Reframing Goals in Separation Anxiety Training: Comfort When Home Alone is More Important Than Time on the Clock
In separation anxiety training — and any training for fear and anxiety — it’s critical to keep the dog feeling comfortable and to progress at whatever pace is needed to keep the dog feeling safe. With separation anxiety training, that means focusing on your dog’s comfort level when home alone. When we have a duration-based goal in mind, it’s hard to remember that the more crucial aspect is the dog’s comfort level, rather than the time on the clock. That’s why I wanted to write this post about reframing the way we think of our training goals for separation anxiety.
When we build a training plan, we start with whatever the dog can do right now. The last part of the training plan is the overall goal we’re trying to achieve. Then we add all the little steps in between to get us from point A to point B, adjusting and modifying along the way based on what we observe and learn from the dog. Training is a process.
It’s the same with separation anxiety. We start with the dog can do comfortably right now, without any sign of fear or stress. That might be the guardian stepping outside the door for 5 minutes, stepping out for 5 seconds, walking towards the door, simply standing up or anything in between. We then build up the intensity in small increments, however tiny the dog needs. Once the dog is comfortable with the guardian stepping out the door, the increments tend to be teensy increases in duration.
Because we are setting a target duration for a particular session, it’s hard not to focus on the time on the clock. But when we do that, we’re focusing on the wrong thing. It can compel one to press on with the session, even when there are signs that a dog might be struggling.
We need to focus on the dog’s comfort level. The target duration is simply the cutoff point for the session so we don’t accidentally push the dog too far. It should feel like the dog could have easily done more.
We don’t want the dog to just be hanging in there, experiencing some level of the fear and stress. That will work against our goal of teaching the dog it’s safe to be home alone.
And sure, we make mistakes, and dogs have good and bad days. If that happens and we see discomfort start to creep in, we stop the session and make adjustments so the discomfort is less likely to happen again.
Focus on a stress-free absence. Progress however slowly your dog needs to remain comfortable at every step along the way. View the target duration as the cutoff point for the session — and stop even earlier if you see signs of discomfort. In the long run you’ll get there faster by going more slowly, focusing on the dog’s comfort rather than time on the clock.