Look For Relaxation Rather Than Anxiety in Separation Anxiety Training

April 29, 2021

Want your dog to look as relaxed as Tanner does in this picture when you leave home? Read on...

If I gave Emma the Beagle a cookie every time a client said at the end of our first training session together, "I swear my dog really does have separation anxiety!" ETB would be Emma the Chunky Beagle.
I know all too well how difficult life is with a dog who struggles with being alone. I know what it feels like to worry that your dog is going to be so afraid that she frantically runs around barking and howling, scratches and/or chews the door, and has accidents on your floor and furniture. I know what it feels like to compulsively check the video camera the whole time you're away from home and to never feel in the moment anywhere.
So I don't waste a second when I begin working with a new client.
In the past, when I kicked off training a new dog, I would do an assessment where the people would leave the home, and I would watch what the dog did. Dog after dog would run to the door and then do some combination of barking, whining, howling, scratching at the door, etc. before the people would walk back in, even if I texted them to return right away.
The thinking behind doing this kind of assessment is that we need to make sure the dog does have separation anxiety before we can start training, and doing this will also help the trainer understand what the dog looks like when alone and scared.
But why do I need to watch your dog panic in order to help him? If you came to me for help because your dog is biting children, would I say, "OK. Let's see it in action so that I can come up with a training plan. Go get your kids and replicate the thing that causes Fido to tear into their flesh!"? Please fire me on the spot if I did something as horrendously moronic as that. And while you're at it, report me to the authorities! It's ridiculous, right? 
Why, then, do we need to do it for dogs who struggle when left alone? You'll see this approach spelled out in books and training courses. But, I'm here to tell you that you do NOT need to watch your dog or your client dog get scared in order to help them. When people call me for help, they tell me every detail their dog does when left alone. Some even have video. That gives me all the info I need most of the time. I've had maybe two dogs out of the years of dogs I've trained who actually did not need training of any kind. Both of the dogs, it turned out, had urinary tract infections. Go to the vet, pop some pills, life is back to normal.

Moreover, we're looking at the wrong behaviors if we are focusing on what dogs look like when they are scared or anxious. If we want to see an increase in relaxation and a reduction in fear, anxiety, frustration, etc., let's focus on finding the positives so that we can build on them.

The Doorknob Test

The second I start training a dog, I'm working to teach the dog to feel safe and relaxed. I start out having the client walk to the door and turn the knob. Almost every dog flies to the door. If so, I start working backward. If you walk halfway to the door, will the dog still follow? Yep. OK. What if you walk three steps? Stands up but doesn't walk. What if you walk two steps? Stays down but head pops up. What if you simply stand up? In most cases the dog's head will go up, but if I have the person do a bunch of stand-up-sit-downs, the dog will finally relax. Once I've found that, we can start moving forward again and get people out their door.

Some dogs will not follow to the door. But if I have the people go back one or two more times, the dog will then follow. And then we continue moving backwards until the dog relaxes. If the dog stays down but his head flies up every time the people walk, or his eyes and ears go on high alert, then I will back the people up until the dog's head, face, and ears finally relax.
For dogs who have zero negative reaction to the doorknob test after a few reps, we can start walking out the door-- but only as long as the dog stays relaxed. If the head flies up, the ears fly up, the brows furrow, etc., we've now found our fear threshold.

Manage Expectations

In the old days when I did the other assessment, people would come back in and say something like, "We were gone for two minutes! So we can start training there, right?" And me: "Well, er, um, she was, er, scared actually when you walked to the door, so, um, no, um, we need to start with baby steps.." What a PR problem! Their expectations are two minutes, and I now have to explain that we have to start at two seconds, or two steps!

Compare that to the types of comments I get from clients today on day one: "That was amazing!!! I can't believe she looked so relaxed when we walked back out the door!" Or: "It's the first time I actually felt safe walking out." One of my colleague's clients describes the process as "walking meditation." The dog, the people, and we, the trainers, find our inner Zen when we do the training correctly.

And Tanner?

The dog in the cover photo? He was out of his mind with stress at the start. Within two weeks he could stay home alone for an hour or longer, flopped on his side on the cool floor. What is that saying about taking things slowly? An ounce of prevention saves nine lives? No that's not it. A fish in the hand is worth two in the bushel? That's not it either. Fool me thrice shame on mice? I quit.

Bottom line: If you take the time to forage for relaxation and allow that to be your guide when training--rather than the seconds or minutes you hope the dog can do--magic can happen.

Take it from me, as someone who has lived through the misery. Most people don't just want to be able to leave their home without their dog; they want to be able to leave their home knowing their sweet little one feels safe and relaxed. When we look for relaxation rather than anxiety, we can get people and dogs there in the most efficient and humane method possible.

Can you see the relaxation? 

Look for relaxation rather than anxiety when teaching a dog with separation-related problems to feel safe at home. By reading Dixie's micro behaviors (wide eyes, ear turn, leg twitch), I was able to choose exercises that taught her that nothing bad happens when her folks walk to the door, walk out the door, pull out of the garage, and drive away. The leg twitch that occurs at the start of this video was the first movement after 30 minutes of training, that was larger than a tiny ear turn or her eyes widening or closing. We learned over time that when Dixie's leg twitches or kicks back, she is finally beginning to relax.

Make sure you watch to the end. I defy you to NOT see the relaxation.

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