Preventing Separation Anxiety in Dogs

Teaching your dog that it’s okay to be alone is one of the three most important things your dog needs to learn.*  Dogs are social creatures and they need to be taught gently how to tolerate being alone and/or separated from the human they have bonded with.  So be patient and plan for small increments of improvements over time.

If a dog already has moderate to extreme separation anxiety, it is best to consult a reputable dog behaviour professional. CAUTION: the dog training industry is unregulated and there are some very uninformed and ill-informed people posing as experts in dog behaviour.

Departures and Arrivals Can Trigger High Emotions. Make your departures and arrivals “No Big Deal.” Especially your arrivals. Yes, you are happy that you are home and you might really want to have cuddles and play with your dog. Just wait a bit until your dog is in a calmer state. You don’t want to add to their excitement because this causes them to anticipate your future arrivals or departures. Anticipation of an exciting (or scary) event is often more intense than the actual event. You know the feeling when you are about to rip off a sticky bandage? That’s the power of anticipation. Or that dread when you know something unpleasant is about to happen. Or that intense excitement when you cannot wait for the person to arrive at the surprise party.

Keep your emotions neutral and casual — as if you had merely stepped out to get something from the car for a minute. Try to limit your attention to your dog when you arrive — wait a few minutes for your dog to calm a bit before you give a quiet, calm greeting. Instead, when you arrive, do things that are non-exciting for your dog like set your items down on the counter, put your coat away, etc.. If you need to let your dog outside, do so with minimal attention. Keep things non-exciting and just “normal.”

Dogs pay attention to our emotional states and if we are calm and unexcited about coming home, then the dog will pick up on that and should eventually match that emotion. If you act like it’s a big deal (or worse, that you are upset by a mess), then your dog’s emotional state will be influenced by that.

Expert tip for Arrivals: Have a “greeting place” like a comfy chair or the dog’s bed where you have a quiet greeting with some low-intensity cuddles with your dog when you return. Over a few repetitions, your dog will begin to wait at the “greeting place” after you arrive home, and there will be less racing around and jumping up for attention because those unwanted behaviours are no longer reinforced with your attention.

*The three most important things a dog needs to learn are 1) the world is a safe and happy place; 2) it’s okay to be alone; and 3) where to potty and how to ask a human to be let out. These are best learned when the dog is young, and the longer these are delayed, the more difficult they are for a dog to learn. 

Tired of Dog Enrichment? Your Dog Might Be, Too.

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Dog Enrichment is a popular buzzword these days, especially for dog parents who are staying home during the COVID-19 pandemic. There are books, websites, social media groups, podcasts, videos, all promoting ways to help fill a dog’s mental, emotional, and physical needs — even spreadsheets to track enrichment opportunities and where there may be gaps that can be filled. As with all things, dog enrichment efforts can be taken to the extreme, and dog parents may feel pressured to fill their dog’s days with enrichment in order to be a good pet parent. Sometimes a dog just needs a break from it all. And so do pet parents.

Let’s take a step back and assess things.

For dogs that spend a lot of time alone or in an environment devoid of stimulation and opportunities to perform natural behaviours, providing more enrichment is beneficial.  Enrichment can help reduce stress, improve health, and prevent unwanted problem behaviours. But when is it too much?

To begin with, dogs require a lot more sleep/rest each day than many people realize.  Individual dogs differ, of course, but some sources suggest 12 to 14 hours a day, and some suggest 17+ hours a day correlates with fewer stress-related behaviour problems. A dog’s health and behaviour will suffer if a dog’s day is constantly interrupted by activities or if the dog’s environment doesn’t allow the dog to nap (e.g. too much activity in the home, too much guarding of the window or yard as people and dogs pass by, too many sudden environmental changes such as construction noises).

As well as sufficient sleep, dogs benefit from unscheduled time. Structure and routine are very beneficial for dogs, absolutely. But free-time needs to be included in the dog’s schedule so the dog can learn how to settle on his/her own and entertain themselves.  Obviously, one must ensure the dog’s environment for free time is such that a dog can entertain themselves safely and appropriately. For example, for puppies, chewers, dogs with housetraining issues, or dogs that tend to get into mischief, barriers/expens can be used to contain the dog to an area with a variety of toys, a bed, water and food dishes, and a potty area for accidents.

