Independence training for dog separation anxiety

Treatment protocol for dog separation anxiety.
By Laure-Anne Viselé, October 2010; Last updated July 2012

Separation anxiety: what to do

To hear me talk of separation anxiety on iTalk FM radio, click here.

In this article, I give you a detailed treatment programme. This is appropriate for dogs that have started to exhibit separation distress to a minor to moderate degree. If the problem is getting worse, or if it is already quite intense, please contact a behaviour therapist for guidance. I would be happy to give you advice if you live in The Hague or region.

Two more articles were written in this series, with a slightly different angle:

And then of course, Jolanta Benal’s quick and dirty tips to leaving your dog home alone.

The goal of this programme

With this programme, I am aiming for a dog that feels safe with absences of up to 4-5 hours. Note that routinely leaving your dog alone for long periods is never pleasant for the dog, so try to find alternative solutions where at all possible (dog sitters, family, neighbours, working from home more, etc.).

The prognosis for separation anxiety is reasonably good if you can stick to the program. And that’s a big if, as the first few weeks require you not to leave the dog alone – at – all.

If you need someone to design a program adapted to your life circumstances, I am happy to help if you live in the Hague or region.

Separation anxiety: a treatment protocol

The idea behind this protocol is:

  • To gradually desensitize the dog to each step of your pre-departure routine: “routine rehearsal” through “safe sessions”;
  • To frequently expose your dog to truncated cues of your departure (e.g. jigging keys) without it actually resulting in your departure: “fake departure cues”; and
  • To gradually desensitize the dog to increasingly longer periods of absence whilst NEVER going far enough that the dog reacts: “duration build-up”

The beginnings

At the start of the treatment, you will have to avoid any absence that would cause the dog to react. If your dog is strongly separation averse, this may mean that you cannot leave the dog alone at all for the first few weeks.

It IS a lot to ask, but try to see it as a short-term investment for long-term peace of mind. You will never again need to worry about leaving the dog alone for a couple hours after this (if you keep up with the maintenance schedule, of course).

For the start of the programme, try to enrol the help of family members, neighbours, pet sitters, and try to work from home more. You could also try to delay the start of the treatment until you have long holidays, but don’t leave it too long as it’s the kind of condition that tends to worsen in time.


The stuffed toy

Get a new “comfort and distraction toy” for the dog.

It has to be new, as you will use this toy for “safe sessions” exclusively (see below). This toy will become a predictor that this instance of your departure is safe, and won’t be upsetting.

The toy must be:

  • Durable and resistant (won’t fall to pieces through long sessions of tough chewing), and
  • Able to contain food that the dog has to pry out.

Think something like a Kong (check out this article to see how to stuff a Kong really tight for longer durability) or a Squirrel Dude.

Problem-solving games and books

Think of games your dog could play in your absence (search for ‘games’ in my book reviews if you’d like a book recommendation on the subject). It needs to be mentally stimulating, safe to play in your absence, and reasonably long (no point if it’s over in an instant). You could, for example, have a box of cardboard ready with scruffed up newspaper in it, and at the bottom, lots of treats for him to find.

There are also lots of excellent brain games on the market, and some of them may be suitable for unsupervised play.

A stimulating toy won’t replace treatment, nor compensate for long absences, but it’ll take the edge off as you’ve just left. In many intense cases, the toy won’t even make a dent (if the dog is simply too distressed). So it’s just one of the weapons in your arsenal.

Recording material

We’re going to want to measure the problem before starting the protocol, and then, we’re going to measure progress. If you have a smart phone of tablet, try to find a “sleep talk recorder”. These apps only record above a certain volume threshold which you can set yourself. This is ideal to establish the severity of cases involving barking/whining.

We also need a means of picking up on stress signals when we are not in the house, so that we can come back before the response escalates.

  • You may want to attach a pet cam to your dog and record his movements so we can record agitation.
  • You may want to attach a cheap security camera or webcam in the room, and stream that to your phone or laptop outside.

Safe sessions

Intro to safe sessions

Safe sessions is a concept I had to come up with when I noticed that my clients’ real life imperatives were realistically going to be in the way of the perfect protocol. Safe sessions isolate the protocol from real life stuff, and leave you the flexibility to ‘screw up’ once in a while, without compromising the whole program.

This is the general principle: whenever we are rehearsing the departure routine, we tell the dog he’s just in rehearsal (by always using the same words before starting the session – like: ‘safe session’, and by always wearing the same hat or other distinctive apparel). We make our rehearsals closer and closer to real-life situations, but we always end the session BEFORE the dog is distressed. As rehearsals increase in duration and realism, you can start using the safety cue for real-life departures.

Sessions should be:

  • pleasant and entirely devoid of stress/punishment/anxiety
  • frequent (about 5x a day, more if you can)
  • far apart in time (about 1.5 hour apart at least)
  • calm – no excitedly rewarding the dog or petting it during the session.

