What You Need to Know About Pre-departure Cues And Anxiety

Let's talk pre-departure cues.

I know for many of you, these are a really big deal. For those of you who don't know what they are, here’s quick explanation.

You might notice your dog works out you're going to leave even before you've gone to the door. He’s worked out the tip-offs to you leaving.

For example, for your dog might work out picking up your keys, putting on your shoes, picking up a bag predict you’re going to leave.

Your dog might even be pick up on things like brushing teeth or showering.

Whatever you do in your routine to get out of the door can cue for your dog that you're about to leave. These are what we call pre-departure cues.


Joining the dots

Dogs are brilliant at making connections. They constantly scan their environment trying to find out tip-offs to what predicts what. They look for associations. They join the dots. 

A perfect example of a tip-off is a leash. That piece of leather with a clip on the end doesn't mean anything to a dog. Dogs aren't born into the world thinking that leashes are amazing.

What happens is dogs start to associate leashes with going out, and going out is fun. So when the leash gets picked up, the dog gets a tip-off that something good is about to happen.

You could try a little experiment to show how meaningless the leash could be. Pick up the leash over and over again.

Each time you pick the leash up, you might notice that your dog gets less and less and less excited.

If you did that a dozen, maybe twenty times in a row, eventually your dog will go, “Oh, okay. I used to think that leash meant going out. But she picks it up, and we don't go out. So, now I'm not so sure.”

You’ve just started to change the association of leash=fun.

A pre-departure cue is just like the leash. The cue itself means nothing to the dog. It's the association that matters. With pre-departure cues, the association is that something terrible is about to happen.


Cueing anxiety

The big problem with pre-departure cues is lots of dogs with separation anxiety will get anxious even before you go out the door.

That means that when we talk about you doing your absence practices, it's almost impossible for you to get to the door without your dog getting really upset.

If your dog freaks out as soon as you pick up keys, then you're not going to be able to do the exercise without him getting extremely upset.

That's why sometimes we have to separate out our departure cues from our departure exercises because otherwise, we can't keep our dog under threshold.

If this is your dog, here are some tips for handling pre-departure cues.


1. Audit pre-departure cues

First, you need to do an audit.

What I mean by that is write down everything you do as you get ready to leave the house which makes your dog upset or anxious, or which your dog pays attention to.

It doesn't have to be every single thing you do, but it does have to be the things your dog at least pays attention to,. The things which your dog uses as tip-offs to you leaving.

You can download the worksheet below. It’s fillable so you can type on it.


2. Prioritize

Now, go through your list and say if, “okay, if I were doing a practice departure which of these pre-departure cues could I not avoid? Which of them are absolutely unavoidable?”

Let me give you an example. If you're in Canada, it’s December, your boots are by the door, and you've got three feet of snow outside the door, then I'm going to suggest boots are essential.

There's nothing you can do unless you are brave enough to step outside in your socks.

So anything like this that’s absolutely essential to you getting out, put in column two.

Now ask the question “What do I NOT absolutely, desperately have to do?”

Maybe you don't have to put on a hat. Perhaps you don't have to pick up a bag, at least not when you do the practice departure.

Obviously, in real life, you'll need to do these things, but we'll come back to why we can avoid them just for now.

Separate out the cues into avoidable and unavoidable.


3. Change the association

In the little exercise we had with the leash we were teaching your dog leash no longer means going out. We were changing the association between leash and fun. We made the leash meaningless.

And that’s exactly what we're going to do with those unavoidable cues that make your dog anxious.

Keys don't make dogs anxious. What makes dogs anxious is that keys predict you leaving. We want to make keys, and all the other pre-departure cues, meaningless.

Go back to your list. Look at the column with the unavoidable cues.

Throughout the day I just want you to pick those objects up, or put the shoes on or put that jacket on and do that repeatedly.

You want your dog to see you doing this.

Over the course of a session, you'll see that your dog starts to go, “Oh, when she puts her boots on, she isn't going out, so boots don't always mean going out.”

You need to do this over and over and come back to it on different days.

You might find that he stops taking notice if you do the “boots on” 20 times in a row in one session, but when you come back the next day he goes, “Oh, boots, yeah boots are scary,”

So you'll have to do this over and over again until you get to the point where when you put those boots on the dog goes, “Oh, that just means nothing.”

Again, use the worksheet download to help you.


4.  Build them into your practice departures

Now you can start to incorporate those unavoidable cues into doing some short departure practices.

As I said, we’re leaving out the avoidable ones for now. Here’s why.

Remember, the reason your dog finds keys scary isn't because of anything about keys, but because keys say “scary outcome coming up.”

If we can make your dog think you leaving isn’t scary, there’s a good chance he’ll no longer worry about the keys. Why? Because keys now predict something that doesn’t upset him.

So that's why I like to make it efficient for you by dividing cues into the things you can't avoid if you're going to get out the door, and the things you can avoid.

Give it a go

Hopefully, that helps and makes some sense. Do give it a go. The worksheet will help you collect all of the pre-departure cues and will help you sort them.

Good luck with that and remember, if you want some help, join our Facebook group and keep us posted on your progress in there.