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

Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Training (But Were Afraid to Ask)

In character, in manner, in style, in all things, the supreme excellence is simplicity. – Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

Boots and Bee Photography - By Brittany Graham

Boots and Bee Photography – By Brittany Graham

Entering into a new training session, there are always a few consistencies.  I have only two hours to accomplish many things:

  • Gain the trust of the humans
  • Gain the trust of the dog(s)
  • Ascertain the situation
  • Develop a game plan for addressing the behavior issues
  • Create bonds of communication between dog and owner
  • Have fun.

It doesn’t necessarily happen in that order, but that’s a pretty good synopsis of everything I can accomplish in two hours.  It seems like a lot, but as I’ve stated numerous times, dogs aren’t stupid. I also believe that (most) people aren’t stupid either. There are, of course, occasionally the incredible human exceptions.  Dogs, however, are amazingly simple.  That’s why I’m able to keep my training sessions short and simple.  Remember, there is nothing wrong with your dog; he just sucks at being human.  And most people are pretty decent humans; they just suck at being dogs.  So, simply put, we need some communication going on, not a bunch of rules and regulations about how the two species should interact.  Three steps to working with your dog; that’s all it takes for any situation involving a dog to be solved.

I firmly believe dogs ask questions.  We’ve already agreed that dogs aren’t stupid, so of course they ask questions.  They’re curious creatures, and aside from wanting to know about their world around them, they want to know what you think of the world around them.  How should they react?  Should they react? And most importantly, is it time to eat?!

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All of their questions can be answered, but not all of them necessarily need to be answered.  There are simply some that must be answered.  But more on that in a moment.

Working with your dog involves 3 components: Piloting, Activity and Work, or what we refer to as The PAW Method.  To break it down:

Piloting: Answer your dog’s questions. They only ask “yes/no” questions, so it’s pretty easy to do!  Learn how here.

Activity: Keep ‘em moving and active.  Ever experience something called a runner’s high?  Yeah, well, neither have I, but I hear it’s wonderful, and dog’s are addicted to it. They need their Activity, and either you give it to them, or they figure out how to get it themselves, and that’s never a good thing.

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Work: Dogs aren’t stupid, nor are they merely knick-knacks strewn about your house to be idly admired: they are thinking beings with cognitive abilities that we still haven’t fully explored in the tens of thousands of years they’ve been with us.  In other words, keep them mentally engaged. A bored dog is truly a destructive force.

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That’s the groundwork, your foundation.  Make it a good, strong foundation, and you can build upon it by answering your dog’s questions. Dogs are binary, which means every question they ever ask you will require a “yes” or a “no”, which is different than “good” or “bad”.  Your dog is incapable of being bad: he will always choose what’s right for a dog, which may be in direct conflict of what’s right for a human.  Remember, you are merely answering questions for your dog, not punishing them, nor should you be inflicting pain or fear upon a dog.

Using “yes” and “no” can be very confusing.  When do you give negatives, and when do you use positives?  Simple.

Negatives/No

1) When you don’t like what your dog is doing.  Sounds simple enough, but you wouldn’t believe how many people don’t understand that “No” is a complete sentence and can be used liberally.  Ask yourself, “Do I like this behavior that Fido is doing?”  If the answer is “no”, then give them a negative.  Anything from jumping, barking, and getting on furniture to the simple questions Fido may ask on a walk: “Do we turn left here?”.  If the answer is “no”, then give them a negative!  Remember negative doesn’t mean bad, it just means “no”.

So how do you answer a dog’s questions?

Use your body language to answer these questions. If your dog is staring at a treat on the floor and then at you, he’s asking if he can have it. If you do not want your dog to have it, answer his question by walking in between him and the treat, facing him, with the treat behind you. This means that you are “claiming” the treat. You can move into his personal space to back him off it a bit.  Once he’s engaged with you, nothing, or everything (in other words, looking anywhere but at the treat), remove your strong body language by walking to the side or away from him. This shows him that he is giving you the correct response: accepting that the treat is yours. If he looks at your treat again, simply use the body language again.

Think of it as a game of hot/cold.  His question is, “Can I have that?”  The answer is “No”. You answer his question using that body language.  When he accepts the answer (looking at you, everything, or nothing, but definitely NOT looking at the treat), then you’re finished.  Remove your negative body language.  You may have to put the negative body language right back on him if he immediately tries to go for it, but that’s natural – it may take him a few times to accept your answer.  Remember, remaining calm is the key.  Anger should never be a part of this exercise.

So again, Piloting is answering a dog’s questions. You would answer the question in the same way if he is asking if something is a threat (stand between your dog and the perceived threat, facing your dog, and simply back him off while standing up straight). Pretty easy, huh? The more you show your dog that you are capable of being in control and the Pilot, the more your dog will be able to relax and actually be a dog. He’ll look to you for guidance instead of feeling as though he needs to protect you and your family from every garbage can, dog and plastic bag in the neighborhood.

