Phase one is all about building your dog’s self-confidence.
*Update 2/21/19: This post content was created prior to my graduation from the Academy for Dog Trainers and my mentorship with Malena DeMartini. Knowing what I know now as a certified separation anxiety trainer (CSAT), dogs do not follow the book! Because of our multi-dog home and Mary Lou’s stress level at the time, I started with confidence building exercises. This is NOT needed for all dogs in order to begin a separation anxiety protocol.
Utilizing positive force-free methods are key to strengthening your dog’s self-confidence. They learn to trust you, look to you for guidance and enjoy learning because you are making good things happen contingent on the behaviors they are performing. So instead of getting frustrated and using what has soothed them in the past i.e. howling, chewing, they learn to work things out in a more constructive fashion. Some will say that free-shaping, capturing or clicker training are the best way to go. But really, as long as you are solidly based in force-free methods, you can’t go wrong.
Two of the favored behaviors to train self-confidence for separation anxiety dogs are “go to mat” and “relax/stay” or “settle”. “Go to mat” teaches the dog that she gets good things by leaving your side and lying on a mat. This is the opposite of what they have learned in the past. If they want good things they need to go to the source…you. Well, now you teach them to go away from you to get the goodies. “Relax/stay” or “settle” is like a “down/stay”, but less strict. Your goal is to have your dog be in any relaxed, comfortable position on their mat. By practicing both of these new trained behaviors on a comfy mat or bed with your dog, you will get a ‘mat happy’ dog. Which means, they will love being on their mat and seek it out as their preferred resting spot rather than having to always be next to you. Whoo hoo, no more velcro dog! And your dog is learning to self-sooth. I have found the best illustration of this to be Malena’s comparison of your dog and his new favorite bed to Linus and his blanket.
Mary Lou and I have been working on “go to mat” and “relax/stay”. I taught Mary Lou the cue “bed” in place of “go to mat”. You can call it whatever you want, as long as you are consistent and take the time to clearly teach the dog what exactly you expect them to do when you give the cue. The behavior she had to perform in order to be rewarded was, go to her bed and lay down in a relaxed position. She had to have at least half of her body on the bed. Here are two links to videos I took of teaching her “bed”.
The first one involves the beginning steps of teaching her “bed”.
The second one is building on “bed” so that I can move up to three feet away and ask her to go to her bed on cue.
For the “relax/stay” training there are three different sample steps that Malena supplies in the book. These samples progressively add in distractions, duration and the distance you move from your dog. Mary Lou and I followed these samples to see what level we would have to tweak and focus on for her. She flew through steps one and two. Step three starts to add in higher level distractions such as ‘go to an interior closet, open and close quickly, then return’, ‘do three jumping jacks’ and ‘clap your hands loudly, twice’. While the closet door opening and the jumping jacks piqued her interest, she did stay on her bed. When I clapped my hands, I kept it at a moderate sound level, as I know my dog and her sensitivity to loud noises. She stayed on her bed, but her body language told me that she was not relaxed. This is what I expected, as this is a dog that will cower and hide in the basement if you smoosh a mosquito on the wall. Seriously. It makes for a long and lively summer season for the vampire bugs. So, we will create a step four entailing sticking to the current distractions in step three and building off of them until Mary Lou is able to stay relaxed.
Before I go on, I want to stress how important it is to be able to read your dog’s body language. With my experience working at a shelter, teaching dog training and doing behavior consults I have watched and learned the language of dog. Learning how to read a dog is not an easy feat. It takes lots of practice and attention to multiple details at once. Volunteering and later working at a shelter provided me with ample amounts of varying degrees of stress, fear and anxiety signals. If you have a shelter in your area which you can volunteer at, I highly suggest it. But really, the most important thing is to learn the basic signals and then be in tune with your dog’s particular slang. I say this because, while dogs have a common language system they use to speak with each other (and attempt to speak to us with) they do skip steps or fly through the little signals and jump right to what has worked in the past after the more subtle signals have repeatedly failed them.
An all too common example would be a dog that has lip licked, averted their eyes, lip curled, whale eyed and then growled at a person approaching them. The guardian is embarrassed and upset at their dog’s behavior thus have a tendency to instinctively yell “No!” at their dog and yank on their leash. This yelling and yanking is scary to the dog, so they adjust their behavior to avoid the scary consequence. Now they are still scared of the person approaching them, but instead of warning that person to back off they jump to lunging and biting. Yikes! So learn to read your dog. They are communicating all the time to you. You just need to learn what they are trying to tell you so that you can respond in kind to their requests. Truly be their guardian and advocate for them so they can feel safe.
