Separation anxiety training is very different from most training, including most forms of behavior modification. In separation anxiety, we aren’t aiming to teach new behaviors, and we don’t use counter conditioning. We almost never use food or toys, and our end goal is a dog who is disinterested in their owner. In separation anxiety training, we are aiming for gradual desensitization, which is something that most people with pet dogs have never done before… So here's what you need to know before you get started on your separation anxiety training journey.
1. Separation Anxiety Training is Slow by Design.
Separation anxiety training is slow. It should be slow, it needs to be slow. Separation anxiety training should be subthreshold work, which means that we are going at the dog’s pace. When we are working with dogs with anxiety, this almost always means that we will be moving at a snail’s pace. This can be frustrating for owners, especially because it moves much slower than any training they have done with “normal” dogs that they have had in the past. Many owners get nervous that their dog is not making enough progress. A dog trainer who is certified to treat separation anxiety will recognize when your dog is progressing too slowly or has become stagnant, and help you remedy the issue. If you find yourself getting frustrated with the pace of separation anxiety training, just remember that slow consistency is proven to be the most effective way to help your dog through these behaviors.
2. Separation Anxiety Training is Always Virtual!
There are many reasons for this. Both of the two certifying bodies for trainers that specialize in separation anxiety teach virtual training methods, because it is well known to be the most effective way to work through these issues. Because separation anxiety training plans mostly consist of leaving your dog alone, it makes sense that you don’t need a trainer to come out to your house to work on it! Virtual training is important for separation anxiety training because we do not want the presence of the trainer to become a predictor of alone time for the dog. We also want to practice alone time in a real life context, and your dog trainer does not come to your house every time you need to leave. This way, you can get up from your couch and leave the house, just like you would in everyday life. Virtual training also allows for a bit more flexibility in scheduling, which makes it easier to practice with your trainer in different contexts, like before you leave for work, or on your lunch break!
3. Separation Anxiety is Super Individual. There is a general plan that most trainers tend to follow to treat separation anxiety, but the treatment for each dog will end up being incredibly individualized. Separation anxiety training is very data driven, so your dog’s reaction to each repetition of alone time will affect how we shift their training plan moving forward. It is really important not to compare your progress to anybody else’s. Dogs are not racing each other through the same training program. A regression in training is not a failure, it is a sign that we need to restructure our training plan to fit your dog’s needs!
4. Regressions are Common. Regressions are incredibly common, they happen in almost every training journey, and usually they happen many times. Trainers would be surprised to hear about a dog who never experienced a regression in separation anxiety training. Regressions can happen because we accidentally push into a dog’s threshold, and need to go back to practice at a lower duration of alone time. They can also happen because we haven’t been practicing consistently enough, or because we practiced too many times in a day. Regressions sometimes happen because there was a loud noise while the dog was home alone, sometimes they happen because the dog was left alone on a day they weren’t feeling good, and sometimes they happen for seemingly no reason at all. It is completely normal for dogs to backslide during separation anxiety training. If your dog is stuck after a regression, or if they really are not progressing forward in their training, your certified trainer will be able to help you figure out how to modify your training plan to work through that obstacle.
5. Small Wins are the Best Wins! You already know that separation anxiety training will be slow, but what you might not know yet is just how good the small victories will feel! For some dogs, our first big win is being able to step out of the door without any panic. For some dogs, we will be able to walk to the elevator without hearing a howl! For some dogs, we might be able to run to get coffee and come back! These wins may sound insignificant, but for those of us who are working through separation anxiety, they are huge wins. In all likelihood, it will take time before we get to go to dinner without worrying, or go to work without having to check our cameras, but getting freedom back bit by bit is so incredibly rewarding. Knowing your dog is comfortable while you venture out of the house without them is an indescribable feeling for our separation anxiety clients.
Separation related behaviors are a unique challenge for pet owners and dog trainers alike. Luckily, we have a lot of knowledge that allows us to address these behaviors in a humane, efficient, and effective manner. Separation anxiety takes patience and time, and it is important to trust the process. Your dog trainer will be there for you to reassure you that you are making a reasonable amount of progress, and help you work around any obstacles that stand in your way. Slow and steady really does win the race to defeat separation anxiety. Are you ready to get started with your program? Learn more NOW!