So, are you sure your dog has separation anxiety? If you've ruled out the other reasons why your dog might be exhibiting the symptoms of separation anxiety, you're left with this. Let's be sure and let's get a baseline:
How to PREP for an assessment:
First, set up your recording/monitoring equipment and test it to ensure that your dog cannot hear you, but you can hear them. Consider challenges such as weak wi-fi in the hallway or outside your home, or a lack of a data plan, preventing you from checking in. This is a good opportunity to record the absence in addition to watching it live, if possible. There is a lot of information in this absence that will be key later.
Remove any stuffed food toys from the environment - we will not be using these just yet as they will cause an inaccurate reading in your assessment. Leave water for them as usual.
Next, you will need to set your dog up in the way that you would eventually like to leave them. We generally suggest loose in the home, contained in one puppy-proofed area, or confined safely. Remember that most dogs with separation anxiety do not do well when crated, and many don't do well when confined, so truly consider puppy-proofing and leaving them loose in the home if it is safe to do so.
Ensure that your dog has had adequate exercise prior to being left - this does not mean *exhausted*, but anytime we leave a dog alone, they should be pottied and well-exercised so that they don't feel amped up and bored.
Once you have reached this point, observe your dog for a moment - are they suspicious of all that you're doing? If so, spend ten minutes relaxing and doing normal activities before you start. If they're already relaxed, simply wait a minute or two before starting.
How to RUN an assessment
Get ready as you normally would if you were going out for a short absence, (convenience store, grocery shopping, coffee with a friend, errands, etc). Be normal. Don't do anything out of the ordinary as that will also cause your dog to feel anxious and suspicious. This might include shoes, coat, keys, phone, wallet/purse, hat, as an example.
Leave in the most natural way possible, locking the door behind you (make sure you have your keys!) and walk away. If you live in a building, walk down the hall so that you are out of earshot. If you live in a house, walk down the driveway or around the corner of the house, out of sight. Wherever you go, ensure that you can get back to your dog within 30-60 seconds if things go haywire! Don't drive away or take an elevator ride.
We generally run assessments for less than five minutes, but it will depend on the dog:
If your dog panics and is being destructive or injuring themselves, come back immediately to prevent that from continuing.
If your dog is pacing/vocalising, wait a minute or so and then return.
What we are looking for is to see how long they are relaxed, at what point they show mild signs of stress, and at what point they hit their threshold and start displaying the typical signs that you have observed in the past (usually vocalisations or scratching at the door, for example). Once we see that, we don't need to see any more - we can come home and make a plan based on this information.
FAQ: Should I return when my dog is barking or wait until they are quiet?
A: Return. There's no need to worry about "reinforcing their barking" - the barking is an emotional response rather than a "behaviour". If you return every single time they bark, then yes - you might inadvertently teach them that barking makes you come home, but for the assessment, we don't worry about it at all. You might wait too long and cause more stress if you're waiting for silence.
Are you surprised by what you saw?
Typically, this is where people say "yeah, but I'm sure my dog will get over it in time. They'll figure out that I always come back."