Separation Anxiety Part II-Counter Conditioning

In my last post, I discussed options for people who were struggling with finding ways to help their dog be more comfortable with being home alone. In this post I’m going to discuss the topic of counter conditioning for separation anxiety.

Firstly, let me explain what counter conditioning is. Counter conditioning is the process where you change the way your dog has been behaving. It can be a slow process because your dog has already learned one way of behaving, and now it needs to be changed, for whatever reason.

It is not easy to convince a dog that what they have been doing needs to be changed, because on some level the behaviour has been working for them, otherwise they would not have continued with it. Dogs only continue to do what works for them.

Counter conditioning for separation anxiety involves changing the way your dog behaves (through building a positive associations) when you leave the house. Your dog can then start to cope with the little steps towards being left alone. Often, in cases of separation anxiety, any sign of your eminent departure will start to effect your dog, even before you have left the house.

You can start this process by observing your dog for a week. Become familiar with canine body language so you can identify signs of stress in your dog. You will find a pattern of when your dog starts to show signs of stress before you leave the house. Dogs are very good at understanding routine, if you brush your teeth, put your shoes on, and leave, they may start to stress while you are brushing your teeth.

After observing your dog for stress signs, you will need to take some time off work or school. A full day alone should be worked up to slowly.

Over a few days, as long as you are running though your departure stages and do not leave, you will notice your dog relaxing. Through this process you should reinforce your dog if you notice any signs of happy behaviour in your dog- a tail wag, laying down, slow relaxed breathing, taking and eating treats etc. This will create a positive association with your departure routine. You are starting to change the way your dog behaves through counter conditioning.

The hallmark, and perhaps the biggest problem, with treating dogs with separation anxiety, is that they will not be occupied with any food or toys because they are too stressed. By slowing going through the above process of counter conditioning, you will be able to get to a point where your dog will occupy themselves with an edible chew- hooray! This is a huge step, because once you get to this point, you can use food to occupy your dog while you are gone for increasing amounts of time.

Your dog needs to feel comfortable at the above stages before progressing to you actually leaving. The next step would be to run through your departure routine and leave the house (don’t forget to leave your dog with an edible treat). Perhaps you can simply go out and check the mail box and work up from there, with such exercises as- walking to the end of your street, then around the block, then leaving with the car for a minute etc. Your goal is to work up to a full day, or how ever long you will usually be gone for.

Here are some things, seemly unrelated, that work well in conjunction with a counter conditioning program for separation anxiety….

In some instances, perhaps the most extreme cases, at the beginning of your counter conditioning program you may like to see your vet for some medication or calming pheromones (as a plug in to an electrical socket). You can use these with the long term view of eliminating the need for these interventions as you progress.

I would also encourage you to enrol your dog in to basic obedience. Find a trainer that uses reward based training to shape behaviour. This kind of training will build your dogs’ confidence. When dogs participate in this kind of training they are not punished for trying something that may be wrong. They are rewarded for behaviour that is correct.

This method of training requires your dog to use their brain to solve the problems of which behaviour elicits food, and which behaviour does not. This brain training builds confidence and resilience, something that is missing in dogs that suffer separation anxiety.

Teaching your dog to ‘stay’ will also reap rewards. This is an obedience exercise that can help with separation issues. It helps your dog learn to be comfortable while you move away, and that you will return. Although, ‘stay’ should only be used to leave your dog for a short amount of time (no more than a couple of minutes), and you should always return and release your dog from the stay position. Please see my post on stay for a comprehensive run down of this exercise.

As well as the above ideas, counter conditioning should also be used with some advice I gave in my previous post, please review this.

Separation anxiety can be extremely disruptive and stressful. This post is intended as a preliminary guide only, and if your dog is suffering please employ the help of a good trainer or behaviourist that uses a gentle training method.

Photo iStockphoto.com/Hedda Gjerpen

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3 Responses to Separation Anxiety Part II-Counter Conditioning

  1. Charles says:

    Whats a good to keep Separation Anxiety from ever even happening?

    • katarina says:

      Thanks for your question. Starting off with brief times alone is great. Confinement areas in the house are great for this because your dog will have to stay in one room as you move through the house and come and go. Such short times alone like this are great as a starting point. As your puppy develops some confidence in the home and in you longer periods alone should go smoothly. Environment enrichment is also great as it will stop your dog from even starting to work themselves up to the point of anxiety.

  2. Charles says:

    Seems like we’re off to a good start then, he spends time away from me, and will only poke his nose in if I’m making noise.

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