There are many great guides out there to help humans learn dog. Here are a few of my favorites. They are listed from the easy quick guides to the more in-depth detailed guides. I really encourage you to take the time for the more in-depth ones. Your dog will thank you!
- Guide to Dog Body Language from Zoom Room (video)
- Dog Body Language from The Family Dog (video)
- On Talking Terms with Dogs: Calming Signals by Turid Rugaas (book)
- Canine Body Language: A Photographic Guide by Brenda Aloff (book)
- Canine Body Language in the Shelter by Sara L. Bennett, DVM (video)
After you have taken in the above educational material, you should know what Tulip was trying to tell me here during her dog evaluation in 2009 at the shelter. Note, my shutter speed was quick enough to catch this. And no, she is not just licking her lips after getting a yummy treat 🙂
Back to Phase One – The Confinement Area. Part of phase one is deciding on a confinement area for your dog. The confinement area needs to be a place your dog can be comfortable. Setting up a confinement area aids in your dog learning that be separated from you is okay. With a separate area in your house, it also enables you to practice baby steps of out of view absences without actually leaving the house. Enabling those baby steps and making it easier for you to practice them are of huge importance for you and your dog. If it is too hard for either of you, no one succeeds.
As I discussed in my previous post, I have chosen to give Mary Lou access to a whole room with her crate in it as an option for her to utilize. The room I chose is the one I spend the most time in as it is my office/work area. She is regularly in it with me and in fact, she is snoring on her bed behind me as I type. Because all of the dogs like to be where I am, I have been gating the area off with a baby gate. This allows me to work with Mary Lou without their added distractions of wanting treats too whenever Lou gets one. When you are practicing rewarding a dog for being relaxed and lying on their bed, having three other dogs rush over for their share is well….too much and no one ends up relaxed. Plus it allows me to practice leaving the area and go out of view without her following me.
Right now, my grand plan is to work up to not having the gate up while I am away and leaving the room door open. The reasoning is this. A) We are renting and closing the door may lead to the destruction of nice original wood doors. B) She can jump that gate in a flash with no problems and the room is at the top of a large flight of stairs. C) The other dogs will be in their separate rooms so I don’t have to worry about any doggie disagreements while I am away. They very rarely have them, but I tend to be a better safe than sorry kind of girl.
Choosing interactive toys and putting them to work. There is a multitude of interactive toys for dogs on the market. Which you choose will depend on your dog’s problem-solving skills and their tendencies to put chewing into the equation of ‘How do I get this treat!”. Be sure to test each item with you in the room to decide if you feel comfortable utilizing them as items while you practice absences. If you find you have bought a toy that doesn’t fit the standard for your dog playing with unsupervised, you can still allow your dog to have fun and play with them while you are in the confinement area. These toys all help to make the confinement area a fun and relaxing place. So do it up and make all cool things happen in that area.
After desensitizing Lou to the Treat & Train (fka Manners Minder) I have begun using it to feed her meals in her confinement area. What normally takes her less than 3 minutes now is taking her 25 minutes. I am staying in the room with her for now, as she is still learning how it works. And she has a tendency to go to the ‘knock it over’, ‘put it in my mouth’ problem-solving techniques when things don’t happen as quickly as she would like. To start, I only used the remote to dispense at a high regular interval for her staying lying relaxed on her bed. Once she was successfully doing that, I during on the ‘down/stay’ function and put the dispensing rate at 3 seconds, variable interval. Gradually we have worked up to 7 seconds. This morning, 7 seconds was frustrating her to the point of her standing up and pawing at the T&T, so I dialed it back down to a 5-second variable interval. If anyone is interested in seeing the videos of her learning to use this, do let me know and I will upload them. They are about 25 minutes long though…so keep that in mind.
As I have been using the T&T I have found a few things about it that make it a tool I can not utilize while I am away. One, it has a tendency to get kibble stuck as it gets towards the end of the kibble supply. This has frustrated Mary Lou because nothing comes out after it signals to her that food is coming via the rotating disc noise. Another is the lid, which she quite quickly figured out how to manipulate open so that she could get at the full stash. She discovered this while I stepped into the bathroom for a minute. Mary Lou is definitely the Ultimate Warrior when it comes to product testing! (Late 80’s WWF fans know what I am talking about.) So the next interactive food dispenser in my toy box is one of her all-time favorites, the Bob-A-Lot by Starmark. We will test this out as a toy for utilizing while I am practicing my ‘out of views’ from her. Two things I see as potential downfalls are it being too noisy for the other dogs and kibble getting under my desk area or the radiator. I do have plans for both of these if they occur and will share how it goes in the next post.
Till then, snuggle with your furry ones and stay warm!