Separation Anxiety: Standing On One’s Own Four Paws

By Malena DeMartini Price

The voicemail message was a funny one. It said, in a charming Italian lilt, “I need help getting my dog off the feet.” Ninety nine percent of my caseload is made up of separation anxiety cases, so I had some inkling right away what the woman calling me meant by that. When we met she confirmed my theory; her dog had separation anxiety. She had known this for some time, but working from home and living in a dog-friendly city like San Francisco, the problem had been manageable until now. At this point, though, Bella (short for Bellisima) was always underfoot. The rough-coated terrier mix’s need to shadow her owner, so typical in separation anxiety dogs, had developed into an obsession. In the kitchen, the bathroom, the home office; wherever the owner was, there was Bella, glued to her legs. The situation was becoming intolerable—and often dangerous.

Most trainers are acutely focused on getting the owner out the front door right away. Isn’t that the grand prize with separation anxiety dogs? Actually, no. And that misunderstanding is why so many separation anxiety treatment plans fail. The real grand prize is a dog that feels okay about being alone for a length of time. This means that the first step in successfully treating separation anxiety is to get the dog “off the feet,” for the simple reason that a dog that lacks the confidence to be half a room away from her owner can’t yet cope with real absences. Yes, you may be able to distract the dog with food for a time, but in many cases you will then hit a wall. The treatment will plateau, perhaps leading you to the flawed conclusion that this particular dog is unable to progress any further than, say, 20-minute absences. This is true of far fewer dogs than you may think.

So how do you build this confidence in the dog? First, you go slowly. As slowly as it takes, which can be crazy-making unless you embrace it as inevitable in a certain percentage of your cases. Second, you use a few simple behaviors you teach all the time. I call it the “not-following routine” (it used to be ‘unfollow,’ but Twitter ruined that for me) and it’s nothing more complicated than Go To Bed and Stay. Together these two cues form the beginning of an absence. Walking away from the owner to go lie on a bed is a mini-absence from the dog’s perspective. The same can be said for a Stay, because the owner walks away. By using these two cues and rewarding them regularly, you can quickly create a dog that is excited to not follow.

In a severe case like Bella’s, we had to start at square one. We put the dog bed a few inches from the owner’s (Italian leather-shod) feet and used a lure to get Bella to lie on it. Soon Bella got the hang of the game and happily plopped down on her bed whenever we said the word ‘cuccia’ (‘dog bed’ in Italian). This is where you have to start with any separation anxiety dog; positive association, repetition, and reward. The dog needs to come to the conclusion independently that being on her bed is just as rewarding as lying across her owner’s feet. Once you have achieved this, you can begin to move the bed a few inches farther away, then another couple, and so forth.

Teaching Stay to a separation anxiety dog is a similar process. More than anything, it’s essential to remember to teach the criteria of distance and duration separately. With Bella, teaching duration was a cakewalk. As long as her owner stayed in one place nearby, even long durations presented no difficulty. Distance was another story—and you may find this to be the case with many separation anxiety dogs. Here, progress was painfully slow. We solved it by using subtle body language to split up criteria to minute levels. The owner waggling a foot backward a few inches and then putting it back in place was enough of an implication for Bella that her owner was moving away, but that’s where we needed to start to avoid triggering anxiety, so that’s where we started. In time, Bella’s owner could take half a step back and twist her upper body to one side. Each subtle body movement was repeated and rewarded many times until it all added up to a full step backward. Eventually that step backward came to incorporate a turned body, then a step away, and now we were on the road to creating distance.

Most separation anxiety dogs hit a new plateau when you begin to incorporate out-of-view Stays. Again, the answer is to split the criteria into tiny steps. If you have to start with one tenth of the owner’s body on the other side of the threshold to keep the dog below threshold, so be it. It’s worth it to succeed. But all dogs (even Bella) can learn to stay happily on their bed as their first baby version of an absence. As you work to build distance and duration, the sheer repetition of asking the dog to Stay establishes the not-following routine. In the early stages, the owner just asks for a Stay while walking across the room and back, but eventually she can ask for a Stay while she goes to cook a batch of pasta.

(By the way, never use Stay as a cue for asking the dog to be home alone. That will typically involve a confinement area, either behind a baby gate or in a crate. The Stay and Go To Bed exercises teach the dog to handle pre-absence absences and that is what sets her up for success.)

You have no doubt taught Go To Bed and Stay many times. But training these cues in a separation anxiety case is nothing like training them in an obedience case. A Stay, for example, is so easy to build—it can typically be done in a handful of sessions—and a placement exercise like Go To Bed is even simpler. A separation anxiety case is different because you are not just teaching a behavior, you are teaching a small measure of emotional autonomy. A dog that lives in near-constant panic about being left alone lacks the skill to self-soothe. By allowing her to discover that being separated from her owner, even if only by inches and for a few seconds to begin with, can be rewarding, you are paving the way for successful treatment.

Now, if two simple cues like Go To Bed and Stay require such an inchmeal approach, imagine how slowly you may need to proceed with front-door exercises? The good news is, separation anxiety treatment does not always have to happen in atomic increments—at least not at all stages. In some dogs shadowing is minimal and can be dispelled with quickly. Others fly through out-of-view absences or front-door exercises. But most plateau at some point and when that happens, the key is to slow down enough not to trigger anxiety in the dog.

Which brings us to the subject of timelines. Each and every client I work with asks how long it will take before her dog can be left alone successfully. The answer is simple yet hard to hear: “Until your dog can relax while she’s alone which is achieved by staying under her anxiety threshold.” No answer at all, I know. But the only honest one.

Are you the kind of trainer who can hold steady through such a process and not push too far too fast? Can you keep your clients motivated to maintain what at times seems like a snail’s pace? Only you can answer that, but if you can, you will find that separation anxiety dogs are profoundly treatable. Start slow and you will see a much higher number of cases resolved. Approach it as a puzzle. Write criteria that teach the owner to read the dog’s body language. Experiment with how small you can make the steps when necessary. Most importantly, tell your clients up front that patience is crucial and that the only way to reach the goal is to focus on the process. Compare it to marathon training; if you hurry at the outset you risk injury and may have to drop out of the race altogether. But the wonderful news with separation anxiety is that once those initial grueling steps are behind you, progress is much quicker.

I hope more trainers will embrace these slow-but-oh-so-necessary confidence-building techniques. There are so many Bellas that need help and too few trainers willing to take on separation anxiety cases. As for my client’s Bella, she is no longer “on the feet.” A poster girl for how setting minute criteria can resolve a long-standing and seemingly incurable problem, she now chooses to be on her bed every day without being asked—and she can be alone for several hours at a time, more than the owner had ever hoped for and, given her lifestyle, as much as she’ll ever need to ask of Bella.

Malena DeMartini-Price, CTC, is a San Francisco SPCA Academy graduate with over 10 years’ experience and several hundred successful separation anxiety cases under her belt. Her use of simple technologies and a different approach to client support to treat separation anxiety is fast garnering attention. Her articles have recently been featured in the APDT’s Chronicle of The Dog.

You can see Malena DeMartini-Price and dog*tec’s Veronica Boutelle and Gina Phairas present about successful approaches to separation anxiety at dog*tec’s two-day Fixing The Unfixable seminar for dog trainers.

Information about the Fixing The Unfixable seminar can be found here.