Obedience Training and Separation Anxiety

Obedience Training and Separation Anxiety

At a certain point most dog owners will notice a varying degree of separation anxiety in their dogs. Whether it’s a brand new puppy that has just left it’s litter mates and is in an adjustment period, or a newly adopted adult dog that may have been suffering from separation anxiety for years, there are a few basic techniques that most owners can try on their own. It’s important to remember that no dog is exactly the same as the next, while these techniques work for most dogs, its best to contact a professional dog trainer for a customized training plan. We here at SoCal K9 are always just a phone call away!

The best start you can give your new dog isn’t always the first thought in a dog owners mind….leave your dog alone. Let me repeat that again….leave your dog alone.  You don’t need to engage with your dog every second of the day, allow them to have time to entertain themselves, let them explore an enclosed space and be on their own.  I cannot stress this enough to new puppy owners, learn to co-exist without constant touch or eye contact. Make sure you are separating yourself from your pup either by completely leaving the house, or just by being in separate parts of the house. Start with an hour or two at a time within the first few days, of course you wouldn’t just give your new dog full run of the house, but we will approach that in a minute. A large portion of first time dog owners want to spend as much time as possible with their new companion. Some owners will plan their pups arrival around a holiday or vacation (or updated for 2020…while quarantined in your home) and spend nearly every waking minute making sure their new friend is happy and content. But what happens when you have to go back to your normal routine outside of the home? Your dog thinks you two are going to pal around 24/7 for the rest of your lives, that first day you spend 8 hours or more away from home your dog won’t know what to do! Make the first few days a realistic portrayal for your pup, leave them at home for an hour here, an hour there. It’s also important not to overwhelm your new dog with too much stimulus whether that’s people coming by the house to meet the new dog or taking him/her to every dog friendly spot in town. Give them plenty of time to settle, get used to their new home and family as well as spending time alone in their new home.

Now that you’re ready to leave your new puppy alone for a few hours, remember they don’t know the rules of your house, and certainly don’t expect that they are house broken! Create a management plan for your dog when you’re either away from home or unable to supervise. The easiest, safest way to manage your dog is crate training. While there are a few dogs that can not be safely crated due to more severe behavioral problems, most dogs will take to their new “den” over the next few days. It’s important to set the crate up with your dogs safety in mind, there are some things we can do with adult dogs that may not be appropriate for a young puppy or necessarily conducive to housebreaking a young puppy. If you’re not sure how to crate train your new puppy, give us a call. If you’ve just adopted an adult dog and you’re not sure if they have any destructive tendencies, rather than putting your brand new deluxe dog bed in the crate start with an inexpensive blanket or old towel. You want to make it comfortable and cozy, but hold off spoiling your new companion until the house rules have been established. It’s also a good idea to leave some water. Most dogs will make a mess if left with a full bowl, consider purchasing a water bowl that can be securely attached to the crate wall. You’ll also want to leave your dog with something to do while they’re crated. There are a number of chews and food puzzle type toys on the market. Just keep in mind your dog’s physical strength and possible destructive tendencies, never leave your dog with a toy that could be a choking hazard.

So now your dog is all set in it’s crate or kennel space and you’re ready to leave. You grab your keys and head out the door…and now your dog is barking. Now what? In most cases your new dog will quiet down in a few minutes. In some cases they can continue to bark for hours, if this is what you are currently experiencing it’s time to bring in a professional to asses the situation. If your dog is settling down after a few minutes, your headed down the right path. The more often you can run through this exercise the less fuss they will make with each successful repetition. If you happen to think your dog is showing some hypersensitivity to external noise (i.e. gardeners, delivery trucks, street noise) feel free to leave the radio or tv on…although their hearing is highly sensitive the white noise will provide some comfort and drown out the external sound. To help your dog get more comfortable with their crate, you can also run through this drill and never leave the house. Simply walk out of the room and return 10-15 minutes later, to either reward with a toy filled with food or to let them out. Remember, if you can’t supervise your new dog during portion’s of the day, crate them to prevent him/her from learning any bad habits or possibly getting into something that could be potentially harmful. If you find that they bark more when you are at home, consider leaving them crated with a very high value toy/treat that will keep them occupied for 15 -30 minutes, midway through their treat, open the crate door. Ideally your dog will be more interested in finishing their treat than getting overly excited to see you. You should give your dog some supervised space during this time. This exercise will help teach your dog that they don’t need to be glued to your side at every moment.

