Separation Anxiety – Five Steps to Help Your Dog Past Their Fear

Ever has it been that love knows not its own depth until the hour of separation.

- Khalil Gibran

Brittany Graham Photography

Brittany Graham Photography

Separation anxiety.  I hate those words so much, because those two short words encompass such fear and terror, inadequately describing the mental state of a dog who is experiencing the condition.  I personally believe that “separation trauma” or even “separation madness” may be better descriptions of this condition, even if only marginally.  Because after all, in order to work with a behavior, an adequate understanding of the emotions of, as well as empathy for, the poor creature experiencing the condition, is absolutely necessary.

First, understand that dogs and wolves are virtually the same creature.  Running parallel along the same course, if you will.  Obviously there are some minor differences (appearance, not the least), but even the rather un-wolflike Cocker Spaniel can breed with a wolf, that’s how closely aligned they are. Humans can only procreate with other humans.

Now, there are a few differences between dogs and wolves that need to be address.  Namely, that dogs are essentially wolves that are mentally adolescent or younger their entire lives.

Some are mentally more immature than others.  Not stupid; nor backwards in any way.  Just not mentally matured to that of a wolf.  To put it in human terms, think of a Lab as a 5-year old child.  They ask a lot of questions, but mostly of a benign, if not mildly annoying nature. Think of the types of questions a 5-year old human may ask:

“Can I have cake for dinner?  Can I play in the mud?”

Nothing dangerous, just merely annoying.

Think of your typical Beagle as more of a 12 year old kid. Definitely more money in their Piloting Piggy Bank, and the questions may not be as constant, but are starting to take a little more Piloting to answer them. They won’t just accept your answer “just because”, and their questions are a little more difficult:

“Can I nip you if I don’t like your answer?  Can I make this intruder you call ‘Grandma’ go away?”

Answering their questions with a “because I said so” isn’t going to work.  They are a little more mature mentally, and require good answers.

Finally we have dogs like the Akita.  I hate that these guys get such a bad rep.  They aren’t bad dogs at all, they just have a lot of money in their Piloting Piggy Banks.  They are like a 17 year old.  They can take care of themselves.  Are they fully mature?  No.  But are they going to take any answer you give them?  Not unless you have have a better reason why they should? (Hint: it should never involve violence nor pain!) In other words, they will love you and be loyal, but they definitely aren’t your minions.  You have to earn their respect, for they don’t give it away willy-nilly.

Now, this is a very simplified explanation.  I personally like to know who a dog is as an individual, rather than what their breed is.  I’ve seen a mentally “5-year old” Akita, as well as Labs that mentally, were like wizened, sage old creatures.  But it’s a rough outline of where to start with dog behaviors.  “Mental age” is one of the first things I use to determine who your Fido is; breed is one of the last.

That being said, if you are at an amusement park with your five-year old child, and they suddenly get separated from you and lost, how is that child reacting?

Not very well, I daresay.  The world is big and scary, and they have questions.  Who will take care of them?  Who will keep them safe?  It’s pure terror until you’re reunited again.

Let’s move on to that Beagle.  If you get separated from a 12-year old kid, they’re a little frightened, but they are mature enough not to immediately hit the panic button, and will most likely be able find an employee of the park to ask an adult how to handle the situation. Still scary, but not absolutely terrified.  They are still a little panicked, but can think rationally. They can cope.

But then we have the 17 year olds, like the aforementioned Akita.   What happens when they get separated from you?

Back to terror. Wait, huh?  I thought they were mentally more mature, you may ask.  Yes, but they may have so much money in their Piloting Piggy Bank that it’s more than yours.  Meaning they’re terrified for you.  Who will protect and care for you while you’re separated.

Ugh.  It can be a vicious circle!  A dog who’s mentally too immature will be scared for itself.  A dog who’s mentally more mature is terrified for you.  How to fix the issue:  a frightened creature who is shredding their bedding and their crate just to get out so they can shred your couch.  Crying, whining, drooling, even urination and defecation in their crate. It’s horrible, and as I said, all driven by fear.

