Canine Separation Anxiety
ACE Systematic Desensitization & Counter-Conditioning
If you have ever heard anyone refer to Pavlov’s dogs, they are referring to the Russian physiologist Ivan Pavlov and his studies on classical conditioning. Pavlov studied dogs in a feeding ritual. Pavlov knew that dogs salivate when they eat. In an experiment, he began to ring a bell before feeding the dogs. This signal normally has no noticeable effect on a dog’s salivation. Pavlov kept the signal on when the dogs were being fed and actively salivating. Over the course of time, he rang the bell and learned that the signal alone (no food offering) would stimulate salivation.
This is classical conditioning. The salivation is what we call an unconditioned response. We add a conditioned stimulus (the bell ringing), and if it is paired consistently with the food, we develop a conditioned response - the dog salivates to the bell without the food present. The Pavlov studies are the foundation for all counter conditioning and systematic desensitization techniques we use today.
Counter-conditioning is the conditioning (changing) of an unwanted behavior or response to a wanted one. Suppose we had a bad reaction (a feeling of insecurity) to a fear-inducing stranger. We would change that behavior or response by associating the stranger with a positive action, like offering a tasty treat. This associates a wanted positive response with the stranger.
The process of systematic desensitization occurs in three steps. The first step of systematic desensitization is identifying the hierarchy of the anxiety-inducing stimuli. The second step is the learning of relaxation or coping techniques. Once the dog has been taught these skills, he or she must use them in the third step to where we change the reaction of the established fears. The goal of this process is for the dog to learn how to cope with, and overcome the fear in each step of the hierarchy. Simply put, this is the art of making a fear inducing stimulus mean something different like relaxation.
For canine separation anxiety, we use systematic desensitization through a predeparture routine exercise. This is accomplished first by identifying the absence or departure cues when a family leaves the house.
In a domestic scenario, these routines would include things like brushing your teeth, taking a shower, getting dressed, picking up your hand bag, car keys, walking to the door, or starting your vehicle. All these things become cues that predict your departure or absence and they are a trigger for the dog to begin showing signs of anxious behavior.
We now change the prediction or anticipation of a negative experience. We can do this by setting up mock departure or absence routines. You must expose the dog to manageable portions and repeat this exposure frequently.
Make a list of 10 predeparture or absence stimulating activities that a dog in your care may become anxious about. Some examples of this may be picking up keys or putting your shows on.
Determine which of the items are the most stimulating and the least stimulating.
Organize this list of cues from the least stimulating at the top or (#1) to the most stimulating at the bottom of your list (last entry).
Expose the dog starting with the least stimulating cue #1 on your list and repeat this frequently. It is important to start with the least stimulating so you do not overwhelm the dog at the beginning of the program.
Add counter conditioning by adding a Kong full of something tasty, or a favorite treat or a bone so the dog can associate it with the predeparture cue. If the dog takes the treat, enjoys the Kong or chews on the bone, you know you can now move to the next predeparture cue on your list. Use this as your gauge to whether or not the dog is relaxed prior to adding more stimuli. This slowly creates a positive association with the predeparture cues over time.
Slowly work your way through this list. Do not put a time limit on rehabilitation. This list needs to be addressed slowly and with patience.
Taken from the free Essentials of Shelter and Rescue Care course available at