Separation Anxiety–Mine

September 23, 2011

I’ve been working hard these last few months, preparing seminars for the upcoming APDT (Association of Pet Dog Trainers) conference. The first time I presented for the organization was back in 2000. Eleven years later, the excitement of reaching new trainers and connecting with experienced ones has still not worn off. This year one of my seminars deals with canine separation anxiety. Ironically, I am experiencing anxiety at the mere thought of having to leave my dogs for even a few days.

Since the conference is being held in San Diego this year and I live just outside of L.A., I’ll be driving down. That means I’ll be away from home a total of four days. Normally that wouldn’t be a problem, as my husband would arrange his schedule so that the dogs wouldn’t have to be left alone for long. But as fate would have it, the biggest job of the year at his place of employment falls on the very same dates I’ll be gone. So for the first time, Sierra and Bodhi will have a pet sitter coming in to feed them during the day.

Sierra originally came from a shelter, and had a pretty serious case of separation anxiety. The up side was, the experience gave me a whole new understanding of what living with a dog with separation issues is like, which in turn led to my writing Don’t Leave Me! Step-by-Step Help for Your Dog’s Separation Anxiety. We worked through her issues to the point that she could be left alone for four hours at a time, and some time after that we adopted Bodhi. Surprise! He had worse separation issues than Sierra ever had. This was obviously not what I’d been hoping for when we got Sierra a companion. Oh, well, more things to work on—because we trainers like a challenge, right?

I’ve arranged not only for the pet sitter to come in during the day, but for one friend to be on call to pet sit for a few hours in the evening if my husband ends up working late, and for another to come in and check on the dogs during the day. Overkill? Maybe. But Bodhi in particular gets verrrry destructive when he’s anxious or upset, and keeping the dogs calm will help me to stay considerably calmer while I’m away.

We often talk about how stressful separation anxiety is for dogs, but the impact it has on owners is very much underestimated. I know a lot of you can relate!


The Sneaky Use of Non-Verbal Cues

September 7, 2011

In dog training, we might use a verbal cue to ask a dog to sit, or employ a hand signal as a non-verbal cue to lie down or stay. But dogs are taking cues from us all the time. We’ve all seen how grabbing a leash or a food dish can become a cue for dogs to jump up and down like little furry maniacs, or spin in circles with excitement. Dogs are masters of prognostication—they learn very quickly when one action predicts another, especially when that other action is especially exciting!

I like using cues in a sneaky way. Let me explain. It all starts with observing your dogs and getting to know their habits. Dogs takes cues from and develop behavior patterns based on what they see us doing. For example, as soon as I start preparing food for Sierra and Bodhi, I know Sierra will run outside the back door, and Bodhi will go to his “station” on the carpet. Because that’s where they get fed, so they’ve developed the habit. A more useful pattern I’ve noticed is that whenever I’m in back of the house scooping poop, my dogs will start racing around, chasing each other through the backyard area, in and out of the house, wrestling and carrying on to the point of exhaustion. That got me thinking. My husband and I have settled into a weekday pattern of taking the dogs out in the mornings on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays. Tuesdays and Thursdays we get the morning off from dogdom. If I’m not doing a training session with them or otherwise engaging their minds and burning off some of that energy, I make it a point to go out back to scoop poop. I take my time at it, knowing that they’ll continue to race around and exhaust themselves as long as I work. It’s a beautiful thing.

Speaking of exhaustion, there are times I just would love for Bodhi and Sierra to calm down and rest. Of course, this may not coincide with their idea of when rest time should be; in fact, we’re often on different schedules. But I’ve noticed over time that when I lie on the couch, Bodhi will immediately go to his nearby dog bed, and Sierra will settle down as well. I don’t spend a lot of time lying on the couch, but if for some reason I’d like them to calm down, I might just take a short break and read or watch television, which signals to the dogs that it’s break time for all of us.

It’s an interesting exercise to take note of what your dogs are doing as you go about your normal daily routine. It’s even more interesting to put those behaviors to good use!

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