Pre-departure Cues in Dog Separation Anxiety Training
Predeparture cues in dog separation anxiety training are super important, but what are they? Well, the role of pre-departure cues in dog separation anxiety training is critical to understand, because dogs are amazing at ‘joining the dots’ and if you have a dog struggling with alone time, then pre-departure cues are the tip offs that tell them ‘oh no, Mum’s about to leave’ and this is typically when you start to see your dog begin to get uneasy or for some dogs, yep panic….
In this article, we’re going to help you understand what pre-departure cues are, and how they affect dogs with separation anxiety aka isolation distress.
Understanding Dog Separation Anxiety and Pre-departure Cues
Definition of Separation Anxiety in Dogs
Separation anxiety in dogs, also known as canine separation anxiety, is a condition in which a dog exhibits signs of panic, distress, or anxiety when left alone or separated from their owner. This anxiety typically gets triggered when the dog recognizes pre-departure cues (PDQs) that signify their beloved owner is about to leave.
What Are Pre-departure Cues in Separation Anxiety Dog Training?
Pre-departure cues (or as we CSATs call them PDQs for short) are specific routines or habits that we have when leaving the house, and that your dog associates with being left and feeling distressed. Think of all of those things we do before we leave the house, our routines, and rituals.
Common predeparture cues might be
- Closing your curtains or blinds
- Picking up your keys
- Putting on your work shoes
- Grabbing your wallet or handbag
- Putting on a jacket
- Deadlocking the front door
- Driving your car out of the garage
You get the picture, right?
But there are other less obvious predeparture cues too such as :
- Filling a snuffle mat with treats
- Stuffing a Kong
- Switching on calming music for dogs
- Setting up your dog cameras
- Giving your dog a kiss goodbye
- Setting your home alarm
- Checking your hair in the mirror
- Spraying perfume
- Brushing your teeth
You probably saw some PDQs you do yourself there, that you thought were meant to help with separation anxiety like filling up a food toy, right? Read why we don’t use food in separation anxiety training.
Why Are Pre-departure Cues Important?
PDQs are important because they signal to our dog BEFORE we’ve even left that the stressful thing is coming – uh oh! Dogs learn by association, with every little thing in their day to day life being watched and observed, and they pick up on our patterns of behaviour.
Think about the routine of an average morning – perhaps we wake up, have breakfast, feed our dog, pick up the lead, and then take them for a walk. This order of events forms a predictable join the dots pattern, and is why you’ll frequently have an excitable dog on your hands sometimes first thing in the morning, and for others when you pick up the lead to signal ‘walkies’. We call this a Conditioned Emotional Response (CER) and it is often a good thing!
It’s the same with pre-departure cues, only the Conditioned Emotional Response (CER) is negative – closing the curtains and putting on your work shoes can quickly mean ‘oh no they’re going to leave me’ to your dog, as they anticipate the next event in the chain to be a panicked feeling at being left alone.
When we do separation anxiety training with a dog, we want to REMOVE stressors, and not have them over-threshold, in order to get out of the door and begin departure training, so we have to work carefully with PDQs for success in training.
How do people get PDQ training wrong?
The most common thing I see when people have been done PDQ training wrong, is that they have been told to do their PDQs over and over again.
I also see people told over and over to use food toys to counter condition the sad feeling of you leaving. I address that in the article why we don’t use food in separation anxiety training.
Let’s get into that repetition of PDQs angle a little bit…
Desensitisation Vs Sensitisation
Desensitisation is the goal when working with separation anxiety, it means making the dog less sensitive to you leaving. Through gradual exposure, done slowly over time, the dog becomes much less bothered about you leaving. Sensitisation is the opposite, and means the dog becomes MORE sensitive, the total opposite of what we are looking for.
When looking at repetition of PDQs, (which is commonly advised) we are either:
- drawing attention to something the dog wasn’t bothered about before
- repeating a fear inducing cue with a negative CER attached to it over and over again – you might also call this flooding, and it’s not humane
A dog with separation anxiety requires a strategic and well-thought-out training plan, that incorporates departure training (you getting out of the door, and yes, leaving the house without your dog!) along with sensitively done PDQ training.
Employing Pre-departure Cues in the Training Session
In the training session, pre-departure cues are used systematically and layered and folded into departure training for the ultimate success. Some PDQs might be essential to you leaving – you need to lock your door if you’re leaving for some time after all, but how about we put them in your pocket earlier on in the day, so the noise prior to training doesn’t let your dog off?
