Actionable 18 Steps to Treating Separation Anxiety
Treatment Protocol: Phase One
Based on my experience, close to 90% of the cases warrant the complete five phase treatment protocol that I recommend, which involves a significant amount of training and behavior modification. Therefore what follows in the next five chapters includes the entire plan.
The steps outlined in Phase One form the foundation of the treatment program. If the owners express concern that Phase One appears to have nothing to do with treating their dog because they don’t actually leave during these steps, don’t be deterred or persuaded to cut the phase short. Only with a solid understanding and full execution of this phase on the part of the owners can the rest of the program move forward. Skip it and you invariably run into problems later in the treatment.
Goals for Phase One
Setting owner expectations. During this phase you should work to get the owners into the right frame of mind for the program, get them used to the level of work involved, etc.
Building the dog’s confidence. Lack of confidence is a major problem for almost all separation anxiety-afflicted dogs and it needs to be addressed for the treatment protocol to be successful.
Tasks for Phase One
Creating a house layout and deciding on a confinement area.
Studying body language with the owners.
Training go to mat and relax/stay behaviors.
Acquiring interactive toys and equipment.
House layout and confinement area
Take time to discuss what area of the house will work best eventually for the dog during absences. It’s not always the place the owners want. Often the owners want the dog to stay somewhere like the laundry room, because there the dog would cause the least damage. However, if it’s also the most isolated, cold and uncomfortable place—or it has the most street noise—then it’s not the best choice.
Your goal in this first phase is to keep the dog under threshold when confined. If you set things up right, it will be unlikely that the dog will be tearing up the confinement area or eliminating inappropriately. Focus on finding a well-suited area that will be comfortable for the dog. A good choice is wherever the family normally hangs out, perhaps the kitchen or living room. If the dog has an affinity for his crate and you think a crate is the best option, recommend that. I personally use crates sparingly for separation anxiety dogs, although I encourage having an open crate in the confinement space, particularly for dogs already in love with their crates.
Using a confinement area allows the dog to learn to be separated from the owners without them having to leave the house. With a confinement area, you can begin your exercises by teaching the dog to enjoy, or at least tolerate, being separated from his owner prior to being left alone. The baby gate is just a split in criteria, without it you would need to begin the exercises going out the front door with the dog following at your heels. As such, you can allow freedom in the house if absolutely necessary. If the room you choose is difficult to close off with a baby gate because of an open-plan house layout, you can set up an x-pen or have the owners look into buying an extra-wide walk-through gate. Online stores have many options.
Every living environment is unique, and one-bedroom studios present different issues than mega mansions. The thing to remember is that you need an area that can be used as a separate confinement area for practice exercises. Be as creative as you need to—and remind yourself that the process gets easier the more cases you address. Explain to the owner that the confinement area may not turn out to be the permanent place the dog stays during absences, but it’s important to have a place where you can teach the dog to be comfortable during rehearsed separations. Later in the program, once the dog is comfortable with separation and with being alone for some small duration of time, the confinement area can be changed or even eliminated altogether.
One last note: I’m often asked whether it’s important that the dog see the front door from his confinement area. That choice isn’t really up to us in most scenarios, as it’s often dictated by the house layout. Either way, it’s of no great consequence whether the dog can see the front door; he will still have to be desensitized to the exit routine.
A nice example of Rex getting used to his confinement area by having positive association with all sorts of interactive feeding toys for him to enjoy.
Chloe’s owner, Elisa, wanted Chloe’s confinement area to be in a landing area at the top of the stairs right next to one of two exit doors of the condo. Why? Elisa didn’t want Chloe to see her leave through the front door, nor did she want Chloe to have access to the front door where Chloe had a history of scratching, howling and barking during absences. But the landing next to the exit door was noisy with building activity that agitated Chloe, and it was tricky to do mock absences from that location since Elisa could not walk anywhere from there except out.
With a bit of persuasion, I convinced Elisa to use an x-pen in the downstairs living room instead. This way, Chloe didn’t have access to the front door, but she could see Elisa leaving and returning. We worked through the program without Chloe ever scratching, barking or howling. The fact that Chloe could see when Elisa left and returned was not a problem, because after some time working with her, Chloe remained under threshold and eventually learned to be too busy with her interactive feeding toys to be bothered to watch Elisa leave.
Elisa is happy with where Chloe stays during her absences now. She has bought a gorgeous gate that fits with the stylish, modern décor in her condo.
It’s natural to empathize with your clients. In case after case, you see the anguish they go through and you understand how badly they want to help their dog. I cheerlead my clients tirelessly—I send them supportive emails and remind them frequently what a fantastic job they are doing. However, I’m also relentless about the amount of work I make them do. Not only do I ask my clients to work hard on their exercises and check in with me regularly with notes about what they are doing, the behaviors they notice and so on, but they are required to do some reading as well.
