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In the separation anxiety training world, we talk a lot about things most people don’t give a second thought to.  Intuitively, anyone living with a dog struggling with separation anxiety knows about pre-departure cues, but you don’t always have a name for them.  When you put on your coat or shoes, and your dog starts to show signs of panic, this is a pre-departure cue. You know these things are important. Anything you do before leaving home is referred to as a pre-departure cue or a PDQ for short. PDQs are a big red flag to your dog that you will be leaving.

A PDQ doesn’t just happen right before leaving, either. Sometimes something you do hours in advance can become a PDQ.  When this happens, you may notice your dog become increasingly hypervigilant, begins following closely or starts to pant.

So why are PDQs given such importance in separation anxiety training?

Here’s the thing – anything you do that provides a tip-off to your dog that you are about to leave is important to our training.  Dogs are very observant creatures.  They watch us. They read our body language extraordinarily well.  They know that we do certain things, it means that x, y, and z will follow. After all, we are creatures of routine as well. When we go to a certain cupboard, it means that a treat is about to be forthcoming.  When we get up from eating our meal, the dog predicts their dinner will be next. When we switch the TV off in the evening, it means it is time for bed. For most dogs, all these associations formed over the years predict happy things. But for our separation anxiety dogs, some of these things predict the worse thing they can imagine – you are about to leave, and they will be left at home alone.

To make matters worse, these dogs learn a complex behaviour chain of multiple things predicting your departure.  Some dogs watch your every move. When you get out of bed in the morning, do you shower or do you change and go downstairs for coffee?  On days you leave the house, maybe you shower directly after waking.  But on the weekend, you wander downstairs and brew some coffee. You may start to notice on the days you shower first, your dog seems more clingy or watchs you more closely. Maybe you notice that they are panting more than usual. Now if after showering, instead of dressing for work, you change into sweats.  Now, what does your dog do?  Sweats mean you are hanging around the house, not going to the office.  Does your dog start to relax? What if you stop by your office and pick up your laptop on the way downstairs? Does your dog start to get concerned again?  These are the challenges of PDQs.

When training, we must identify all the PDQs that matter to your dog.  Every dog is different.  Some dogs will have a long list of things that cause them concern, and others may only be bothered by a few things.  And for a few, it is only when you step outside the door.

What are PDQs

The common PDQs include things like:

  • putting on shoes
  • putting on a coat
  • picking up keys
  • bags
  • walking to the door
  • opening or closing the door
  • locking the door

Less obvious PDQs include:

  • putting out a food toy
  • preparing a food toy
  • turning the TV on or off
  • turning on dog music
  • checking your appearance in the mirror
  • a last-minute pit stop at the washroom
  • wrangling the kids out the door
  • remotely starting your car
  • setting the alarm system
  • turning lights on or off
  • closing the drapes
  • changing your clothes
  • checking the doors or windows to ensure they are locked
  • saying your goodbyes to the dog
  • lifting the garbage can onto the counter
  • and many, many more

Anything you do to prepare for leaving can become a pre-departure cue.  Even some of the well-meaning advice commonly found online can and does become a PDQ.

What online advice gets wrong about PDQs

There is so much wrong, misleading and outdated advice to be found online regarding separation anxiety. None more so than the advice on PDQ. The two biggies that I see commonly dispensed is the use of food toys and repetition.

Why food toys become a PDQ

When do you give your dog a food toy?  Right before you leave, right?  The thought process behind this seems to make sense.  Give your dog something to chew on when you leave, and they won’t miss you.  Sounds like a plan. And for most dogs, the online advice works. Except for our little worry warts, the separation anxiety dog. What does the food toy mean to these dogs? It is a big red flag that you are definitely about to walk out the door. Now even if your dog is somewhat interested in that peanut butter kong, it is likely nothing more than a distraction. the food toy may hold their interest for a little while, but then, they look up, realize you have left and start to fret. Most separation anxiety dogs, though, ignore the food toy altogether and immediately start to become anxious or are already in the throws of being anxious as soon as you lovingly put their favourite food toy out for them. You definitely know that the food toy has become a PDQ if you give your dog the toy even when you aren’t planning to leave and your dog ignores it or starts to show signs of anxiety.

In dog training, the order of events is really important. I ask my dog to sit, my dog sits, and my dog gets a treat. The dog sits because sitting predicts the treat. It isn’t, I ask my dog to sit, then I give them the treat, and then they sit.   This doesn’t work. But in effect, this is what is happening with the food toy when used for departure training. I am about to leave, so I give my dog the food toy, then leave. Food toy predicts the scary thing of me leaving.  If I could give my dog the food toy after I have left, it would be better; a bit tricky logistically, but better. At least the order of events would be accurate.

With the training I do, I don’t use food in training for this reason.  When many of my clients finally reach out for help, they have tried the food toy and come to me saying it doesn’t work. This is the reason why.

Repetition and Sensitization

The other common advice provided online is the repetition of the PDQs.  This will be something like picking up your keys, putting your keys down and repeating over and over and over. Not only is this exceedingly boring for the people doing it, but if your dog hadn’t previously been worried about the keys, now they are surely aware of them. All you have done by doing this is to draw your dog’s attention to something they were unaware of or had concerns with. This is called sensitization.  The training done for separation anxiety is desensitization. Desensitization is the opposite of sensitization. Through the repetition of below-threshold departure, we help your dog learn that your leaving is not something to be concerned with.  If, through the inappropriate execution of the online advice, we have now drawn your dog’s attention to something that predicts your leaving and raised the dog’s anxiety, we have sensitized your dog to your departure, not desensitized them. The last thing we are trying to accomplish is to draw your dog’s attention to you leaving.  Our goal in training is for your dog to be aware of you leaving and being unconcerned. The desensitization of PDQs is a part of my training program, but you will not be asked to pick your keys up a hundred times a day. Instead, PDQs are carefully folded into the training in a structured way and only after the dog is comfortable with some limited departures first.


Pre-departure cues are important, no question. But online advice often places more importance on them than is warranted, thus making them a bigger problem than they need to be. When PDQs are handled as part of a desensitization training program, they are identified, prioritized and folded into the training program in a structured and logical approach. The goal is to do this in such a way that continues to desensitize the dog to them. As is often the case when PDQs are handled correctly, the dog’s concern with the PDQ has been eliminated by the time we begin to fold them into the training plan.

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