Another example might be shoes, perhaps you could put your shoes in the porch, or just outside your apartment door?
We can be really clever and systematic about how we work with pre-departure cues, so that separation anxiety training plans are effective and work.
Enhancing Training Outcomes with a Departure Strategy
Defining Departure Strategies in the Context of Dog Training
A departure strategy aims to make an owner’s exit less stressful for the dog. By creating a departure plan for separation anxiety training sessions (missions) we can remove pushing the dog over the threshold before we even walk out the door.
Brainstorming Pre-departure Cues
One of the first things I do once I start working with a client on their dog’s separation anxiety is to ask them to brainstorm their predeparture cues, the picking up keys, or putting on shoes etc.
I typically ask them about their leaving routine during our intitial assessment, but also ask them to go into further detail to work out all of the things that their dog may interpret as them about to leave.
By doing this, we can then work on a departure plan that doesn’t make our dog feel stressed. Getting out of the front door is a huge hurdle, and extremely reinforcing for my clients, so let’s get there as quickly as possible, without triggering your dog’s anxiety! 😎
Food Toys and Other Tools in Making Departures Less Stressful
While people lean in on food toys and some will even say they play a significant role in managing dog separation anxiety, they can be a HUGE PDQ and hinder the training process. These toys can often distract the dog from the anxiety-inducing departure, but after the toy is empty they go back to panic, or a bit like me crying into a pint of ice cream, it doesn’t make things feel better, I just like the ice-cream.
Enrichment toys keep your dog mentally stimulated during absences, and I absolutley love them, but they won’t fix separation anxiety.
Getting Additional Help: Canine Separation Anxiety Trainer(CSAT) Resources
When to Consider Getting a Professional Dog Trainer
Every dog responds differently to DIY separation anxiety training plans, and you may want to consider hiring a professional dog trainer if your efforts aren’t getting the results you need. Certified separation anxiety trainers (CSATs) are specialists in this field and will design customised training programmes that are bespoke to you, and your situation.
Value of CSATs in Alleviating Dog Separation Anxiety
CSATs provide a systematic, process-based approach to help your dog learn to be comfortable when left alone. Through gradual, incremental exposure to absences and pre-departure cues, a CSAT can help reduce your dog’s anxiety, and give you your freedom back.
CSATs will typically work alongside Vets and Veterinary Behaviourists to ensure your dog gets help with ant-anxiety medication for more effective learning.
What is separation anxiety training for dogs?
Separation anxiety training refers to the process of teaching a dog to be calm and comfortable when left alone or separated from their owner or familiar environment.
How can I create a training plan for my dog with separation anxiety?
To create a training plan for a dog with separation anxiety, it’s worth consulting with a certified separation anxiety trainer, even if it’s just for an initial assistant and the first week of training to save costs and set you up! They can help assess your dog’s specific needs and develop a customized training programme.
What is desensitisation in dog separation anxiety training?
Desensitisation is a technique used in separation anxiety training where the dog is gradually exposed to the triggers that cause their anxiety. The goal is to minimize the fear or panic response by slowly and safely increasing the dog’s tolerance.
How can I help my dog overcome separation anxiety?
Helping a dog overcome separation anxiety requires patience, consistency, and a structured training plan. It is important to gradually expose the dog to the triggers of their anxiety while not tiping them over threshold.
Should I work with a dog sitter, CSAT or a veterinarian to train my dog with separation anxiety?
Yes, dog owners will find it helpful to work with a host of professionals if they can afford to. A CSAT to help you develop a behaviour modification plan, a veterinarian to help with any health issue or medication, and a professional dog sitter or walker to avoid leaving your dog for longer than they can cope with.
Sounds expensive right? There are ways a CSAT will help you to negotiate free or low cost options to help your dog with alone time.
What is systematic desensitisation in separation anxiety training?
Systematic desensitisation is a gradual process of exposing a dog to situations that would normally trigger their anxiety while ensuring that the dog remains relaxed. This technique involves starting with very low-intensity triggers and slowly working up to more challenging situations as the dog becomes more comfortable.
How can I help my dog stay calm when I leave them alone?
Don’t leave them longer than they can handle, work out a baseline of time they can handle and start from that point.
Can I start separation anxiety training even if my dog has already developed anxiety symptoms?
Yes, most clients come to me with a dog who has already developed separation anxiety (though some will also come for advice on preventing their dog from developing separation anxiety) so my job is to teach them how to help their dog overcome it. With patience and consistency, you can help your dog learn new coping mechanisms and gradually reduce their anxiety levels.