The assigned reading includes handouts and books. I insist on this because every dog owner should learn a little about dog behavior and training; for owners of separation anxiety-afflicted dogs, it’s a must. I have included the handouts I require my clients to read in Appendix 1. The books and DVDs on body language, such as those mentioned in Chapter 8, and the positive reinforcement training and behavior books I recommend are found in Appendix 4. The goal here is to get your clients to better understand what you are asking them to do in their treatment plan and, most importantly, to have them really understand how to better their relationship with their dog for clear and compassionate communication. Keep your clients learning. It is important, however, that you make certain not to overwhelm your clients. Some clients can handle much more than others, so be observant and adjust your goals accordingly. In the beginning of your treatment plan, the clients will be learning new skills, managing their schedules and reading their plan. If tackling a new book during this early stage might be a bit much, at least feed them a brief handout here and there. As things move forward, ask them to incorporate some additional reading as you see fit. Just like with the dogs, you have to take baby steps with the owners too. More reading and viewing recommendations are included in Appendix 4.
Studying body language
You need to help your clients master the skill of reading canine body language. Part of the desensitization process entails you helping them set criteria, which, as every trainer knows, is crucial if the owners are ever going to work on their own. Show them how they can use their knowledge of body language to determine if the dog is comfortable with some of the key behaviors you will ask the dog to master, such as going to a mat and relaxing (discussed below). Point out body language signals that might crop up during training the dog to stay on a mat (change in ear carriage, displacement behaviors) to the owners so that they can learn to read the signs themselves in the future.
Here are a few of the signals that your clients should master: Can the owners tell the difference between a fully relaxed down and a tight, anxious down where the dog is ready to spring up and follow them in an instant? If the owners walk a few feet away into the kitchen for a glass of water, does the dog follow them, and if so, with what type of tail carriage? How do the dog’s eyes look if the owners pick up their keys versus if they pick up the leash? Help your clients to become aware of the different types of body cues and to understand that many of these cues are indicators of stress they need to be familiar with so they can recognize when they are pushing their dog past the point where he is too anxious. In no time at all, they will be masters. The best thing you can do for your clients is to teach them so well that you are out of a job.
Refer back to Chapter 8 for more on the basics of body language that your client should become familiar with.
Training go to mat and a relax/stay behaviors
Phase One contains two behaviors that are critical for any dog suffering from separation anxiety to learn: how to go to a designated place; and how to relax and stay put. Many trainers may already have effective ways of teaching these behaviors, so I deal with them somewhat briefly in the main text but have provided more detailed step by step ways to teach the behaviors in Appendix 3.
Training go to mat 101
Teaching a placement cue as part of a separation anxiety protocol is useful for two reasons. One is that it’s essentially a mini-absence rehearsal because you are teaching the dog to walk away from Mom and relax—a great confidence-building exercise that allows you to address a dog’s tendency to shadow his owners. The other reason is that the owners need to begin to build some training chops, and this is an excellent exercise for that.
Use whichever method you think will be least overwhelming for the owners. If they have already attended a few training classes and understand clicker training and shaping exercises, then why not make it a fun shaping exercise? If they are novices, on the other hand, don’t complicate this exercise and risk frustrating them. Just lure the behavior, get a high rate of reinforcement (for dog and owner), and then switch to a hand signal, then a verbal cue, and so forth.
Always adapt your training technique to your clients’ strengths. As soon as you see that the clients understand the concept and process, let them do it. Get the treats out of your hand and into theirs. Better yet, coach them through it from the outset—they learn much more and build confidence if they have to do it themselves. This is key. Confidence on the part of the owner is fundamental to training in general, and crucial to separation anxiety training. If the clients feel overwhelmed the moment you walk out the door, they are doomed.
Remember: You are not there to train the dog, you are there to train the owners. By the end of Phase One, they should be able to succeed in asking the dog to go to his mat from a distance of at least two to three feet.
Here is an example of Ollie being cued to go to his mat. Notice that at the end he is lying on his mat in a very relaxed manner rather than in a stiff obedience down.
The three D’s are key training concepts to keep in mind before you begin to work with an owner to teach the relax/stay behaviors. One important thing to remember when working with the three D’s is to never mix criteria, so distance should never be trained while working on duration or distraction. Once all of them are learned well, you can put them together slowly.
Distance. This is the amount of physical distance (inches or feet) you are moving away from the dog when you are teaching a stay behavior. You can manipulate distance very gradually as you work on the stay behavior. Always remember that you should include going to the right and to the left, straight back from the dog and even behind the dog. If you are having difficulty increasing the distance from one foot to two feet, think in inches instead of feet. You can always split things up when necessary. The hardest aspect of the distance component is when moving from in-view to out-of-view. Take it slow there.
