Actionable 18 Steps to Treating Separation Anxiety
Treatment Protocol: Phase Two
Now that you have successfully walked the owners through Phase One, you are ready to integrate in-view barrier absences and to intensify practicing the behaviors you have so carefully installed.
Remember that the dog should be happily and calmly adjusted to the exercises in Phase One before you begin Phase Two.
Goals for Phase Two:
Setting the owners up to understand the desensitization process. During baby-gate exercises and while increasing distance and duration in relax/stay exercises, you will work to develop the owners’ criteria-setting skills and help them expand their understanding of desensitization.
Priming the dog to enjoy and relax with an interactive food toy. Many separation anxiety dogs won’t eat during absences, but food can be a big part of the desensitization and counter-conditioning process to the confinement area. Here the focus is on getting the dog to enjoy interactive food toys so you can benefit from the positive association they will yield.
Introducing barrier training. During this phase, you will slowly introduce the vital step of barrier training. Working the dog gradually up to 30 minutes on the other side of a barrier while in view of the owners is a key goal in Phase Two.
Tasks for Phase Two:
Working up to a rock-star placement cue and relax/stay.
The dog learning to love his toys and a fun new game in the form of an impulse control exercise.
Introducing in-view barrier absences, starting with a few moments and building to 30 minutes.
Studying body language further.
Training Treat & Train duration absences (if using the T&T).
Taking notes (and why your clients should be).
Rock-star placement cue and relax/stay
You have already walked your clients through the beginning phases of go to mat and relax/stay, and they should now have the basic mechanics down. They should also be getting a beginning grasp of criteria setting. This is a good time in the program to let them practice this skill under your direction. Later, when criteria-setting concerns determine the amount of time they are gone during absences, you can’t afford to be cavalier about it, so now is the time to let mistakes occur if they are going to happen.
During this phase of the treatment plan, you are having the owners work on both these exercises to the point that they are fluent on at least a hand signal, preferably the verbal cue as well, and you will increase the distance and duration considerably. The learning that takes place during these relatively short absences is paramount. Later, it’s precisely the relax/stay and go to mat cues you will use to teach the dog not to follow his owners everywhere.
Most dogs, even non-separation anxiety dogs, follow their owners to a certain degree, but separation anxiety dogs do so obsessively. This is a habit that the training plan will gently discourage by making the not-following practice into a positive. In time, you will have the owners redirect the dog to go to his bed and stay each time he would normally choose to follow them from room to room. As this behavior is practiced and rewarded regularly, and the game of it becomes enjoyable, the dog will incorporate it into his own repertoire and choose to not follow his owners. While these confidence-building exercises are very effective for teaching dogs to no longer anxiously follow their owners, you will never be using these cues when you are actually walking out the front door.
In Phase One, the dog had achieved a relax/stay of ten to twenty seconds. In Phase Two, you will have the owners build that duration up to at least one minute. However, be careful. One minute is a long time—easily long enough for owners to lose focus and forget they left the dog in a stay. I recommend asking your clients to get a timer (or use the timer feature on their phone) when they get to this stage.
A tip: Make sure your clients use a stopwatch made for sports versus a kitchen timer. Kitchen timers generally make a loud, obnoxious beep, and most dogs quickly learn the beep means the end of the relax/stay. That’s no disaster, but the owners really should initiate the end of the relax/stay, not the beeping noise from the other room.
In this phase, work with the owners to build the distance related to the relax/stay up from five to ten paces away to at least twenty or more. The relax/stay should be enough paces away that the owners can be in view or out of view in another room if the dog can tolerate it. Remember, this is not an obedience exercise. This is about teaching the dog to relax while staying on his mat for one minute while the owners are doing something in the next room, either in or just out of view. The dog has no barriers, no imposed need to stay on his bed, but will learn to stay relaxed and stay in place. That’s what makes this exercise so useful: The dog is able to relax on his own, to not follow, essentially learning to self-soothe.
Increasing distance and duration gradually is important. Most dogs can jump from 20 to 25 feet away fairly quickly, but taking an extra step in between not only makes the behavior stronger, it keeps the anxiety at bay and ups the level of relaxation.
Remember: Always increase distance and duration criteria separately. If you increase duration criteria in an exercise, don’t increase distance (even better, decrease the distance a bit). And vice versa if you are working on increasing distance. There’s a sample outline of how to do this in Appendix 3, but remember to set the steps (or let your clients take a stab at it) according to the level and pace they and their dog can handle.