Now I know some of you are thinking “I can’t take the barking, there has to be something to get my dog to be quiet”. Of course there are a number of aversive devices on the market. Whether you use the old school penny can, bark collar (static or citronella), or a sonic device, it’s important to teach your dog that there is also reward for being quiet. Before employing any type of aversive for barking I strongly recommend having a professional dog trainer evaluate the situation and devise a custom plan for you and your dog. Lots of old school trainers, and dog owners, will immediately suggest the penny can or a squirt bottle. In some cases this is a very simple solution, but can have ill affect on behaviors you may want down the road. Just an example, if you love spending time in the pool, at the beach or lake and want your dog to love the water…using a squirt bottle filled with water as a punishment probably isn’t the best idea. Again, if you’re not sure what the right course of action is for your dog, contact a professional dog trainer. SoCal K9 offers a free in-home evaluation to customize a training program that will not only fit your dogs skill level but also your lifestyle!

You’ve tried some of the basics, but you’re still experiencing some pretty severe behavioral issues as a result of your dogs tension and anxiety when separated from his/her pack…now what? Obedience!! Even if your dog isn’t showing “severe” behavioral issues, obedience training is a very important step in establishing the leader/follower dynamic. If you have a puppy this is a highly important step in setting the expectation for your dog and showing them how you want them to behave. With a newly adopted mature, adult dog it is imperative to show them that you are in control and they don’t need to assume the role of pack leader. Studies have shown that dogs who successfully complete obedience training show a reduced incidence of separation-related anxiety. This is a direct result of the enhanced confidence dogs gain from understanding who’s the leader and how to effectively communicate with their new leader. Dogs that are unable to clearly communicate with their owners, often are unable to relate to their owner as an independent affiliative partner and may develop a reliance on direct contact with their owner….presenting a strong vulnerability response upon separation. Aside from correcting or preventing problematic dependency, dog training improves a dogs focus and impulse control…both of which are vital cortical executive functions necessary for effectively adapting under stress. In other words, we’re using obedience training as a way to “force” our dogs into using the prefrontal cortex, the area of the brain responsible for differentiating among conflicting thoughts, determining good and bad, consequences of current activities, and social “control”. Whew that was a mouthful…basically obedience helps retrain the brain and creates a state of mental stimulus leading to reduced energy.  Whether your dog is just learning the basics or is too smart for their own good, devise a challenging training drill to run through with your dog before leaving or separating.  By mentally exhausting your dog, you’ll create a tired, and relaxed state where they are actually relieved to have some alone time. Every dog is different, daily drills before each crate session can result in a reduction of separation anxiety rather quickly, or it may take several weeks.  Work as fast as you can, but as slow as your dog needs to…patience and consistency is key.

In some cases, additional training such as Posture-Facilitated Relaxation (PFR), can ease a dogs anxiety by creating a deep state of relaxation. PFR uses a combination of graded postures, massage, thermal touch and olfactory stimulation to condition associations with security, physical and emotional relaxation, positive reinforcement and play activities. I know what your thinking “Are you asking me to do yoga with my dog?”, no… not exactly. Graded postures are a series of positions (Stand, Sit, Down, Lay/Settle) selected for their relative relinquishment of control. The repetition of postures used with massage develops a deep relaxation which is then paired with a comforting scent. You don’t have to create a day spa for your dog or listen to new age music, but these sessions are relaxing for you as well so do whatever makes you comfortable. The scent you choose should be fairly diluted if using an essential oil such as lavender or sandalwood, or you may even choose to use your own scent (think old t-shirt). PFR Training alone is not an answer to relieving separation anxiety but when used in conjunction with Obedience Training, it is a powerful tool to help reduce and prevent separation anxiety.

Integrating training activities into your everyday routine will not only help to calm your dog during times of separation but also during heightened social contact which may be when you return home from work or when meeting another dog or person. Teaching your dog that ‘Nothing In Life Is Free’ and that they must work for affection establishes appropriate leader/follower boundaries and gives your dog a far greater feeling of security. Again, no dog is the same as the next, just as no owner is the same as the next. It’s important to work with a professional dog trainer that won’t take a cookie cutter approach to your dogs training needs as well as your own abilities. SoCal K9’s professional dog trainers will first talk to you about your goals, timelines and daily routine to develop a custom training program to make sure you succeed at reaching your training goals.

If you’ve tried the basic steps to help reduce your dog’s anxiety and it doesn’t seem to be working, its time to get help from a professional dog trainer. To get started, call (949) 257-2501 or go on-line to www.SoCalK9Training.com and schedule your free in-home evaluation.