Duration. This refers to the amount of time that you are asking the dog to remain in his stay position. You will start with very little duration, just a few seconds, and then gradually build up to several minutes in small increments. Remember to stay right in front of the dog as you begin to build duration initially. You will find over time that you can jump in larger increments, but be mindful that you will likely also hit sticky points wherein you may have to back up and split criteria again.
Distraction. The degree of distraction that you will encounter during your indoor stays is not as concerning as when you practice outdoor stays, however distractions exist in both locations. Distractions can range from simple things such as bending over to tie your shoe or eating a snack, all the way up to the more difficult distractions like the neighbor dogs barking while walking by the window or the UPS man coming to the door. The various distractions that you think might affect your dog’s stay should be incorporated gradually into your stay protocol so that he can learn to stay relaxed when they occur. Once he can stay with just distractions alone, you can combine those distractions with distance and duration.
Training relax/stay 101
I call this “relax/stay” instead of just “stay,” because I don’t want this exercise confused with the traditional obedience-type down-stay. For your purposes, it doesn’t matter whether the dog shifts his body weight or changes his position, nor do you need a sphinx-like down. What matters is that it’s a relaxed down. The dog’s hip rolled to one side is great if that’s the position the dog normally chooses, curled up on a mat or bed is even better. It’s also not important for the dog to orient to where the owner is. In fact, it’s better if he doesn’t.
The only goal of this exercise is for the dog to stay in his down. The two important components are: 1) teaching the dog that distance/duration relax/stay exercises are a fun game; and 2) teaching the owner what criteria setting is all about.
Use a special bed or blanket for this exercise. Put it where it will be placed in the future during real absences as you begin building positive associations with the bed now. The “stay” cue will never be used when actually exiting the house; it’s simply an exercise to teach the dog to not shadow his owners. And no matter how well the dog knows the cue “stay,” start this exercise from the beginning. Ideally you should teach it with a new cue word, such as “relax,” which helps remind the owners the goal isn’t to achieve an obedience-type stay behavior.
Encourage the owners to get into the habit of noticing and reinforcing the dog when he is lying comfortably on his bed. Whenever the dog chooses to go to his bed of his own accord and relaxes there, the owners should reward him with a treat or with special cuddle time. All the best stuff should happen on that bed. The more positive experiences the dog can associate with his bed, the better. This will give him a place that acts as a security blanket when he is eventually left alone. His bed will become the place he wants to go when Mom and Dad are away, because it’s the place he feels most connected to them. Think of Linus in Peanuts. That is the kind of connection you want the dog to feel to his bed when his owners aren’t around.
Remember: When working on relax/stay exercises, increase the distance and duration criteria separately. And because this is a separation anxiety dog, you need to move along gradually, keeping it light and fun the entire time.
There are detailed outlines of relax/stay exercises in Appendix 3 if you need to refer to them. However, I suggest you adjust the steps to suit the owners, the house and the dog. One thing to note about the steps is that they include varying degrees of difficulty of distance, duration and distractions. You will also notice easy exercises are mixed in with more difficult ones. All dogs are masters of discrimination and pay attention to every detail, but separation anxiety dogs can be even more vigilant than most, so you should never increase criteria in a straight line. During the relax/stay training, show your clients how you are raising criteria slowly and tell them why you are doing so. Point out body language cues and how those cues help you to raise, lower, or maintain the criteria level. In other words, start building their proficiency at criteria setting right away. The better they become at it, the better they will be able to help their dog.
Teaching a relax/stay from a distance can take a little bit of time but holds an important role in the “non-follow” portion of the separation anxiety protocol. Here you can see Ollie understands the “relax” portion of the stay cue.
Phase One recap
Phase One requires a bit of work, probably a few days to a week’s worth, depending on the owners’ level of understanding and consistency. To expedite things, get them working on several different exercises right from the get-go.
As soon as you have generated a house layout and have determined with the owners where the confinement area will be, start the exercises. Also have the owners jump into their assigned reading immediately. While they wait for the baby gate and other supplies to arrive, they can practice the relax/stay and go to mat exercises.
Tip: At this early point, grab every opportunity to point out body language and to highlight to the owners how you constantly set criteria as you train.
How do you know you are at the end of Phase One? The owners have a beginner-level experience working on exercises with their dog and can get the dog to go to his mat from five paces away. And the dog is learning relax/stay and can endure a ten to twenty second stay with the owner five to ten paces away
Finally, Phase Two can’t commence until the baby gate or x-pen has arrived and the interactive toys have been bought or created. All set? Then it’s time to forge ahead.