Learning a new game: Find it
The type of clients you see when working on separation anxiety varies infinitely. Some clients have never taken a puppy class, read a book about dog behavior or even taught their dog so much as a sit. Others have been through multiple dog training classes over the years and understand many training concepts well.
This means that some of your clients will already have taught their dog some impulse control. If they haven’t, it’s important they do so now. One of the easiest, most enjoyable and most useful exercises for teaching impulse control with separation anxiety dogs is training the game “Find it.” Using the Find it game, you can not only teach impulse control (the dog will be focused on finding treats), but the game is also an ideal way to kick off absences in the future. Different than working hard on a Kong or another interactive toy, the game of Find it allows the dog to quickly enjoy his goodies after a search-and-rescue mission. Teaching the find it game is simple, and the owners and dog usually come to love the game if you show them how to do it in a fun way.
I suggest you have your clients teach the simplest form of this game, i.e., putting the dog in a stay, placing the treat nearby and releasing the dog to find it. Gradually, the owners should build up to longer distances and more complicated hiding places using multiple treats and possibly their interactive feeding toys. If you take this baby-step approach, the attraction of the game for the dog will be powerful. Down the road when the separation anxiety has been addressed, the owners often get great enjoyment from their dog’s look of excited anticipation as they get ready to leave—as if the dog can’t wait for the owners to vamoose, so he can start looking for his goodies.
Aren’t in-view barrier absences a piece of cake? A waste of time? On the contrary, these exercises are the bedrock of the treatment plan, the little-known link where most separation anxiety programs fail. I can’t stress it enough: It may appear the dog experiences little to no anxiety during in-view barrier training and is learning nothing, but you still have to work diligently on these exercises before moving on.
Why? Because if the dog can’t be comfortable while the owners are present but out of sight, then working on absences that involve going out the front door is futile. If this step is skipped or rushed through, the common result is a dog who can tolerate a certain amount of short duration absences and then hits an insurmountable wall, for example when he finishes his Kong. Remember, you are teaching the dog how to be okay with solitude, not just to eat a Kong or keep busy with his interactive toys when his owners are absent.
Eventually, the Kong is going to be empty, the Treat & Train will run out of kibble or the bully stick will be consumed. At that point, the dog needs to have the skills to be alone with nothing to do—skills the dog doesn’t have and won’t develop without help. You need to teach those skills now, at the beginning of the program.
What barrier training looks like
You will find a sample plan in Appendix 3, but the process is as follows:
Initially the owners will learn to desensitize the dog to being placed inside the baby gate within the designated area. Because you are striving to help the dog learn that absences are no big deal—once placed behind or inside the barrier—the initial absences will be barely noticeable and carried out casually. Something to the effect of hanging out with the dog inside the baby-gated area while checking emails or watching the news, and then moving just a few feet away as if to get a glass of water (while staying in view) and returning, all the while ignoring the dog completely.
During this phase, the owners shouldn’t interact with the dog at all. That means no eye contact, no consoling, just maybe a few dropped treats as a reward for calm if desired. At the same time, the owners need to closely observe the dog (a tricky balance while maintaining that whole casual attitude) and make notes as to what they observe. Does the dog come to the gate and sit rigidly as they move farther away, and relax as they get closer again? Does the dog notice at all? Does the dog bark within moments of the owners leaving his immediate vicinity?
The next step: food toys
Once the owners are able to leave the dog’s proximity for a few seconds and return without the dog showing any signs of concern, you can introduce an interactive toy, chicken strip, bully stick or other goodie. Make sure it’s one that will take a little bit of time to consume. Next, have the owners move away from the dog but remain in view in the same casual manner and then return, but increase the time they are gone by five seconds.
During these exits, the owners should be even more conscientious with their note taking. Did the dog stop consuming the yummy treat? If the dog did stop, did he start eating again when the owners got close? You determine the duration of these in-view absences based on the severity of the dog’s separation anxiety, but the basic sequence is the same in all cases:
The owners hang out for a bit as the dog gets settled (while ignoring the dog).
The owners leave the dog’s immediate vicinity but stay in view (while ignoring the dog).
The owners return and continue to ignore the dog.