Well, I’m not going to say it’s easy to fix.  As a matter of fact, it’s one of the most difficult behaviors to work with when addressing issues with dogs.  But it can be treated.  Never cured, for that fear will always be under the surface, but it can be managed.  Here’s how.

1) Become Pilot.

I don’t care how much money your dog has in their Piloting Piggy Bank, you need more.  If your dog has $5.00 in their Piloting Piggy Bank (most pitties), then I want you to have $2 million.  If your dog has $100 (most of my Jack Russell Terrorists Terriers) then I want you to have at least $5 million dollars.  In other words, you have so much money in your Piloting Piggy Bank that they start to accept that you answered the last 25 of their questions well (read: nobody died and they are now calm) that the next question they ask will most likely be answered well by you; calmly, with love, but firmly.  You need to make sure you have a buffer of Piloting money, in other words.  Remember, working with separation anxiety doesn’t start when you leave Bella the Boxer to go to work.  It’s an ongoing, non-stop thing.  You’re working on it every time Bella asks if she can jump on you (we call that behavior…well, find out here, and it includes barking at you, nipping at you and trampling you, among other things).  In other words, any questions you Pilot your dog through adds to the money in your Piloting Piggy Bank.

Now, each question is worth a certain amount of money.  For instance, if I drop food on the floor, my Sparta will ask if she may have it.  I need precisely $0.02 in my Piloting Piggy Bank to answer her question.  My Orion, though, will ask the same question, but it’s worth more to him.  I need about $10.00 in my Piloting Piggy Bank to answer that question.

It’s all good, though.  Because I’m rich.  I have millions in my Piloting Piggy Bank.  Enough to cover almost any questions my dogs may ask, including “Am I going to die if you leave me home alone?”  My answer?  No, honey, you’re not. “Are you going to die if you leave?” No, I’m a big girl with lots of money in my bank.  I’ll be safe.”

So start saving that money!

 

2) Make the Abnormal into Normal

Think about the times when you put your dog into the crate: when you leave and when you go to bed.  Both times you are separated from your dog, the thing they hate the most: separation.  So that crate has become a trigger for them.  The Worst Thing Ever is about to happen.  It energizes them, and not in a good way.  You haven’t even left yet, and they’re already starting with that anxious behavior.

We need to change the ritual.  Put them in the crate when you’re home, anywhere from 30 seconds to 2 hours. Yes, I know you feel badly for doing that when they’re already crated so much while you work.  Too bad.  I don’t care how you feel: I care about getting your dog past their horrific fear.  You feel bad.  They feel like they’re having a panic attack.  So just deal with it.  It will be okay. I promise.

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 3) Red Light/Green Light

In order to recreate a behavior, such as calm in the crate, we need to catch the behavior and give it either a positive or a negative.  Now, let’s set the game rules.  The object of the game isn’t to have your dog sitting calmly in the crate.  The object is to catch moments when your dog is just a little bit  calmer than they were a moment ago.  Respond to that with positives.

So you’ve locked your dog in the crate, and they immediately start going bonkers.  Walk away.  Not out of the house, but out of sight.  There will be a moment when the barking, while not stopping, lessens.  Or even a split second where the barking stops.  You seize those moments to slowly move closer to the dog (the positive here).

If your dog’s energy picks up, you will be responding to that with calm, gentle negatives.  Initially, it will be turning away from your dog when they start barking again, perhaps going into the other room.

Keep working at catching each of these behaviors.  Red light (walking away, going into another room) when your dog has increased their energy.  Green light (moving closer to them in a calm manner, and eventually giving them a treat, and or releasing them) when your dog is calmer. Initially the red light/green light will be pretty fast.  But pretty soon they start to understand what behavior gets them released from prison and brings you closer.  Start to up the ante.  Put them in the crate and walk out of the house. Walk right back in.  Red Light/Green Light your dog as necessary, but adding very little of your own energy.  This should be the most boring thing you’ve ever done, according to your body language.

