Separation Anxiety and Retraining, Part I

Zeke has separation anxiety. One of the things I have undertaken as part of his treatment to manage this is retraining.

When people contact me, via our dog rescue (Northeast Ohio Shetland Sheepdog Rescue) to ask for advice on a multitude of things, I almost always advise obedience training. This helps with so many issues. People tell me that their dog’s lack of obedience is not the thing they are unhappy with. Training your dog for sits, downs, and stays is not exactly the point.

The point is that you are working with your dog and teaching him that you are a team, and you are the leader of that team. He learns that he should listen to you. You call the shots. This carries over to so much more than just the sits and stays. Dogs are creatures of habit. Listening to you and watching for cues become a way of life. This in itself should result in a calmer dog. It is stressful being the leader. Take that stress away from your dog. It was time for me to practice what I preach and start training.

Taking an obedience class together is a good option but not strictly necessary. For Zeke, I chose to train him myself. We have multiple dogs and regularly encounter multiple dogs so I didn’t need the group setting that this socialization can provide.

Because Zeke’s training was mostly to deal with separation anxiety, I began making him earn everything, including attention and affection. Zeke was so attached to me that he could not bear to be away from me. Part of this started because I needed to know where he was at all times to know if he was getting into trouble. Often, yes, he was. Then it became cute, Zeke had to be near me all the time. It was gratifying that he followed me around the house and jumped up to stare in my eyes and lick my face. And it was comforting when he laid on me for a nap.

Shame on me! These things were comforting to him too. So much so that Zeke became stressed when I wasn’t nearby. My husband said to me on more than one occasion, he’s sitting on you so he knows where you’re at and you can’t get away. It wasn’t too long of a trip from there to full blown separation anxiety. Rather than cracking down on his neediness, I gave him attention. I released the monster.

Now I think Zeke did have issues with this before I got him because he was already missing two fangs, probably from crate chewing. But he could be contained, and he crated well when he came to our house from the shelter. If I had known what I was dealing with things might have gone differently. Then again, maybe not. I have never dealt with anything like this before and we have fostered over 50 dogs in the past 15 years.

So the training began. I took a cue from Cesar Millan, The Dog Whisperer. He always talks about calm assertive energy from the human and sometimes from another calm dog. So I had Shelby, my certified therapy dog, with us during all of our training sessions. Shelby exudes confidence. Our sessions took the form of walks with stops along the way for obedience work.

We worked on walking on a loose leash. Zeke was on a choker collar. I like to train new dogs with a choker because the sound of the chain becomes a cue for the dog. Occasionally we would stop and I would ask the dogs to sit or perform some other command. After they successfully did each task they would get a treat. (I just used small pieces of kibble so as not to add a lot of calories and I could treat often.) At first I gave a treat after every obeyed command. Training science says that once a task is learned, random treating, rather than every time produces better results. I don’t understand this but who am I to argue with science. I can see how not treating every time would be helpful for when you don’t have treats. So I started asking for multiple behaviors before giving the treat. And a few times I didn’t give any. I do always give praise in some form for each task done.

Shelby thought this was all great fun. Zeke was confused. In fact, the first night we attempted this, Zeke’s behavior was terrible! But I persisted. The next night was better. Both dogs began to look forward to our special time together. Zeke became easier to walk. He started paying more attention in case I gave a command with an opportunity to earn a treat. I know dogs can learn from each other. I have seen it many times. My decision to include Shelby was I think, a good one. I could tell when I asked Zeke to do something that made him nervous, such as a stay where I walked about 15 feet away while the dogs were in a sit-stay. Once I got farther away than Zeke was comfortable with, he whipped he head around to see what Shelby was doing, without breaking his stay. He saw Shelby still sitting there, smiling happily. I could just see Zeke’s mind processing this information. “Oh, Shelby’s not upset and she’s still sitting. It must be ok, I think that’s what I’m supposed to do too.”

Over time we’ve worked on various commands: watch me, sit, down, stay, give paw, wait. We worked on these for varying and increasing lengths of time. And Zeke definitely got better at the commands. In fact, he is quite good at them. I think I saw Zeke’s behavior improve in regards to the separation anxiety too. Since it was so severe, I did pursue getting him the mega crate from my previous post but I have hope that, in time, he will be a mostly normal dog.

We retrained on many other things too but those will have to be shared in the next post. So until next time…