating Separation Anxiety in Dogs

Updated: Apr 19

I remember years ago watching one of the news magazine programs on TV. The story that night was about a woman who was severely phobic of spiders; it was so bad that her phobia was impacting her ability to function. The woman was so fearful that she had to constantly scan rooms to make sure there weren’t any spiders or webs, and had trouble focusing on tasks as she was worried there could potentially be a spider in the environment. It was a huge impediment to her quality of life since she was always in a state of anxiety.

spiders in web

The story followed her through her therapy to treat her phobia. The process exposed her to spiders at such minimal levels it didn’t elicit her fear, and gradually increased the difficulty level as she progressed.

First she was shown photographs of plush toy spiders which wasn't much of a concern to her. She was then was exposed to the same toy spiders, but at a distance. The therapist she was working with made sure that the spiders she was seeing and experiencing were never at a level that she couldn’t cope with. Only once she felt comfortable at one level of exposure did the therapist slightly increase the intensity of the next.

This type of therapy is called desensitization, and is commonly used as part of a treatment program by mental health professionals working with patients suffering from extreme phobias. It’s also the same therapy that professional dog trainers use to treat separation anxiety in dogs when left alone.

Separation anxiety is a phobia about being alone, or, in some cases, being without a particular person. We have limitations when treating dogs for phobias, because we can't use many of the techniques that are used for people.

For instance, one treatment method used with people to help resolve phobias is called "Imaginal Exposure Therapy", in which the patient is asked to imagine the situation that the fear so that those fearful feelings are experienced in a safe place and are not happening for real. For obvious reasons we can't use this type of treatment with dogs. But dog separation anxiety training can use desensitization for a dog that suffers from isolation distress, and it is the best way to actually cure the dog and eventually stop the dog’s anxiety when the owner is absent.

How do you train a dog with separation anxiety?

Dog separation training involves identifying how long the dog can be left alone without exhibiting subtle signs of anxiety, and gradually increasing the duration of those absences. We always want the dog to remain under their anxiety threshold so that they can learn that there is nothing unsafe about being alone. Because of this, the increase in duration from session to session can seem so microscopically small it doesn’t seem much in the way of progress.

But these micro increases are important when treating dog separation anxiety, as the dog doesn’t experience a large jump in the duration of their owner’s absence and is more likely to be successful. We want the duration increases small so that the dog doesn't really realize the owner was gone longer than they were the previous training session.


Additionally, during owner absences we want to be able to observe the dog for any change in body language that may indicate the dog is starting to feel anxious about being alone. Unlike working with a person who suffers from phobias who can tell us how they feel, we need our powers of observation to determine when a dog is escalating in anxiety. Observing the dog remotely during training absences allows the owner to return before the dog escalates to pure panic and we can avoid the dog going over threshold.

Luckily for owners of dogs suffering from separation anxiety, technology has progressed enough to allow viewing your dog remotely by camera is easy and is fairly inexpensive. Being able to observe the dog remotely and live has revolutionized dog training for separation anxiety.

If you do a web search for "separation anxiety cures for dogs" you'll see a lot of advice advocating leaving the dog for short periods of time and returning, gradually increasing the length of the absence. Some of the sites I've seen recommend starting at a minute absence and quickly work your way up to 5 minutes.

The problem with this recommendation is that it doesn't take into consideration what the dog's starting capabilities are. Some dogs have such extreme anxiety they are over threshold of anxiety even before the owner walks through the door. Each dog is an individual and the starting point will depend on what they can cope with. And building duration will depend on how stress free they were on the previous duration.

The more we set the dog up for success and keep them from panicking when alone, the faster the process will actually go. Pushing the dog to do more before they can handle it will actually prevent the dog from making progress. “Slow and steady wins the race” may not be good advice for someone running a 100 yard dash (or Fast CAT for you sporting dog people), but it’s perfect when working with a dog that suffers from anxiety when left alone.

If you would like help with putting together a desensitization training plan for your dog, and being coached through the process, I would love to work with you. As a certified separation anxiety trainer I can offer you the support and expertise that will help you and your dog!

Check out my process, pricing and packages!

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