Pre-departure cues in separation anxiety training

January 13, 2023

A conversation with one of my clients earlier has prompted me to write this short blog on pre-departure cues (or PDQs as they will be referred to during this article) and what they are.

What are PDQs?

PDQs (pre-departure cues) are certain things you do, or items you pick up or put on, before leaving the house which your dog has learnt predict that he or she is about to be left home alone and will feel unsafe and anxious. These cues vary from dog to dog, depending on that individual dog and the layout of the home environment (internal and external) they live in.

During my initial assessment with clients, we make a list of all PDQs that are applicable for that individual dog. Common PDQs are keys, shoes and coats, or turning the TV on (things that occur in the few minutes prior to leaving the house), but there can also be PDQs that occur well before leaving the house (such as your alarm going off before you get up and get ready for work, or putting on perfume).  Dogs can sometimes react differently according to what shoes you put on. You dog can learn if you put trainers or wellies on, this means he is going with you and that’s fine, but when you put heels or smart shoes on it means you are going to leave for a long period of time and he is not coming with you, and that is not fine.

There will also be external PDQs that happen once you leave the house, such as the front gate that squeaks when it opens, locking the front door, the sound of the garage door, the sound of the car or the gravel drive that makes a sound underfoot for example.

Different PDQs will provoke a different reaction to your dog due to how much of an association they have with each individual cue. Your dog may become very anxious when they hear the keys being picked up, but may not react much at all to shoes being put on. Another dog may be very disinterested in the keys being picked up, but may be unable to cope with you picking a bag up.

What emotional response do they trigger?

What we need to consider with PDQs is what emotional response they trigger? If you have the radio on most days, regardless of whether you are going out or not, or you open and  shut windows at various times of the day, not just when you are going out, then they will not become things that trigger anxiety in your dog. PDQs are things that have previously become associated with unsafe absences for your dog.  I have a client whose dogs react differently when the ‘dog walking coats’ are put on, to when the ‘non-dog walking coats’ are put on. They are different coats kept in different locations.

Dogs are geniuses when it comes to picking up on patterns and therefore if a particular item or action always comes before something that your dog finds scary, than that particular thing will trigger anxiety and panic, usually before you have even left the house because they already know that they are about to be left alone.

A cue that triggers excitement in your dog is not a PDQ. So if you go to the rack and put a coat on, and that coat is usually one you wear to take your dog for a walk, and the action of picking it up causes your dog to get excited, jump around your feet etc because he/she knows this means a walk is imminent, that is not a PDQ because although it has elicited a reaction, that reaction is not one of anxiety.

PDQs require desensitisation – not just absences

It is just as important to desensitise dogs to their individual PDQs as it is to desensitise them to absences, and in order for this to be successful the cues must be folded in very slowly and gradually in the context of an actual (safe) departure.

It is more beneficial to keep PDQs out of the mix until the dog has built up confidence at being left for a short period of time consistently, as at that point those PDQs dont tend to have the same salient association, because they now view short absences as ‘safe’.

It is best to add one PDQ at a time, slowly folding it into your training sessions and varying the amount of times it is included so your dog’s reaction can be monitored.

If you need any help with separation anxiety please do get in touch –


By Angela Doyle

I am a highly experienced and qualified reward based dog trainer and behaviour consultant based in Surrey, UK. I am a fully qualified CSAT (Certified Separation Anxiety Trainer) and specialise in helping dogs overcome Separation Anxiety.

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