The great thing about this type of training is that it fits into most people’s schedules. Hardly anyone has to take time out of their day to schedule this exercise, as it can be done while reading the paper or watching a movie. Just make sure you ask the owners to do this training at different times of the day. Many dogs display different levels of anxiety in the evening compared to the morning, and it’s important to find out about these differences in case they need to be addressed. I suggest working on the confinement exercises twice a day for about 15 to 30 minutes at a time in the beginning.
Remember, at some point in time during the exercise, the dog will run out of his food item. Make sure you have the owners continue to move away from the dog in the same casual manner and return. You need to teach the dog that the owners’ comings and goings are of no consequence, whether with or without the food.
Rex is enjoying his interactive feeding toys in the confinement area, but once he is finished he must learn to rest there happily.
Even a dog whose anxiety level allows the owners to spend only moments outside the baby gate at the outset can learn to relax for in-view absences of 20 to 30 minutes, provided you build the absences slowly. That means the owners will be able to get that glass of water and also whip up a quick batch of pasta before moving on to Phase Three. Remember, this is all still in view, though a slightly compromised view may be possible at this stage.
The good news is that for many dogs this exercise can be accomplished successfully in a matter of days—or a week at the outside—if the training is carried out carefully. And for trainers who offer day training, this is one component of separation anxiety training that’s perfectly suited for you to work on during the day to help accelerate the program.
Two more notes
If the owners use a crate or x-pen instead of a baby-gated area, the process is similar to what is described above. The owners will be hanging out near the crate or x-pen and then leaving briefly while still in view. And of course, before you can use a crate or x-pen, the dog needs to be well desensitized to going in and out of it.
The owners, as always, should be keeping the dog under threshold during this training. However, if the dog whines or barks a little, it’s important the owners not suddenly startle and respond by immediately running back to the confinement area. Dogs quickly learn that whining or barking causes the owners to return, and that’s the last thing you want. Again, this is an exercise in nonchalance. Nothing the owners do here will put the dog well beyond threshold, so instruct them to pay no mind to the dog if he fusses. Adjust the duration criteria accordingly if the dog is getting too agitated and then build up gradually from the last point where the dog was able to remain calm. Consider rewarding for calm if you are having difficulty making progress. Eventually these mundane comings and goings won’t elicit any fuss whatsoever; the dog will be downright bored with them.
Further study of body language
Throughout this phase, help the owners step up their study of body language. If you are working with your clients in person, you can coach them along the way by pointing out key body language points. “Did you see how Lola started scratching her ears after we did several relax/stays in a row? That’s an example of the displacement behavior I mentioned.” Or: “Have you noticed the way Elle’s tail carriage changes just before she starts to investigate the gate and starts her anxiety display? This is her signature precursor to anxious behavior.” And a common one that I point out: “Did you notice Redford just yawned and licked his lips for a second before returning to the gate? That’s one of his stress signals.”
Why body language study is so important
One of the reasons I make such a big deal of teaching owners to read their dog’s body language is that the treatment of separation anxiety can take lots of time. Not every owner has the financial resources to pay a trainer week after week, so one of the things I feel compelled to do is put as much of the ability as possible into the owners’ hands to know how much progress they are or are not making.
Once the owners can set criteria, read body language and truly understand the process, they scarcely need the trainer other than for emotional support (which is no small part, of course). My primary goal is to get the dog through the separation anxiety, but my secondary (and almost as important) goal is getting the owners to a point where they can continue to treat the disorder mostly on their own, just leaning on me from time to time. (In many cases, there’s then a third goal: getting the owners over their personal separation anxiety once the dog is fixed, but that’s for another book.)
Once the owners understand how to continue the treatment, they can just check in with the trainer now and again for questions, tweaking the program or moral support. The latter, unsurprisingly, is often the most needed element. Bottom line, the owners can get to know their dog much better than you can through their day-to-day interactions with him. If you can give them the skills to read canine body language, set criteria accordingly and follow a well-organized plan, then you may have trained yourself out of a job, but you know the owners can continue treatment until their dog is better, regardless of financial circumstances.
Treat & Train integration
If you choose to use a Treat & Train in your separation anxiety treatment plan, this is the phase where you will start integrating it. By this point, you or the owners have desensitized the dog to the presence of the Treat & Train and to the noise of the turnstile, and the dog should now be excited about it.
