Actionable 18 Steps to Treating Separation Anxiety
Treatment Protocol: Phase Three
Now that you have completed the in-view steps in Phase Two, you are ready to guide your clients to the next phase. In this section you will begin to set up out-of-view owner absences with the dog. This is a significant step forward and can often be a challenge for some dogs, so again, you will take it slow. In addition, you will introduce the front door into the treatment plan but the owner will stay quite close for this phase, not closing the door behind them quite yet, but just preparing the dog for that actual departure.
Goals for Phase Three:
Begin out-of-view absences exercises. During this phase the owners will incorporate out-of-view absences and basic front-door exercises into treatment plan. At this point, exits from and re-entry into the dog’s confinement area have been repeated many times and the dog has become accustomed to the routine of receiving all manner of goodies for being left (almost) alone as well as having time alone after the goodies have run out. What is different now is that: 1) the owner will move out of the dog’s field of vision but remain within the house, and then 2) step outside through an open door for a brief period of time. By the end of this phase, the dog should be able to tolerate out-of-view absences for up to 30 minutes.
Making not-following the norm. The not-following routine is now in full use and should be smoothly integrated into daily life in the household.
Incorporating technology. Phase Three is when you introduce technology to get a baseline of the dog’s out-of-view behavior.
Tasks for Phase Three:
Integrating out-of-view absences.
Approaching expert body language reading level.
Taking more notes, including some journaling.
Incorporating video technology
Now, as you begin to work on out-of-view absences, is the time to introduce video technology so that both you and the owners can monitor the dog’s behavior when he is left alone. Again, the tools I commonly use include: Skype/Google Hangout; FaceTime; iCam; Presence and Ustream (see Chapter 6).
How to do it
Set up the laptop or webcam in a location so that the camera’s field of view can cover as much of the confinement area as possible.
If you are using Ustream, record at least one in-view absence to give yourself a baseline. If you recall, Ustream is an online application that allows you and the owner to view the dog via a webcam on your home computer or on a smart phone. Additionally, the owners can record an absence rehearsal in Ustream if desired. That way, you can compare the dog’s body language when the owners are in view versus out-of-view to identify the difference in the signals displayed. The signals may only be subtly different, but they are great to have for future reference.
For some dogs the difference in body language is vast. In those cases, you will have to move the treatment plan forward slowly, starting with extremely brief out-of-view absences or even splitting it further by starting with partially obstructed view absences.
For now, closely study the taped or live broadcast absences and see what the dog is doing during the practice sessions. By the time you get to the next phase—where the owners actually leave the house—you want to be completely familiar with the technology and with reading body language this way.
Out-of-view barrier absences
You will be ready for out-of-view barrier absence exercises if:
The dog is comfortable with in-view absences and is willing to chew on his Kong or get kibble from his Treat & Train when the owners exit the confinement area. He is also comfortable resting there when his goodies run out.
The owners are now showing more ability reading body language and are starting to point out body cues to you regularly.
To begin out-of-view absences with the owners remaining within the house, you can use some everyday household noise initially to allow the dog to orient to the owner’s whereabouts. This extra step can help keep the dog under threshold. As for the household noise, you could have the owners wash dishes, walk about while talking in normal voices or something else the dog has often been exposed to. After a few trials, increase the duration of the absences. When the dog seems relaxed about the out-of-view absences, it’s time to move on to the front door exercises.
Front door exercises
Most dogs suffering from separation anxiety have learned when the owners approach and open the front door that they are going to be left alone. So the criteria you set in relation to the front door must be broken down into minute steps. For many dogs, seeing the owners simply stepping out the front door, even with the door remaining open, is much too difficult and will cause an immediate spike in anxiety. Determine a number of splits in your criteria that the dog will be able to handle with ease. For example, start by walking halfway to the front door and returning. Repeat this exercise for a while until the dog is quite uninterested in the activity. Your next step might be going all the way to the front door without touching it, and the next might be touching the front door knob, but not opening the door. You might still break it down further by cracking the door a few inches for several repetitions before you get to the point where you are actually opening and closing the door fully. When this has been repeated enough times so that the dog isn’t reacting, or is barely paying attention, the owners can begin to briefly step out the front door and then immediately step back in without closing the door behind them.
Note: If the front door is not your clients’ main exit door, ask them to use whichever door is. In other words, if they leave the house through the back door most of the time and reserve the front door for special occasions and royalty, then have them practice with the back door.
The number of repetitions you engage in is important. You want the owners to rehearse at each level until the dog is quite relaxed with the activity. Mind you, even dogs who don’t suffer from separation anxiety will look up and notice their owners are walking out, so some sort of reaction is normal. You are looking for ho-hum here rather than uh-oh. Go as slowly as you deem necessary. I often tell owners that even if they think they are going slow enough, they should slow down a notch more and that’s likely the right pace. In the beginning, owners should set aside two 15 to 30 minute sessions to rehearse their front door exercises. Later in the program, as duration outside the front door gets longer, the sessions will increase in length out of necessity.
