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 prefer 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

Stranger Danger – Helping Anxious Dogs Around Strangers

Fear makes strangers of people who would be friends.

Shirley MacLaine

Boots and Bee Photography - By Brittany Graham

Boots and Bee Photography – By Brittany Graham

“My dog is aggressive towards strangers.

“My dog is fearful.”

“My dog is skittish.”

I hear these phrases constantly.  Some dogs are goofy, fun-loving balls of affection who have never met a stranger.  Then we have dogs who have what I call a healthy sense of self-preservation.  My Orion used to be like that.

No, Orion wasn’t abused, which is a common misconception with dogs such as these.  As humans we try to rationalize and explain behavior.  It must have a cause!  Something precise that has caused our dogs to be wary of the world.

But the world doesn’t work like that.  For example, my daughter, River, is the most fun-loving, outgoing creature I have ever met.  She explained to the pizza delivery guy a few days ago that if he ever encountered a monster, she’d protect him.  She then gave him a hug.  River is the equivalent of a pittie:  the life of the party who thrives on any type of human interaction.

My son Eric is completely different.  He’s more circumspect.  He has wonderful social manners, but it takes him a long time to warm up to someone and feel comfortable.  He needs to feel out a situation before he participates in it.

Neither of my kids have been abused.  Both have been raised exactly the same way.  We accept that kids can have different personalities, but we don’t allow much wiggle room for our canine companions.  They have to be exuberant balls of fun, just desperate for human interaction, regardless of with whom, in order for the to be healthy, happy dogs.  But just as not all humans are of that caliber (I certainly am not), not all dogs need to fit into the one-size-fits-all mould of “dog behavior”.

Orion, who took a few weeks to warm up to my husband, now thoroughly enjoys any attention he can get from him.

Orion, who took a few weeks to warm up to my husband, now thoroughly enjoys any attention he can get from him.

 

Orion, for instance, is a lot more wary and aloof than a lot of dogs. As a matter of fact, when I first met Orion, he bit me.  Completely not his fault:  he didn’t know me, and I had thrust my hand inside his carrier to retrieve him, as he had gotten caught in the back of it somehow.  Any creature with a lick of sense (especially one weighing 5 lbs.) would do the same thing!  It doesn’t mean he’s damaged, it means he has an healthy sense of self-preservation.

Gradually I built up Orion’s trust in me.  I started by not yelling, kicking, hitting or otherwise abusing the dog.  Common sense, right?  The longer I went without kicking Orion, he figured the more likely it was that I wasn’t going to start.  But then we moved beyond that.  There’s a difference between a friend and a protector.  I was to become both.  I needed to Pilot Orion.  In other words, I needed to not only answer all of his tough questions (such as, “Is that person a threat?” and, “Should I be afraid?”), but I had to get him to trust me enough to forgo his own determination of a situation and accept my answer.

Teaching a new trick can help build trust.  You're working together as a team with a common goal: communication. Boots and Bee Photography - By Brittany Graham

Teaching a new trick can help build trust. You’re working together as a team with a common goal: communication.
Boots and Bee Photography – By Brittany Graham

Look at it like this:  What if I told you to sell everything you own and invest a certain stock?  Your reaction would probably be, Why on earth should I listen to you and do something so potentially catastrophic?! You’d be crazy to just listen to me regarding such a decision.  However, what if I started off with small suggestions, such as putting $5 towards something.  You take a look at my situation, which seems financially comfortable, and decide to take the $5 plunge.  That $5 turns into $10.  Your faith in my decisions is boosted.  I give you another suggestion, you take it, and make more money, or, at the very least, don’t lose any.  Pretty soon you’re actively looking to me for suggestions.

That’s how it works with dogs.  You have to give them a reason why your answers to their questions are better than what they can come up with.  That’s what Piloting is all about.  Now obviously you can answer their questions with force, and with pain and anger, but that’s losing the most important part of the Piloting equation:  trust.  So how do you get a dog to trust you? Easy! Put them in very simple situations that require only a very small leap of faith, and then gradually up the ante.

I recently boarded the world’s most adorable Labradoodle, Cody, in my home due to his owner’s injury and anticipated long convalescence.  How did I get him accustomed to me, and used to my answering his questions?  I started with agility. Teaching him to jump over a yardstick placed directly on the floor.  Then adding stimulation: placing one end on a soup can, raising it just a bit.  Then the next side is raised.  Pretty soon Cody is trusting me enough to go bounding back and forth across the “jump”.  If I had started out with the jump raised all the way…well, that’s a bit of a stretch.  He didn’t know me very well, and that’s an awful lot to ask of a dog.  But by adding gradual amounts of stimulation to the situation, raising it slowly, I was able to expand his level of comfort with my decisions until eventually he trusts my answers more than he trusts his own.  That is what Piloting is all about.

