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Decoding Predeparture Cues for Separation Anxiety in Dogs - 5 Top Tips

Brown dog waits For Return Of People Back Home Standing At Front Entrance Door

As dog parents, we often marvel at our bond with our furry companions. We know that dogs are incredibly intuitive creatures, able to sense our emotions and read our body language with uncanny accuracy. But have you ever stopped to consider how well your dog knows you?

For dogs with separation anxiety, these predeparture cues can trigger intense feelings of fear and distress. They may start whining, pacing, panting heavily, or more. 

Take Mojo, for example—a black Labrador Retriever owned by my friend Lee Anne. When she would say, "I'm going downstairs”, Moto would (you guessed it!) start galavanting down the stairs. Lee Anne didn't even move. Mojo understood and would dash to the basement before Lee Anne could look in that direction.How about you?

Does your dog recognize the sound whenever you open a bag or treats or go through feeding motions?

Or perhaps your dog won't leave your side when you're sick, sad, or in pain.

Our precious dogs are so smart. They pick up on subtle cues and behaviors from us, often without us realizing it—this is a blessing. Still, for dogs with separation anxiety, predeparture cues can trigger intense reactions that make it difficult for you to leave the house. 

Separation anxiety is a common issue characterized by extreme fear or distress when dogs are left alone or separated from their pet parent. Dogs with separation anxiety may exhibit destructive behavior, excessive barking or whining, pacing, drooling, house soiling, and other symptoms of distress. For other articles on separation anxiety, see 

What are Predeparture Cues?

Our ultimate loyal pals sometimes get the blues when left alone, and predeparture cues can trigger the "don't leave me!" meltdown.

Predeparture cues are routine actions or behaviors a person performs before leaving home, such as grabbing keys, putting on shoes, or picking up a purse. These cues can create anxiety in dogs with separation issues because they associate these actions with being left alone.

Recognizing Predeparture Cues

To effectively address separation anxiety, it's crucial to recognize the predeparture cues that trigger anxiety in your dog. Start by observing your dog's behavior while going through your leaving routine. Do they become anxious or agitated? Do they start pacing or whining? These are signs that your dog is reacting to your predeparture cues.

Below are five things you can do to help your dog get more comfortable being left home alone.

1- Desensitization

Gradually desensitize your dog to your predeparture cues by repeating them without actually leaving. For example, pick up your keys and then sit back down—this can help your dog learn that these cues don't necessarily mean you’re leaving.

2- Counterconditioning

Pair your predeparture cues with something positive, like giving your dog a treat or a favorite toy—this can help change your dog's emotional response to these cues from anxiety to the anticipation of something good.

Note: leaving food with your dog when you leave generally does not help your dog feel comfortable alone. If your dog will even eat when left alone, they will start panicking as soon as the food is gone. Additionally, it may cause your dog to get anxious when food is offered because it becomes its own predeparture cue!

Let's use Mojo as an example again. Lee Anne decided to pair her departure cues with positive reinforcements. When she grabbed her keys, she gave Mojo his favorite chew bone. Over time, Mojo began associating Lee Anne's departure with the excitement of receiving a chew, easing his anxiety and changing his response from fear to anticipation.

3- Create a Safe Space

Give your dog a comfortable and safe space to feel secure when you're not home. I do not recommend creating it because it can cause additional distress to your dog.

An example of a comfortable and safe space for a dog when you're not home could be a designated corner of the living room. Place a soft, cozy bed, your dog's favorite blanket, and some preferred toys.

You could also include clothing that smells like you to provide comfort. Ensure this space is accessible at all times and is in a quiet, peaceful area of your home where the dog can observe its surroundings without feeling isolated.

4- Exercise and Mental Stimulation

Give your dog plenty of exercise and mental stimulation to help reduce their overall anxiety levels. 

Many pet parents forget that mental stimulation can be as important as physical exercise for dogs. However, use mental stimulation when you are home and not before you leave. 

An example of mental stimulation for a dog is food puzzle toys. These feeders require dogs to solve simple problems to access their food, which can keep their minds active and engaged.

By hiding treats inside the puzzle, the dog needs to figure out how to move parts to reveal the treats—this can be as much fun for you to watch as it is for your pup to enjoy. 

This activity stimulates their brain but also slows eating, which can be beneficial for digestion and prolong the enjoyable mealtime experience. 

5- Seek Professional Help

If your dog's separation anxiety is severe, please seek professional help. Not only will this be helpful for your dog, it helps you and you deserve it.

Living with separation anxiety is hard, and you will have equal (if not more) anxiety worrying about how to handle things and what you might be coming home to after leaving your dog alone. While there are some great tips here, every dog is different, and there isn't always a one-size-fits-all answer.

A professional will provide personalized guidance and support to help you and your dog overcome this issue. 

Predeparture cues play a significant role in triggering separation anxiety in dogs. By recognizing these cues and implementing management strategies, you can help alleviate your dog's anxiety and create a more peaceful environment for both of you.

Remember, addressing separation anxiety takes time and patience, so be consistent and seek professional help if needed. With the right approach, you can help your dog feel more comfortable and secure when alone.

About Canine Zen

Canine Zen embodies expert Stephanie Barger's approach to life with dogs. Dogs are living, breathing, sentient beings and live their best lives when allowed to be your companions and partners. To facilitate that, Stephanie shows you how to effectively communicate with your dog AND understand what they are trying to tell you.

You get the tools to teach your dog how to live harmoniously in your home and participate in the activities with you.

To do that, Stephanie provides a safe environment for you and your dog to learn and thrive together without fear, pain, or judgment.

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