Providing enrichment activities for your dog doesn’t have to be complicated, time-consuming, or expensive.

Free-time to sniff and explore on walks is also essential for a dog’s well-being and to help reduce behaviour problems. Dogs experience the world largely though their noses, and if they are rarely allowed to stop and sniff (safe) things on a walk, a walk can become a frustrating, unpleasant experience for them. Letting a dog sniff and explore on a walk — if not the entire walk, then at least a portion of it — can do wonders for lowering a dog’s stress levels. Using a longer flat leash (3 to 4 meters) can allow you to shorten the leash to 1 or 2 meters when needed, but let it out to 3 or 4 meters when it’s safe to do so; a longer leash can allow a dog to move more freely and naturally through their environment, and training for loose leash walking skills will allow the dog to walk nicely on any length of leash. There is recent scientific evidencethat dogs on longer leashes sniff more and that sniffing lowers a dog’s heart rate.

Let the dog choose the activities he/she enjoys is also important for a dog’s wellbeing. Sometimes people enrol dogs in activities without considering if the dogs are enjoying the activities or not. Sometimes the environments for the dog sports are too intense for the dog. Sometimes the human has become too competitive and has taken the fun out of it for the dog. Sometimes there are too many of the activities in a week and the dog has not been allowed to rest between activities. Free work for dogs (unstructured time where dogs freely engage with various items in a space) is a trend that is helping dog parents understand their dogs’ preferences for activities. I would argue that for dogs that are not stressed when walking on a leash, a relaxing sniff and stroll on a long leash in a natural environment provides a similar opportunity to learn about a dog’s preferences.

Mealtimes can provide opportunities for mental stimulation and the expression of natural behaviours. Rather than feeding the dog from a bowl, try a food dispensing toy (e.g. a kibble ball, a hollow rubber toy, or a snuffle mat) or feeding a meal by hiding bits of it around the house, scattering it in a room, or laying food trails in the yard.

And finally, Cooperative Care training is a perfect opportunity to provide enrichment for practical purposes. Teaching dogs to love the grooming table, sand their own nails, rest their chin in your lap, happily swallow a pill — all of these things can be taught in a fun way for you and your dog. These “tricks” become practical skills and allow you to turn these necessary activities into relationship building activities.

For more information about dog enrichment, training, and behaviour, contact Jennifer Berg CPDT-KA. 

Teaching Your Pet a SEARCH FUN Game During COVID-19 Isolation

Here is a the first step to teaching your pet (any pet, not just dogs) a SEARCH FUN game. This “game” is fun to play with your pet during the COVID-19 isolation period, but it’s also a game you can play outdoors and can be a useful skill in some cases (e.g. you can use this to get your pet to help you find a glove or set of keys you may have dropped somewhere).

Your pet is likely getting a little stressed by the changes in routine, the lack of usual rest, or lack of mental stimulation if the pet is stuck indoors for long periods. You are likely experiencing similar stress. This SEARCH FUN game will provide you and your pet with endless ideas for future play sessions. The game becomes more advanced as you and your pet excel.

SEARCH FUN:

STAGE ONE: TEACHING THE CUE (“SEARCH!”)

  • Begin this training in a low-distraction environment (e.g. indoors) then work up to a medium distraction environment (e.g. in the yard), and then try it in a high distraction environment (e.g. in a park with wildlife and all sorts of smells and sounds). 
  • Back up to at an easy stage when you first try it in a higher distraction environment.
  • Be sure your pet has mastered each step before advancing to the next step. If your pet starts to have difficulty at a step, move back to an easier step for your pet and spend more time there before advancing to the next step.
  • Do NOT repeat the “Search” cue. You can encourage your pet by saying something like “Find it” but do not repeat the word “Search!” 
  • Do NOT make it too difficult for your pet. Don’t make it too easy, but don’t make it too hard. Baby steps. Repetition. This is what builds the skills so your pet can perform in more difficult situations.
  • If you’ve made it too hard, and your pet is looking like he/she is starting to get too frustrated/stressed or starting to give up, then you can give a little help (perhaps pointing). But then remember this lesson and try to never make it too hard again. Your pet needs to be able to do this skill independently and you won’t be able to help once your pet advances to searching for a scent. 
  • Keep the training sessions (the game) very short — never more than a couple minutes. ALWAYS end the session BEFORE your pet wants to end it. Stop if you notice signs of boredom, stress, or too much distraction. 
  • Don’t play this game too often each day. Play it every day or so to keep your pet’s skills sharp, but don’t play it too often that your pet loses motivation. Keep your pet wanting more. Perhaps no more than one or two sessions a day.
  • If your pet is VERY motivated by a special toy, you can use that toy instead of the piece of food in the instructions, BUT reserve that toy for just the SEARCH FUN game. 

