We all know that to teach dogs to handle being alone we have to go in and out the door a bunch of times and do things like jingle our keys, put our coat on and off, and pick up and put down our bags and briefcase.
Why then do most dogs NOT improve when we do so? The answer: Because they are scared.
"Right," you say. "Of course they are scared. That's why I'm doing all these silly exercises -- to teach them that I always come back in."
Yes. But in order for the training to work, we need to do these exercises UNDER the point where the dog becomes frightened. For some dogs, the simple act of you touching the door handle is terrifying to them, because every other time you did it they were left home alone in an absolute panic. Other dogs might be okay for a minute or even 10 minutes, but once you cross that line, they melt down.
And once you've passed that "fear threshold" line, not only are you NOT teaching your dog that there is nothing to worry about, but you might actually be making things worse. If each time you open that door up, your dog is already terrified, then continuing to do it over and over again is likely adding to his or her fears.
In order for the training to work, we need to do these exercises UNDER the point where the dog becomes frightened.
Become fluent in reading your dog's body language
The art to the science of separation anxiety training is becoming fluent in your dog's body language. By watching for things like yawning, lip licking, and scratching, as well as how tense or relaxed the dog looks, and what his ears, eyes, and tail are doing, we can figure out exactly where the line is drawn from the point of your dog feeling cool, calm, and collected, to your dog starting to panic.
Take a look at these images from the body language gallery on iSpeakDog:
Can you see the differences between the top row and the bottom row? Something as subtle as your dog raising her paw or licking her lips is an indicator that she is starting to get scared. Does your dog yawn when you walk away? He's likely not tired. That yawn could very well be a clue that he's stressed.
Notice how you can clearly see whites of the eyes in the top row. That's a big tip-off that your dog is feeling distressed.
Now compare the two dogs on the right side of the rows. Is it obvious to you that the top dogs is feeling very uncomfortable and the bottom one looks like she doesn't have a care in the world?
The art to the science of separation anxiety training is becoming fluent in your dog's body language.
Go at the dog's pace
Once you can recognize what fear looks like on your dog, you are closer to helping him overcome that fear. The trick is to always keep him below that fear threshold line. Of course that is easier said than done when dealing with separation anxiety, because if your dog can only handle being alone for 10 seconds, you need to find creative solutions to making sure he's kept company at all other times. For help with that, check out this wonderful blog post from my colleague Carol Peter on crowdsourcing alone-time alternatives.
Hire a trainer
As I said, the art in separation anxiety training is being able to read your dog's body language, to know how little or how far you can push your dog in the training. I realize it sounds greedy for me -- a trainer -- to suggest that you work with a trainer for separation anxiety, but this body language stuff can be really tricky. For that reason, I do suggest working with a trainer at least at the beginning so that you two can figure out together where your dog's fear threshold line is.
Trust me. I know where I'm coming from. To this day I still reach out to my colleagues for help if Emma the Beagle struggles with being alone. It's very difficult to stay unbiased when so much is riding on our pup succeeding and, thus, giving us the freedom to leave the home again without worry. So, it's really common to push too quickly or even go too slowly if we ourselves are really scared.
We want to find the pace that is just right, so that we can all live happily ever after. By learning to read our dog's body language, we can do just that.
Tracy Krulik, CTC, CSAT
Certified separation anxiety trainer, founder of iSpeakDog, and mom to Emma the Bravest Beagle.