The main differences between using a Treat & Train in a separation anxiety protocol versus just Kongs or other interactive toys are: 1) you need to be mindful of the variable time ratio, and 2) you need to pay close attention to body language to see if the dog is learning to self-soothe. If the dog is so intently focused on the Treat & Train’s next payout that he never relaxes, it’s impossible for you to predict how he may fare when the Treat & Train is turned off. That’s not learning to be alone, that’s learning to relax enough to be entertained and distracted. Don’t get me wrong; that’s not bad, but it has its pitfalls.
What to remember
With you present and in view of the dog, instruct the owners on how to use the remote control for dispensing. The owners should dispense when the dog is showing relaxed body signals as opposed to anxious signals (preferably in a down position).
The initial in-view absences should be brief, and the rate of dispensing fairly high. Reassure the owners that the dog won’t always need such a high rate of reinforcement, but in the beginning stages, it’s important to set up a strong reinforcement ratio.
Because this is the early stage of the treatment plan, take great care to vary the reward used for in-view absences. Do some using the Treat & Train, some using a Kong and some using no treats at all during the brief, casual exit from and re-entry into the baby-gated area.
This may seem like a lot of exercises, but they are all short and easy to do. Rotating the various exercises in a session, the owners should have no trouble fitting them into the 30 minutes per day they committed to when you began the program.
Note: It is extremely important that you tell the owners not to use the Treat & Train to distract the dog from an activity or behavior they don’t want. For example, if the dog gets up and goes to the baby gate and paws at it and the owners choose that moment to dispense from the Treat & Train, they have in effect begun to reward/shape that pawing behavior—exactly the opposite of what you want. It’s very tempting for the owners to do this, so explain several times why it’s crucial to avoid, and work with them so they can see you reward the dog the first few times. In addition to the Treat & Train, always have a Kong or other interactive toy available for the dog as a backup.
Teaching the dog to stay in a down at the Treat & Train will be very useful for training, but most importantly, make sure the owners never use the Treat & Train as a tool to lure the dog away from the baby gate or front door. They can inadvertently “shape” the dog to go to the front of the baby gate or front door by doing this.
Having your clients take good notes throughout the treatment plan is a good idea for a number of reasons. First of all, you and your clients will be communicating often to set criteria levels for the next steps, and their notes (and yours) will dictate these levels. Additionally, if the dog hits a plateau or sticky spot along the way, good notes can help you identify areas where you can go back and do a little cleanup. And finally, notes can be an incredible comfort. In the midst of a setback or plateau, the owners can refer to their notes and see in black and white the progress their dog has made since they began the program.
Often it’s useful for you to set up a numerical scale for your clients, rating anxiety on a scale of one to seven. Using the specific anxiety displays of the individual dog, you can describe each level of anxiety with a number. For instance a one might be no anxiety at all, the dog is lying down peacefully, eyes relaxed. A seven might be panting, whining or barking and pawing at the gate. In the middle of that scale, there would be a level where the dog was still comfortable, yet obviously noticing the absence. This is the point you would instruct your clients never to push past during criteria raises. Owners can then take notes easily after each step by just jotting down a number.
Personally, I always encourage my clients to include an occasional sentence in their notes about how they are feeling about the process. Sometimes it’s frustration, sometimes elation. Either way, capturing these feelings serves as an outlet, however small. If that sounds corny to you, consider just how emotional a process this is for the owners. The sheer time and effort they have to put in to see any progress means it’s a rare person who doesn’t go through emotional ups and downs during a separation anxiety treatment plan. More on this later.
Phase Two recap
In this phase, we have launched into the real meat of the treatment plan. For many dogs, the in-view absences are going to elicit some anxiety. For others, they will be a complete breeze. If your current client’s dog is the latter group, breezing right through, don’t be fooled into skipping in-view absences—or cutting them short. The exercises still teach the vital skill of self-soothing, even if it’s easier for some dogs to learn than others. In such cases, congratulate the owners on their dog’s swift progress, and have them carefully observe body language for subtle cues that can help you problem solve during later, tougher absences.
With dogs who are having trouble with the in-view absences, move forward in very small steps. Take the time needed to make the dog completely comfortable with in-view absences before you move on. If you are using the Treat & Train, enjoy the process of teaching the dog to associate the Treat & Train payouts with absences. Often, the dog develops a sense of excitement during this phase that is a pleasure to watch. And remember, the dog is not ready for Phase Three until he is relaxed and comfortable during in-view absences both with and without food. The owners, for their part, are not ready until they easily read their dog’s body cues and can tell anxiety signals from relaxation signals.