You ever get the feeling someone is watching your every move? If you have a dog, someone is. When was the last time you walked into the kitchen without a pair of eyes following you? The last time you used the bathroom in private?
But no dog is more vigilant than a separation anxiety dog. His specialty? Identifying any attempt to leave the house.
Sometimes before you leave, you put on your sneakers and a sweatshirt and, for your dog, this is good because these are the things you do right before you grab his leash and walk out of the house with him. Other times you blow-dry your hair and put on heels, or you dress in golf pants instead of your work-day suit, and this is bad. Very bad. This means you are leaving for a long period of time and your dog isn’t going to be joining you.
Can a dog really know the difference between your golf pants and your work clothes? Yes. Dogs are experts at picking up on patterns of behavior, and if a specific action or object always precedes a scary experience, that action or object itself becomes a trigger to panic. This is why separation anxiety dogs are already anxious before you’ve even left the house; they know what’s coming and they are terrified.
For some dogs, these pre-departure cues occur in the last few minutes before you leave and include simple, actions like putting on a jacket, picking up keys and putting on your shoes. For other dogs, things that occur an hour or more before you leave the house — a morning alarm going off, for example, or preparing the breakfast protein shake you only drink on work days — can trigger a dog’s anxiety. I know of one separation anxiety dog who panicked any time his mom spritzed herself with her going-out-at-night perfume.
In order to help a dog overcome separation anxiety, it is as important to desensitize them to the predictors of an absence as to an absence itself. It is the way these pre-departure cues are worked into training, however, that determine how successful your dog will be at no longer panicking when they appear.
It’s nearly impossible to figure out how to deal with pre-departure cues when the internet is your guide. Pre-departure cues are mentioned frequently, but they are usually treated as an appetizer to the main course of teaching a dog to be alone.
The truth is that pre-departure cues are part and parcel of walking out the door. On an average day, you have a routine, one that your dog is highly aware of. At no time in your life together has your dog seen you put on and take off your jacket multiple times in a row before leaving. He’s never seen you turn the blow dryer on and off or lock and unlock the door over and over. These repetitive attempts to desensitize a dog to pre-departure cues are ineffective in large part because they are so far from the reality of you actually leaving the house, and your dog knows it. Pre-departure cues trigger anxiety precisely because they precede your departure.
Pre-departure cues must occur in the context of a real departure if you want to desensitize your dog to them, but they need to be slowly and carefully folded in. Separation anxiety dogs assign different value to different cues. The jangle of keys may spike one dog’s anxiety while another may barely notice them. Deconstructing your pre-departure routine is the only way to discover which cues may send your dog hurtling toward panic.
A good rule of thumb is to add only one pre-departure cue per training session and vary its appearance so you can measure your dog’s reaction to it. In other words, if you pick up your keys and step out the door for 30 seconds, perhaps do not pick up the keys on your next departure in the training session. If you had begun putting on your shoes and picking up your keys on the same day and saw your dog’s anxiety increase, you wouldn’t know which of the two was triggering it.
Once a departure cue has been added, it must continue to appear in future training sessions. As you include more and more of your routine in your practice absences, you’ll find your dog noticing them less and less. Before you know it, you — with shoes on your feet, blow-dried hair and keys in hand — will be able to leave the house while your best friend stays calmly behind.