TO BEGIN: 

You will need several pieces of yummy food. (NOTE: you can use a high value toy instead, but reserve that toy for just the SEARCH FUN game.) The food pieces should be large enough for your pet to see easily and small enough to eat in one bite or so. Smellier treats will leave more of a scent and can make this game easier to learn for your pet.

Step A. 

Hold your pet’s collar (or harness), and let your pet see you toss a small piece of food about 5 feet away. Make sure your he/she can easily see where the food has landed. Your pet should be wanting to get the piece of food. Say a specific word or phrase you want to use only for this game (e.g. “Search!”) and within one second of saying the word, release your pet to get the piece of food you tossed. NOTE: Choose a word that you will only use for the searching game. Practice a few more times, but make it a little bit harder each time by tossing it a bit farther away. Make sure your pet is able to succeed.

To be continued…

Contact me you are interested in the remaining steps.

Dog Enrichment During COVID-19

During these “interesting times”, as long as it’s still safe to do so, taking your dog for a “Sniff and Stroll” walk outside — especially in a park area where there are trees — is one of the best ways to provide for your dog’s mental, physical, and emotional well-being.

NOTE: if your dog is over-reactive, fearful, aggressive, or pulls too much on walks, I can help you with that. I do offer remote dog training/behaviour modification services through video chat, phone, or email.

Nature is healing for humans and for animals. Sunlight, fresh air, trees, a relaxing walk casually exploring — these all help you and your dog’s stress levels as well. When dogs are allowed to stop and sniff (safe places to sniff, mind you), their heart rates lower and the “thinking areas” of their brains are engaged. A “sniff walk” can be mentally tiring for a dog and can produce much more calm behaviour than a fast “mindless march walk” where the dog walks briskly but doesn’t get to stop and sniff.

Here are some additional ways to help your dog’s mental, physical, and emotional well-being. Please contact me if you need help teaching these. I can provide dog training services and behaviour consults through video chat, phone, and email.

1. COOPERATIVE CARE: I highly recommend teaching some “cooperative care” skills where your dog learns to enjoy some important animal husbandry activities like teeth brushing, pill taking, nail trims, brushing, tick checks, ear checks, etc.

2. BASIC SKILLS/MANNERS: Work on some basic skills that may need some work — using positive reinforcement methods only. Insert a sense of play into the training. Start from Kindergarten and you’ll be amazed at the change in your dog’s behaviours and relationship with you. If you’ve used coercion, sharp noises or emotional pressure, corrections, scolding, punishment in the past for these skills, you may want to change the word for them. For example, if you’ve always had a stern voice when you use the commands “Drop!”, “Off!”,  “Stay!” or “Come!” then you may want to change to a new word for these since your dog may have a negative emotional response to those words. Ideas for skills to brush up:

  • Not jumping up on you or guests
  • Waiting away from the door when someone is at the dog
  • Not making a fuss when someone walks past the front window or yard
  • Going to dog bed and laying down to settle
  • Going into the dog crate to settle
  • Going potty on cue
  • Waiting for the food bowl
  • Releasing a toy or other object when asked
  • Not grabbing food that falls on the floor

 

