Separation distress is one of the most disheartening canine behaviors an owner can face. Aggression may present a more serious risk to human safety, but aggressive behaviors are generally easier to manage than significant separation distress; few caretakers can avoid leaving their dogs alone, at least some of the time, during the protracted period required by an in-depth separation-behavior modification program.
Many dogs end up at animal shelters, are adopted and repeatedly returned, and eventually euthanized, due to the difficult constellation of behaviors manifested by dogs who suffer from this panic disorder. Behaviors include but are not limited to vocalizing (barking, yelping, howling, whining), inappropriate indoor elimination and destructive behavior, especially directed toward escape.
Enter James O’Heare, president of the Companion Animal Sciences Institute, director of the Association of Animal Behavior Professionals and author of nine books on animal behavior.
This slim volume purports to present an “easy-to-follow, yet comprehensive, behavior change program, including systematic desensitization and behavior shaping, as well as empowerment training and relationship rehabilitation.” There is a lot of information packed into its 100 pages. While none of the book can be described as an “easy read,” the third and last chapter, “Behavior Change Programming,” is reasonably accessible to the committed canine guardian. O’Heare’s “empowerment training” is particularly useful, guiding the reader skillfully away from the unfortunate focus on “dominance” offered in many of today’s training programs. He explains, instead, the useful constructs of shaping, desensitization, counterconditioning, differential reinforcement and general stress-reduction procedures.
Of the first two chapters, however, “easy-to-follow” is a stretch. I found myself having to reread many of O’Heare’s points—and not just the “pro fessional boxes” that are scattered throughout the pages. I fear his attempts to simplify are still too much for many dog owners who could benefit from an even more simplified presentation of this complex behavior.
O’Heare often writes for behavior professionals, on a level many dog owners would have some difficulty with. He aimed for a simpler level with this book, but has only partially succeeded. I suspect many of my own clients would find certain pages daunting. To reach the dog owner who desperately needs this information, I would have preferred less “professional box” information in the first two sections, and more simplification, hand-holding and graphic how-to examples in everyday terms as he urges owners to “conduct the functional assessment” of their dog’s behavior. He glosses over the huge challenge owners face in trying to create an environment that precludes allowing the dog to practice, and be reinforced for, separationrelated behaviors. This is usually the most difficult part for owners—and the part that ultimately sends the dog back to the shelter.
I had hoped for something that was aimed halfway between this volume and Patricia McConnell’s simple, useful and readable booklet I’ll Be Home Soon. Don’t misunderstand me. It’s an excellent book and program for those who can stick with it; but it’s not for the faint of heart.