2) When your dog is “Yo, Bitch”-ing you.  Wow….there’s a term.  What’s “Yo, Bitch”, anyway?   Symptoms include: slapping you with their paw, trampling you, pushing you out of your seat on the couch.  Basically, any behavior that would translate to : “Yo Bitch, give me a cookie”, or “Yo Bitch, pet me”.  It’s as detrimental to your healthy relationship with your dog as it would be in any human relationship!  Respect yourself enough to expect respect from your dog.  Your dog is perfectly capable of a “May I Please?” instead of a “Yo, Bitch”, and you know the “May I Please?” look.  It goes something like this:

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“May I Please” ….have a cookie?  Go for a walk? Jump in your lap?  All of these can be answered with a “yes” or a “no”.  Your choice.  But if your dog is “Yo, Bitch”-ing you, the answer must be a negative.  Don’t accept a bully dog‘s behavior.

Positives/Yes

1) The “come” command.  Always, always, always…positive.  Give them a treat. Tell them how wonderful they are!  Scratch their belly.  Whatever it takes to get them to understand that what they did was wonderful.  If you need help with “recall/come”, check out this link.

2) Asking a dog to do a “human” behavior.  Your dog is a perfect dog, and can be expected to do dog things wonderfully.  Being a human, on the other hand…well, that’s a little different.  Any time you are asking your dog to do something that another dog couldn’t ask them to do, you must use positive reinforcement.  For example, a dog will tell another dog to go away, or play, or stay away from their toy.  But they don’t teach each other English (sit, stay, come, etc.), nor do they teach each other tricks.  If you ask a dog to do a human thing, make it worth their while.

3) When they’re calm.  This is the most important of all. I always tell my clients I want “calm” to be like a lottery ticket:

1) you have to play to win;
2) You probably aren’t going to win; and
3) But unless you’re holding a ticket, you’re definitely not going to win.

I want your dog holding a many lottery tickets as possible.  Because the more tickets they have, the better their chances are at winning.  Reward calm any chance you get, and pretty soon Fido will understand that “calm” is like a magic button he can press that will (sometimes) get him exactly what he wants.  If you see your dog sleeping on the floor, give him a gentle scratch behind the ears.  If you’re cuddling on the couch, give him gentle praise for being calm.

And remember, calm is about progress, not perfection. So if you’re dealing with separation anxiety, just reward progress.  If you are crate training, but your dog in the crate and walk into the other room.  He’s going to escalate to a decibel 11….simply wait him out until he goes down to an 8 before re-entering the room.  You are trying to catch a behavior: increased calm.  It’s not always immediate, and it is rarely perfect, but that doesn’t mean the behavior isn’t there to catch.  Make sure you reward it.

So let’s break everything down:

Your dog needs Piloting, Activity and Work (the foundation).  Only once you have given them what the need are you able to build upon that foundation by answering your dog’s questions using “yes/no”.  Pretty simple.  You’ll notice I didn’t give a lot of rules.  I hate rules.  They don’t take into account human and dog personalities.  I know many trainers who:

-Insist a dog should never be on your bed.  Why not?  I sleep better snuggled next to a dog.  Just remember it’s your bed, and your choice who is in it.

-Don’t give your dog people food. Because….?  My dogs get plenty of people food (in a healthy moderation, of course).  If it isn’t on the lethal list (grapes, onions, chocolate, etc.), and your dog isn’t “Yo, Bitch-”ing you for the food, go ahead!  Just remember, it’s their right to beg for food, (“Can I have some?”) just as it’s your right to answer “no”.  

- Never play rope toy/tug/wrestle with your dog because then they’ll know they can beat you.  News flash:  my dog already knows they can beat me.  Using that logic I should never run with my dog because they are faster.  Playing rope/tug/wrestling with your dog is all about setting your boundaries.  We bond through play, and this is a prime way to do it…if you wish.  Set your boundaries.  For example, when Sparta and I play, I have very limited rules:  she’s allowed to knock me down, grab the rope, even (carefully) bite me.  But the second I feel it has gotten too rough, I give her a negative, and she instantly stops.  Some days I’m up for a WWF-style match, other days I’m only good for a drastically diminished version.  Just because we romped hard yesterday doesn’t mean that’s what our game is going to be about today.  You set the rules for each and every match…anything from “no rules” to “not playing at all” is acceptable.  Think of it like Fifty Shades of Grey:  Anything’s okay so long as you are both okay with it.  That includes not wrestling at all.

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So stop complicating your bond with Fido.  No more lengthy list of rules and regulations trying to define your relationship with your dog.  Your bond is unique:  just as there will never be another bond like I had with my first dog, Darwin, there will never be another bond like the dog you have with your dog.  So no more One Size Fits All training style, nor endless rules for working with your dog..  Only you know what you need from your relationship with your dog, and now you have the foundations to build that relationship.

Keep calm and pilot on

Kerry Stack
Darwin Dogs
Dog Training in Cleveland, Ohio