3. INSTINCTIVE BEHAVIOURS: Provide opportunities for your dog to do natural, instinctive behaviours:

  • Foraging: instead of feeding the dog’s meal in a bowl, sprinkle it in a room (or two rooms) or leave kibble trails in the yard and then let your dog forage for the food.  Snuffle mats or food sprinkled in the folds of a towel on the floor can work, too.
  • Tearing things apart: cardboard boxes (remove plastic, tape, and staples) are great opportunities to for your dog to destroy something. If your dog needs help getting started, put bits of food inside or a toy inside and then encourage your dog to open up the box. You can even tear a bit yourself and show your dog what to do.
  • Digging: if you have a special area in your yard or an empty plastic kiddie pool that you can fill with dirt or sand (or even snow or pea rock) that can be fun for your dog to dig. Hide toys or chews — things of value to your dog — and let your dog dig a bit to find them.
  • Scent Work: Teach your dog SEARCH Fun so you can then give your dog search tasks to find. It’s a great way to let your dog do the job he/she was born to do.
  • Figuring Things Out: This includes food dispensing balls (or empty water bottles, cardboard tubes, boxes), puzzle toys.

4. PLAY INTO TRAINING: Set up an obstacle course indoors or out in the yard using objects that your dog can go under, over, on, inside, through, around, etc. Try a bit of Dog Parkour if your dog is physically able. This can be done indoors, in the yard, on a walk.

5. CAR RIDES: Driving to a new place can be enriching for your dog, even if your dog doesn’t leave the car. Open the windows a bit to let in the outside smells and sounds and watch your dog’s nose and ears twitch.  If your dog doesn’t enjoy car rides or isn’t mannerly during one, then work on that.

6. CLASSICAL CONDITIONING TO THE NEW NORMAL: Start now to teach your dog that people in medical masks — including you — are no big deal. 

 

Now is the time to teach your dog to be okay with you (and others) in a medical mask (just in case)

Sometimes dogs can respond poorly when they see unfamiliar things or things that make them feel uncertain — such as you or other people wearing medical masks. Teach your dog how to be okay with seeing people in medical masks by using the power of classical conditioning. It sounds complicated, but it’s quite simple.

Quite simply, you want to condition your dog to have a positive emotional response to seeing you (and others) in a medical mask. This is done by pairing the sight of the mask on someone’s face with something the dog has a very positive feeling about (food is the easiest).

Follow these steps, and spend as much time on each step as your dog needs. Watch for very subtle signs of stress so you’ll know that you need to slow down or move back a few steps.

  1. Hold the mask beside your face then give your dog a small piece of tasty food. Move mask away from your face for a pause, then repeat.
  2. Briefly hold the mask over your mouth with one hand, give the dog a treat with the other hand, then move the mask away from your face. Pause. Repeat.
  3. Hold the mask over your mouth with one hand for two seconds. During this time, give your dog a treat with your other hand. Move the mask away from your face after you give the dog a treat. Repeat.
  4. Put the mask on but place it under your chin — not covering your mouth. Give your dogs several treats in a row. Remove the mask. Repeat.
  5. Put the mask on, but place it under your chin — not covering your mouth. Give your dog one treat. Then move the mask over your mouth. Give a treat. Then move the mask away off your mouth and back under your chin. Repeat.
  6. Repeat Step 5 but this time when the mask is over your mouth give your dog a few treats in a row.
  7. Repeat Step 6 but this time stretch the time between the treat while you are wearing the mask over your mouth. Ask your dog to do some easy tricks/skills.
  8. When it’s time to feed your dog a meal, put the mask on, cover your mouth, then feed your dog. When it’s time to play with your dog, put your mask on and play with your dog while wearing it.
  9. Start to wear your mask around the house when you’re doing mundane things that your dog finds boring or relaxing. Do not wear the mask yet while you are doing things that your dog finds scary (e.g. vacuuming).
  10. Ask family members to put on a mask, starting with Step one. You can feed the dog the treat when your dog sees the other person put the mask on.

If you are out walking your dog and you encounter a person wearing a medical mask, pop a treat in your dog’s mouth right after your dog notices the person. Don’t point out the person to your dog. Let your dog notice the person on his/her own, and when your dog does, pop a treat in your dog’s mouth. You may have to get your dog enough distance from the person so your dog isn’t stressed. For example, if the person is walking towards you and your dog, cross the street or change your direction so the person approaches on a curve or from left to right (or right to left). This way your dog can observe the person but the person is not heading directly towards the dog.