Note: We will NOT be opening/closing sessions for the fake departure cues (one individual step e.g. jiggling keys), just for the pre-departure routine rehearsal (a sequence of steps).

For more on safe sessions, read the article on the science behind separation anxiety.

Step 1 – Identify your routine and the sub-threshold first step

Grab a pen and paper and act as though you were leaving home. Now write down every single step of your pre-departure routine.

Then test the dog by performing the first step of your routine. If he is showing signs of stress (see nerdy article for the more subtle ones), split that first step into more minor steps until you’ve found one the dog is not responding to.

Now get on with your business for about 1.5 hour. Don’t start the next session just yet.

Step 2 – The departure routine rehearsal safe sessions

Say ‘open session’, and wear your ‘safe session hat’.

Give the dog his ‘distraction toy’

Perform the first step of your routine, and go as far as you can before the dog starts showing subtle stress signals (as subtle as increased vigilance).

Say ‘close session’ clearly and calmly.

Walk back to the dog (calmly, not cornering him, not towering above him, not darting towards him, not charging him) and take his distraction toy back (to teach the dog to giving back his toy gracefully, read this article).

Do not sacrifice the sanctuary that is a safe session for the sake of covering more grounds. You’re building solid foundations here, and you’ll be making up for lost time later.

Fake departure cues

Step 1: list all departure cues

You’re going to be working on this in parallel with the work you’ve been doing above and you’ll continue ‘dropping departure cues’ even beyond the programme, as a maintenance measure.

So, over the course of the next few days, try to identify all the really typical pre-departure cues you are giving your dog. Do not think of a sequence, here, just individual steps. Things like grabbing your keys or putting on your jacket.

Step 2: Drop fake departure cues all the time

Do all the things on your list several times a day without following them by an actual departure. That way, more often than not, the departure cues will NOT get followed by a departure. This, in combination with announcing your ‘real’ departures with a special word and hat, will help decrease the dog’s sense of alertness/distress/arousal during your departure routine.  The previous cues lose their ‘predictive value’ (read the nerdy article if you like this kind of stuff), and therefore their power to distress.

When you do these things (e.g. putting your jacket on, jiggling your keys), keep it breezy. Don’t stare at the dog or praise the dog. Just do these things like it was the most normal thing in the world, then get on with your business.

Leaving the house and increasing duration

Getting over the threshold

If your rehearsal sessions have been going well, at some stage, you should have reached the point in the sequence when you reach for the door knob without the dog getting agitated.

The act of leaving the house itself is a big milestone, but you’ll need to reach it just the way you’ve reached all the steps in your departure sequence: by integrating it to your safe sessions.

It may be a tricky step to pass, so you will likely need to break it down into microsteps.

Increasing duration

Once the dog no longer responds to you crossing the threshold and closing the door behind you (use monitoring material here), start with absences of a minute or so, and gradually work your way up with safe sessions. Once you reach 5 minutes or so, start alternating the absence durations (with absences of respectively 2, 5, and 3 minutes respectively, for example) so that the dog does not learn to predict the exact duration of your absence.

If you notice the dog getting ready to be agitated (with  your remote monitoring material), come back in and end the session way before it escalates. The last thing we want is for you to come back in IN RESPONSE TO AGITATION, or it’ll reinforce it.

Keep at least 1.5 hour between sessions, even if each session is very short at the beginning. It tells you why in the science article.

Don’t forget to open and close the sessions, and to give and take back the Kong when you do.

Slowly but surely, you’ll hit 5 minutes, then 20, then 1 hour, etc. The biggest hurdle is the first 30 minutes. If you have passed that without any sign of discomfort from your dog, the prognosis is excellent.

This is where the suggestions I gave you about stuffing that Kong and games your dog can play alone will come in handy.

Must leave the dog alone before he’s ready?

If you really can’t find someone to look after your dog and you HAVE to leave the house, then try to make it as different from your rehearsed sessions as possible. Give him a comfort toy again, but one that is completely different to his session one and do not, I repeat DO NOT say the word ‘safe session’.

What could go wrong now?

Once you have reached your target duration, don’t get smug and maintain the precious grounds you’ve gained. Check out the good prevention habits to keep up.

Another thing that could go wrong is that you have not desensitized the dog to particular events during your absence, such as the doorbell or loud traffic. If you feel you can, try working on that before you work on the separation anxiety.

If you’re not getting anywhere, or you don’t feel you can tackle this on your own, please contact your local behaviour therapist. I can help you if you are in The Hague or region.


  • Are you coping with a dog with some form of separation anxiety?
  • Are you a therapist dealing with sep-anx cases?
  • Have you tried a successful approach to separation anxiety?

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