4) Remain Calm and Bored

This goes for everything from greeting your pup to saying goodbye to your pooch.  Everything is boring and normal.  We, like dogs, are gregarious creatures.  We meerkat, as I call it.

We look around at what everyone else is doing.  If nobody else looks panicked, then we don’t panic.  But if you’re in a crowd of people, and suddenly, 2 or three of them start meerkatting, you start doing it, too, because you want to do know what the big deal is.

When it comes to your dog, the answer is nothing.  There is no big deal.  I want you to put your dog into the crate the same way you put your pizza rolls into a microwave. You don’t assure the pizza rolls that everything will be okay.  You don’t act differently, and meerkat before you put them in there.  You just, well…put them in there.  And then walk away.

See!  Homer isn’t worried at all!

5) Remember the Seriousness of the Situation

Your dog isn’t out to get back at you.  They don’t destroy things because they’re angry.  They are legitimately terrified. They have a phobia of being left alone without you.

Think of your phobias.  For me, ironically, it’s a fear of heights.  

Being six feet tall, I don't fail to see the humor in my phobia

Being six feet tall, I don’t fail to see the humor in my phobia

Being afraid of heights is legitimate to me.  Maybe you’re afraid of spiders.  They don’t bother me.  Live and let live, I say.  But the thought of a spider in your bedroom may render you unable to sleep in that room.

I may not be able to empathize with your fear of spiders, but I can empathize with the fact you have fear.  I won’t mock you, nor will I think you’re being a baby.

Now imagine your fear of spiders, and every day, I lock you in a cage with a spider for 8 hours.  Yes, it’s that serious. So rather than blaming the dog, or even worse, ourselves, we can start to empathize with the fear, and help Fido manage the fear.  Be constructively, actively working towards that management.

I’m still afraid of heights.  I get woozy on the second rung of a ladder, and I white knuckle it over the Valley View Bridge.  Every. Damn. Time.

But recently, say in the last year or so, I’ve been able to drive over the Valley View Bridge in the far right lane.  It may not seem like such a big deal for you, but it’s huge for me.  I no longer feel the need to race across the bridge just to get it over with.  I still hate it, but I’m no longer almost incapacitated by fear going over it.  I’ve successfully Piloted myself past my one huge phobia: heights. My fear isn’t gone, but it’s still with me, but it doesn’t rule me anymore.

Let’s not let it rule your dog anymore.  Time to Pilot them through their fear.

Keep calm and pilot on

Kerry Stack
Darwin Dogs
Dog Training in Cleveland, Ohio

When the Dog Trains the Trainer – What Dogs Have Taught Me

I have never met a man so ignorant that I couldn’t learn something from him.

Galileo Galilei

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Brittany Graham Photography

I’ve been training dogs for many years.  I’ve seen clients’ dogs as puppies, heard updates about them through the years, and been crushed at the news that they’ve crossed the rainbow bridge.  After all these years, I still learn something new about dogs after each session.  Sometimes it’s something small, such as a new way to decrease shedding.  Sometimes it’s something profound that will change the ways I train with the PAW Method. Because learning never ends.  I will never know everything there is to know about dog behavior.  The science behind it will never “prove” anything; it’s merely a hunt for more facts to back up working theories about dog behavior, and making adjustments accordingly.  Kinda like cooking:  you have your tried and true recipe for lasagna, but while out to eat one day you discover an ingredient added to the restaurant’s version.  You realize it will improve the flavor of your own recipe, so you add it to your ever-adapting version.  Nothing is so perfect that it can’t be improved upon.

Yeah, that's pretty much how it works.

Yeah, that’s pretty much how it works.

That goes for me personally, too.  We all know that dogs will change you; always for the better, if you let them.  Be willing to add their wonderful traits to your own.  Traits such as living in the moment.  Knowing gratitude.  And sometimes something so simple as how to breathe properly. But what about other things?  How has working with dogs and owners over the years changed me? The answer: profoundly.