In between each of your steps, take time to pause. Pausing between each step makes the activity more realistic and digestible as if each exercise were a cold trial, keeping the dog from ramping up (if that is his tendency) and allowing the dog to remain settled. Don’t get too hung up on how long the pauses should be. If you are simply walking to and from the front door, a ten to twenty second pause is perfectly acceptable. Later on, when you have built up to a longer duration and are outside the front door for several minutes or more, you might want to pause for one full minute, but again, don’t get too hung up on the length of the pause, just make it long enough so the dog is completely settled and your activity is obvious. Without pauses, your activity looks odd—just walking back and forth to the front door doesn’t really look like an absence.
Walking out the front door for the first time is a big deal. The owner must be certain to make the exits very nonchalant as Joe does here with Redford.
Here, as ever, nonchalance is key to success. When the owners return from an out-of-view absence, they shouldn’t talk to the dog or even look directly at him. In fact, ask them to imagine being on a phone call or having mail to read for a minute or two before they can greet their dog. The dog should be settled down in his confinement area before he is greeted. Depending on the dog, this may take a few seconds. (If it takes much more than a few seconds to a minute for the dog to settle, then the duration of the out-of-view absence was too long.) And by the way, the owner need not let their dog out of the confinement area after each successive trip to the front door in these early stages. Later on when you have worked up to longer duration absences of 20 or 30 minutes, letting the dog out after he has settled is fine, but in these early stages it is not necessary.
Just as with the exits, the re-entry must also be low key, no effusive greetings and excited hellos here. Just walk in and go about your business, particularly if the dog is excited.
A final word on out-of-view absences
One last note about out-of-view absences: In this phase, the dog must show he can run out of his treats and then settle down while the owners are out of view. And this is true whether you use a Kong, a bully stick or other food toy. Remember, the goal for the eventual real absences is for the dog to not just be consuming food the entire time. Yes, you are creating a positive association with absences by using food, but you also want to make sure the dog learns to settle down without food.
Approaching expert body language reading level
By this point your clients should really be approaching an expert level of body language reading. However, understand that you are now getting into more difficult levels for the dog, so new body cues are going to start to pop up. In other words, you may start to see reactions that you have never seen before, such as the first time the dog paws at the gate or maybe even gives a little whine. Don’t be too overly concerned about these behaviors; there’s no need to rush to back things up dramatically. Go ahead and continue to rehearse at your current level as long as the new behaviors aren’t too severe (if they are, consider a split in criteria). The new behaviors will subside as the dog experiences repetition at the new level and comes to realize that nothing scary is occurring. You are also using technology at this point, so the owners are watching their dog on their smart phone, iPad or computer instead of viewing the dog in person. You are also watching the dog using your computer or smart phone and coaching the client as to what you are seeing in order to effectively set criteria. Watching the dog remotely changes things up a little, so your clients do need to get used to this. The dog may sometimes wander off screen for a moment and the client needs to learn not to panic. The dog may not be clearly in focus all the time, so both you and the owner need to be better at ascertaining the cues of the whole body.
Your goal from this point forward is to be watching the trends in the behavior. For example, with each successive absence is the dog becoming more and more relaxed, nonchalant, or unconcerned? Does the dog become less hyper-vigilant about watching the gate after multiple repetitions? Or do things seem to be ramping up on a particular step with continued repetition? As you watch the behavior trend, it will allow you to dictate how you adjust your criteria, by pushing, dropping or sticking to it. A dog who stays the same or gets a little more nonchalant each time is a candidate for sticking to your criteria and soon pushing it. A dog who ramps up is a candidate for dropping down a criteria level. The degree to which you push, stick to, or drop your criteria is up to you, of course. You will know quickly through observing body language whether your decision was too much for the dog, so err on the side of caution. You can always raise the criteria more later; it’s best not to push too much too soon.
Taking more notes, including some journaling
Does journaling sound a little corny? I agree, but I encourage my clients to do it regardless. At the very least I ask them to reflect a bit on how they feel about the process. One client of mine was in the CIA, not exactly the touchy-feely type. I asked him (with trepidation, mind you) to write out at least a few sentences about how he felt after each session. He scoffed. I encouraged. He scoffed more. Because I could tell his frustration, bubbling beneath the surface, was likely interfering with his program, I asked one more time. I told him to send me his notes on his session with one sentence at the end about how it made him feel. Being a good military man, he complied. Within a week I was getting paragraphs of journaling from him and the way he was training his dog changed dramatically. Seems I had given him permission to open the floodgates and acknowledge his feelings of frustration.
Once validated, he was able to replace this frustration with determination, which in turn became confidence and then motivation.
We have to find ways to keep owners from becoming discouraged as their frustration levels grow and turn the frustration around into motivation. A few sentences or so about how they feel can relieve some of this pressure, and kind, genuinely motivating words from you are tremendously important.
Phase Three recap
The work you do in Phase Three desensitizes the dog slowly and safely to out-of-view absences and to activity at the front door. The front door is a potent anxiety trigger for many dogs with separation anxiety disorder, so owners may have to spend a fair amount of time on this phase.
Be ready to encourage your clients. Let them know that what they are seeing is normal for many dogs. And once they have completed this phase they will have a dog who is fine being in his confinement area with the owners out of view for 30 minutes. They will be able to and walk out of the open front door without causing a panic attack in their dog. Plus, if they have stuck consistently to their not-following routine and the dog is relatively savvy, they may have a dog who no longer follows them everywhere around the house, but who often chooses to stay on his own bed.