Separation Anxiety

Recently a new client posted the following review on my Facebook site:

“I worked with Cheryl for my pup duke and his separation anxiety. We sat down for a while and came up with a plan to implement. I was happy to hear that Cheryl was open to using a variety of different techniques that we both feel comfortable with. One day at a time and duke seems to be responding well.”

I was thrilled with the review and here’s why…

Beth contacted me to discuss her new dog, Duke. Duke is an adorable Bichon mix who she adopted a few months ago. Recently she moved into a co-op and Duke was having separation anxiety (barking and whining when she left for work). One of her neighbors was complaining but was being somewhat patient knowing she was trying to train Duke. After talking to her, we set an appointment and I came to visit Beth and Duke.

First of all, I do not feel that a trainer can modify a dog’s separation anxiety behavior. I feel strongly that a trainer can advise the owner on how to modify the behavior. There is a key point here.  When I am called because a dog is jumping on people and knocking them down, the dog is a mess on a leash or is nipping people, that I, as a long-time professional trainer, can train the dog (and the owner because the owner always has to learn new skills along with the dog). Separation anxiety is different.

Separation anxiety (SA) is a response to the owner’s departure from the residence (or this can be when the owner leaves the dog at doggie day care). There are many reasons dogs will exhibit the symptoms of SA. Understanding the reasons can help the owner to change the behavior. As a trainer, I can do many things with the dog, but the dog does not have the relationship with me that he has with his owner. For that reason, when I leave, it does not affect the dog where the owner leaving does.

So what did I do with Beth and Duke? First, I observed both of them. Beth is a very special young woman with a career in a helping field. She has a natural desire to make things better for people and dogs as well. Duke is an adorable Bichon Frise mix who came to her via a rescue. Beth has a sweet personality, is well spoken, thoughtful and intelligent. Duke is very friendly and engaging. In his young life, Duke has not has a lot of permanence. He has been moved from place to place and perhaps has not had a chance to bond to anyone until he met Beth. Clearly, he is very bonded to her…perhaps a little too much.

After talking about Duke’s history, or rather, what Beth knows of it, his SA symptoms and what she has tried thusfar, I wanted to see how he would react if she walked out the door. I must stop here to mention that Beth was already leaving without making a fuss, something most SA clients do not do and the dog takes the fuss the owner is making to be a bad thing (many dogs change their behavior when the owner stops being so emotional when leaving). What happened is within a few seconds of Beth’s departure, Duke realized she was gone. My presence in the room didn’t matter to him. And why should it? He just met me, but Beth was his forever mom. This is not to humanize Duke, but dogs do have what we would call emotions. He began to pace, try to look out the window, whine and finally bark. He was clearly anxious. It’s possible that he equates her leaving with how he felt when people he liked left his life forever. We cannot speak to the dog in human language and explain in words that their loved one will be back. Instead, we have to show the dog that their owner leaving is temporary and is not a negative experience. Good things can happen when their owner goes out and their owner will return.

Without going into every minute of an almost two hour session, between Beth and I, we discussed options, different things she could try to help him get over the SA and get her neighbor to cease his complaints. Some of the things we discussed was lots of exercise, giving Duke things to do, leaving the TV on so he has “human” company and something to engage him, and finally we discussed how he could become a therapy dog.

Beth started to implement the recommendations I made immediately. We texted frequently afterwards. Duke is well on his way to becoming a more well-balanced dog, one who the neighbors do not hear. As of today, he’s doing exceptionally well.  Beth has implemented many of the suggestions. She now has the name of a trainer closer to her home (I am over an hour’s drive from her) who specializes in training therapy dogs and she is interested in starting with this trainer to do the steps towards her and Duke’s certification as a therapy dog team. (A therapy dog has to have a specific handler that he or she is paired with. The dog has to have a good temperament and have some basic obedience skills. The teams can go to places like nursing homes, schools, hospitals, etc. The dogs are there to make people happy and they always do!)

One thing came up in this session, Beth had spoken to another trainer who was recommended to her. This trainer told her his fee to modify Duke’s behavior would start at $300 and could go as high as $800. For the money, he would give her unlimited appointments for three months.  In contrast, I charged her well under his minimum and told her that we only needed the one appointment. I offered her text support afterwards, which she has used. Why such a different approach between trainers? Because my philosophy in training is to modify the behavior in as little time as possible. I tell new clients that I do not do package deals where you pay for a minimum number of sessions. If I can resolve the issue the owner is having with their dog in one session, then we are good and they can call me again if they need more help. It is not that I give my clients less of my time but rather I give them what they need to succeed faster. In my mind, what more could I have done for Beth and Duke beyond what I did in the initial consultation? Nothing. I gave Beth the tools she needed. Real work had to happen between her and Duke.

In the end, I sleep well at night knowing my clients get what they need, not what I need (namely money). My clients realize the value in having a trainer available who will not stretch out the number of appointments in an effort to make money. With my philosophy, I make my money on satisfied clients who will refer more people and dogs to me. That is the Love part of Sit, Stay, Love… it is the love of dogs and their owners.

One thought on “Separation Anxiety

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