Behavior Modification & Training
If your dog is suffering from canine separation anxiety, take heart. This problem is surprisingly common, affecting approximately 13 million dogs in the United States.* No doubt about it, separation anxiety is frustrating and stressful to deal with. The good news is that it can be treated with consistency and patience, along with assistance from a certified dog trainer or canine behavior consultant.
* Assisi Animal Health Market Analysis, 2019.
Where to Begin
Separation anxiety symptoms are sometimes caused by other factors, such as an underlying medical condition or a lack of exercise. Before you embark on a behavior modification and training program, it’s important to rule out these possible causes first.
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What is Behavior Modification and Training?
This highly effective approach to treating separation anxiety includes counter conditioning and desensitization. These methods are typically used together to change your dog’s emotional response to being alone. Instead of being stressed out, your dog will feel calm and comfortable.
For the best results, we recommend working with a certified dog trainer or canine behavior consultant. An experienced professional can develop a program that addresses your dog’s special needs while providing guidance on positive training techniques and exercises.
What is Counter Conditioning?
This training method is used to change a dog’s reaction to a certain event from negative to positive. With separation anxiety, this means systematically teaching your dog that being away from you isn’t stressful or frightening — in fact, it’s relaxing. In mild cases, counter conditioning is sometimes all it takes to manage a dog’s separation anxiety issue. In more severe cases, desensitization is also needed.
How Does Counter Conditioning Work?
There are a few simple steps involved in training your dog to see your departure as a good (or neutral) thing. You can try counter conditioning on your own if your dog’s anxiety is mild. If their case is more severe, it’s a good idea to consult with a professional.
- Stock up on extra-special, long-lasting treats, such as stuffed Kongs or food puzzles. These treats should take your dog at least 15-20 minutes to finish.
- Before you leave your dog alone, give them one of these food-stuffed toys.
- When you return home, immediately put the toy away. This toy should only come out when you’re gone and gets put away when you return.
- Through associative learning and repetition, a dog begins to anticipate a delicious stuffed food puzzle toy any time you leave. Instead of worrying about your departure, they are waiting happily for their treat!
Tip: Start by leaving your dog alone for short periods of time, returning home before they finish their stuffed food puzzle. Then slowly begin to add more time to your absences.
What is Desensitization?
When you desensitize your dog, you’re helping them gradually build up their tolerance for being alone. The key to success is following your dog’s lead. If they’re pushed beyond their threshold, this can undo any progress and even make their separation anxiety worse.
In a perfect world, you would never leave your dog alone outside of their desensitization training sessions. This is the most challenging part of treatment, but also the most important. A certified dog trainer or canine behavior consultant can provide ideas and referrals to help ensure your dog always has someone with them, and if this isn’t possible, they will work with you to combine desensitization and counter conditioning methods. However, don’t be surprised if treatment takes much longer in these cases.
How Does Desensitization Work?
Because desensitization is a tricky process, we recommend you work with a professional. It’s important to understand subtle changes in your dog’s body language that indicate that they are about to become anxious, and a professional can help you identify these moments. Here are the steps involved:
- Identifying your dog’s threshold: Many dogs key in on the fact you’re leaving before you physically leave them alone, so their threshold (the point at which they start to show anxiety) might be when you brush your teeth, when you grab your bag, put on your jacket, or when you put on your shoes. Some dogs reach their threshold very early in a pre-departure routine, such as when you brew coffee in the morning. For other dogs, their threshold happens after they’ve been alone for a few minutes or a few hours.
- Systematic desensitization: Once your dog’s threshold has been identified, you’ll start at the point before they display their anxious behaviors:
If your dog’s anxiety is triggered by departure cues, you’ll need to desensitize them to these cues. For example: Putting your shoes on and then taking them off. Grabbing your keys and then putting them back. Brushing your teeth at various times of the day.
If your dog becomes distressed, say, five minutes after you’re gone, you would leave your dog alone for only three or four minutes before returning.
- Randomized repetition: Through careful and gradual desensitization, your dog’s threshold will shift. They’ll become acclimated to your departure cues and be able to spend longer periods of time alone without experiencing anxiety.
How Long Does Behavior Modification Take?
A behavior modification and training program requires a lot of commitment and patience, but the results are well worth it. Treatment time can range from a couple of weeks to a few months or even longer, depending on the severity of a dog’s symptoms and the consistency of their owner. Mild cases of anxiety can sometimes take even longer to treat than more severe cases. Every dog is different — some just need a little more time than others. It’s important to go at your dog’s pace in order to be successful.
How Much Does Behavior Modification Cost?
The cost to hire a certified dog trainer or canine behavior consultant depends on their experience level and your location. In-person sessions typically range from $85–$150 or more per hour. Some professionals offer virtual sessions, which range from $25–$75 per hour. The number of sessions needed will depend on the severity of your dog’s separation anxiety, how well they respond to the program, your preferences and budget.
There are additional expenses to consider: Depending on your dog’s treatment plan, you may need to hire a pet sitter or a dog walker or invest in doggie daycare until your dog can successfully stay home alone. You might also need to purchase certain supplies, such as a pet camera, dog crate, and food puzzles.
However, treatment can often cost less than repairing the damage to your home and treating a dog that injures themselves during an anxiety episode.
How Do I Find Professional Help?
To get a proper diagnosis of separation anxiety, consult with a certified canine professional. If your dog has a severe case of separation anxiety, a board-certified veterinary behaviorist (DACVB) may be your best bet. A behaviorist can prescribe anti-anxiety medication, in addition to working with you on a behavior modification and training program.
When choosing a professional, check with your own veterinarian, who may be able to provide a referral. You can also search here for a certified dog trainer or canine behavior consultant in your area.
Ask about their experience treating dogs with separation anxiety and their training philosophy and methods. If they use aversive training tools or punishment-based tools (also known as “balanced” methods), find someone else. A dog suffering from separation anxiety needs a compassionate leader who’s committed to positive reinforcement and confidence-building training methods.
Also, make sure the professional you choose is certified. (Although certification doesn’t guarantee that the trainer or consultant is the right match for you and your dog, it’s a great place to start — especially since the pet training industry is unregulated.) Credible certifications include:
- CDBC (Certified Dog Behavior Consultant)
- CBCC-KA (Certified Behavior Consultant, Canine – Knowledge Assessed)
- CPDT-KA (Certified Professional Dog Trainer – Knowledge Assessed)
- CSAT (Certified Separation Anxiety Trainer)
- CAAB (Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist)
- CTC (Certificate in Training and Counseling)
- KPA-CTP (Karen Pryor Academy – Certified Training Partner)
Training Tools to Avoid
Dogs that become anxious when left alone display certain behaviors because they’re stressed and frightened. It’s the equivalent of a human having a panic attack. Because the dog’s behaviors are involuntary (they truly can’t help it!), using aversive training tools won’t address their underlying anxiety — and in fact, will make the anxiety worse. Aversive tools include shock collars, spray collars and ultrasonic barking deterrents.
Dogs learn by association. And a dog with separation anxiety has already learned that being alone is scary. Using aversive tools will teach them that being alone is scary and causes them physical discomfort or pain. A gentle, positive approach is not only more effective in the long run, and it’s more humane.