So how do we put this in play with regard to stranger danger?  Well, we need to start with the fact that it is okay that your dog is wary of strangers.  We aren’t trying to change who your dog fundamentally is.  But we can indeed broaden their horizons a bit.  Get your dog to trust your answers with the small things, like walking by the man on the other side of the street.  Answer their questions as you are walking, and make sure you are Pilot during the walk.  Don’t just drag your dog along past the stranger – that’s forcing them past a point, not answering their questions.  It may take a bit of mental fortitude on your part to make it past the first person, but if you are Pilot, take your time, and keep your patience, you will do it.  Remember, this is difficult for your dog: this is the first time you are Piloting them past a perceived danger.  It is a huge leap of faith on their part and should be treated as such.  Just because you realize that the other person isn’t a threat doesn’t mean they do.  But if you get them past the first person, answering their questions all the while, the second person is easier to get by, then the third, and so on.  Pretty soon your dog is looking for your answers rather than coming up with their own.

Orion is still wary of strangers.  I allow him to be.  Unless I don’t.  That’s the beauty of Piloting.  If you don’t abuse the position, you can ask your dog to do marvelous things.  Orion and I worked on his stranger danger, gradually upping the ante each time.  First he had to walk calmly by strangers, which is difficult when you barely reach someone’s ankles – no wonder everything looked like a threat!  (You try walking among a herd of elephants without being apprehensive, and then you’ll understand what a small dog can feel like on the sidewalk.)

Next we worked on strangers approaching. They would ask to pet my dog, and I would let them…in a very controlled way.  I would pick him up and present him rear first.  If Orion would ask a question, such as “Can I make them stop petting me?”, I would answer his question by very gently tapping him on the derriere with all five fingers, similar to the way one taps out an email on a computer:  no harder.  It’s not about pain, it’s about getting him to refocus on me and the answer I was giving him.

Trust is integral.  If I’m asking Orion to trust my judgment about someone, it’s up to me to keep him safe and make wise judgments.  So if the individual who wants to pet Orion seems very hyper or is giving off a lot of negative energy, my answer is no.  My first duty is to my dog, not to social graces.  It’s up to me to put Orion in situations where he can thrive, not situations that test his faith in me to beyond capacity.  I also don’t force Orion to take affection without a good reason.  I don’t make him be pet just for the sake of being pet. Affection has to be mutual.  My goal was to make sure he was acclimated to being touched by anyone, just in case circumstances arose where he needed to be (vet, boarding, etc.).  I still make him accept being pet, but only for one of two reasons: he truly wants to be pet by that person, or I need to work on his accepting touch to keep him from backsliding into not accepting touch from a human.

As Orion accepted being pet by strangers, he was always given a reward.  For Orion, food doesn’t do much, but calm gentle praise certainly did.  He wanted to know he was on the right track, and I most definitely assured him of it.  Answer his questions, give positive when he chooses to accept the answer.  Wash rinse repeat.

Orion is still wary of strangers, but rather than immediately cowering in fear or lashing out when someone decides to pet him, he takes a different approach now.  He looks at me.  He expects me to answer his questions.  Sometimes he has to accept that he will be pet, but since I’ve always protected him during the petting, he isn’t afraid anymore.  Now he’s the dog who will warm up to a stranger after a bit, and actually “ask” to be pet – something that I never thought would happen.

Orion and Cody.  It took a little Piloting to get Orion to accept my answers and Cody, namely that Cody wasn't a threat.

Orion and Cody. It took a little Piloting to get Orion to accept my answers and Cody, namely that Cody wasn’t a threat.

Orion has come a long way from that frightened little creature he once was.  Yes, I have put a lot of effort into Piloting him and answering his questions, but it’s always easier to be the one answering questions than the one who has to take a leap of faith.  That’s why I’ll always strive to be worthy of the Pilot position and never shake his faith through ego or vanity or putting him in situations that we haven’t worked towards yet.  I’ve earned his trust, and it’s up to me to make sure I don’t abuse it.

Boots and Bee Photography - By Brittany Graham

Boots and Bee Photography - By Brittany Graham

Keep calm and pilot on

Kerry Stack
Darwin Dogs
Dog training in Cleveland, Ohio