I can let things go easier.  Nothing personal.  That’s a dog’s motto.  They don’t do anything to get back at you…they merely do things for themselves.  And that’s a major distinction.  How does that translate into life?  Well, that $&*! who cut me off on the highway wasn’t trying to ruin my day…they were trying to make theirs easier.  And that mind frame has made all the difference in my attitude.  Just let it go.

I’ve lost “stranger danger”.  Every session I walk into involves a stranger.  Sometimes up to three times a day I walk into a strange house and try to bond with the humans, gain the dog’s trust and “fix” whatever is going wrong between the dogs and the humans.  All within two hours.  There’s no room for awkwardness with the humans.  Thanks to the power of speech, I can bond with the humans pretty quickly and form a “pack” mentality of let’s solve this issue together pretty quickly.  The first couple of years it was rough (I’m actually rather introverted), but like anything else, the more you do it, the less you have to do it.

I feel ya.

I feel ya.

Laughter really IS the best medicine. The first order of business when trying to create pack?  Get the humans to laugh.  Or at least smile.  Okay, how about a mercy chuckle? Because nothing says “we’re friends here” like a show of teeth. From the humans anyway.  I need the humans to trust me, and formality isn’t the way to go.  Sometimes all it takes is one shared laugh, and suddenly I’m not a stranger to them anymore. A sense of humor is imperative when working with dogs, or humans, but especially when working with both.

See what I did there?

See what I did there?

I’m not afraid of being afraid anymore.  Notice I didn’t say I wasn’t afraid anymore.  Believe me, I’m plenty scared when I walk into a house with an aggressive 90lb dog who thinks I’m ugly and dresses funny. Fear is rational; it keeps us safe.  It keeps me from doing something stupid.  Being afraid of fear…now that’s a different story.  I have a nodding acquaintance with fear now. I’m not always thrilled when it shows up, but I know it’s there for a reason.  The thing is, fear is an accessory, not the entire wardrobe.  I am not defined by what I’m afraid of.  My fear is just another tool, be it my fear of getting bit, or my fear of driving over the Valley View Bridge. Fear isn’t good, nor is it bad.  It just is.

The Valley View Bridge.  Hang on, lady, we're going for a ride.

The Valley View Bridge. Hang on, lady, we’re going for a ride.

Potential pack has a much broader definition. Being cautious around things that are unfamiliar is normal and natural.  It’s what keeps us safe.  Fortunately for me, I’m constantly exposed to new people, thoughts, religions, and orientations.  I’ve worked with gays, straights, transgender and cross-dressers.  I’ve worked with old, young an in-between.  I’ve trained athletes and quadriplegics. The scary thing at first is that they’re different from me.  Then the most wonderful, impressive thing at the end is how they’re different than me.  While I accept that being introduced into a new situation is scary, I’m lucky to have been exposed to yet another wonderful variation on a familiar theme: human. And guess what?  We’re all mad, crazy, fun, annoying, amazing beings.

Yes, Sally, even you.

Yes, Sally, even you.

I don’t glory in being right, because, well…I’m not always write right. I’ll never forget a training session about 5 years ago.  A family set up a date and time over email.  I show up, and they’re aren’t ready, and they didn’t expect me, and were actually on their way out.  I was furious.  I had re-arranged my schedule to make sure I could be at their house, and had, as a courtesy, traveled outside my normal area.  However, even though I was in the right, I managed to maintain calmness and said I would call to reschedule. I got home, reviewed their email so I could really lay it on thick about how wrong they were, when I realized: I was wrong. I showed up on the wrong day.  I was the one who made the mistake.  To top it all off, they were exceptionally polite and well mannered about my mistake.  I vowed never again to take the “rub their noses in it” attitude in the case of an honest mistake.

Writing this post makes me realize how working with dogs and people has enriched my life.  My life would have been completely different without having had these opportunities.  So to the furballs, wriggle-butts and rope-toy-tuggers (uh, that’s you, canines).  Thank you.  And to you fellow sapiens, I couldn’t have done it without you, either.

Keep calm and pilot on

Kerry Stack
Darwin Dogs
Dog Training in Cleveland, Ohio