Good Dog: Behavior & Training
When it comes to training, it’s not about respect, it’s about reward.
January 11 2017
The first time my husband and I took Emma, our newly adopted Beagle, out for a walk, we knew we were in trouble. Emma was terrified. Her tail was perpetually tucked, the wrinkles on her brow screamed misery, her pupils were dilated and she wouldn’t budge. We were completely in over our heads. So, as soon as we got home, we called in the cavalry.
A lovely positive-reinforcement dog trainer, Dolores Murray, came over the next morning armed with her weapon of choice: Stella and Chewy’s freezedried Dandy Lamb Dinner Patties.
Within an hour, Emma wasn’t just walking with us, she was scrambling-across- rocks-on-the-shore-of-the- Potomac-River-happy walking with us. Murray showered Emma with lamb. Car drove by? Lamb! Strangers approached? She gave them lamb to give to Emma. Twenty preschoolers holding hands skipped by? Lamb, lamb, LAMB!
To this day, food is the key to helping our fearful dog overcome obstacles. So I was shocked when friends, strangers and dog trainers alike questioned what the heck I was doing. “You’re spoiling her,” they’d say. “My dog sits because he wants to please us. You should make Emma respect you.” Or, “You’re bribing her.”
I discovered that this concept of dogs doing things to please their owners has been around since before Elvis shook his hips. But is it valid? Are dogs born with a desire to please? And why, if thousands and thousands of animals— chickens and goats and sea lions and parrots and so on—have been professionally trained using food as motivation, is there such a stigma about using food to train dogs?
I went on a mission to find out.
It turns out that the definitive answer to whether dogs have an innate desire to please is … we don’t know.
There’s no scientific research to prove it either way. Dog cognition is a growing area of study today, so down the road, we might have a better sense of what exactly is going on inside our dogs’ cute noggins. As of now, we don’t have any real idea.
“I would accept the fact that because of the close relationship that dogs have had with humans for so long, they maybe do have this predisposition to want to please,” says Marc Bekoff, author and professor emeritus of ecology and evolutionary biology at the University of Colorado, Boulder. “But then when you consider that around 75 percent of all dogs on the planet are feral … I’ve met lots of feral dogs who don’t really care about me. They want to avoid me, more than anything,” he says.
There is some evidence, though, that we may not understand our dogs as well as we think we do—that, just as they do with other humans, people have a tendency to ascribe motives to dogs that aren’t necessarily there.
“[People] project all sorts of things on all sorts of social relationships, ranging from dogs to other humans,” Bekoff says. “You go to dog parks and [you’ll hear] dogs characterized in one way: playful, standoffish, maybe a little aggressive. It’s incredible how different people watch the same dog and have a completely different personality profile for the dog.”
Alexandra Horowitz, professor of psychology and canine cognition at Barnard College, Columbia University, led a study in 2009 to test this. She wanted to see if people who claimed their dogs were showing that well-known “guilty look” when they came home to a torn-up couch or a pile of poo on the antique rug were actually reading the dog correctly.
In the experiment, participants told their dogs not to eat a food treat the pup wanted, and then left the room. When they returned, the researchers would tell the owner whether or not the dog ate the treat. However, the researchers were not always truthful. In some cases, the dog would leave the treat alone but the owner would be told that he ate it, or vice versa. Thus, sometimes dogs who did what they were told were scolded and others who disobeyed by eating the treat were not.
It turns out that the behavior dog owners were sure represented guilt— some combination of avoiding eye contact, rolling over, tail tucking, tongue flicking, pressing their ears back and/or skulking away—was tied to the owner’s tone of voice and demeanor. The look, therefore, more likely represented the dog’s anticipation of punishment or attempting to evade it than feeling guilt.
“Importantly, this misattribution could be harmful to dogs if their owners have expectations that the dogs do understand rules, correct behavior and so forth, and believe that dogs either willfully or neglectfully violate these rules,” Horowitz and Julie Hecht wrote in a chapter they co-authored for the book Domestic Dog Cognition and Behavior: The Scientific Study of Canis familiaris.
Jean Donaldson, founder of the Academy for Dog Trainers, has been the voice of opposition to the “desire to please” notion for more than two decades for just this reason.
“Trainers who make claims about dogs working ‘to please’ or strictly for praise,” she wrote in her book Culture Clash, “seem oblivious to the main motivator they employ: pain.” Rather than being given food or toys or something else they really love to reinforce good behavior, dogs are punished for bad behavior.
“We expect dogs to do things without reward, that they should know that sitting is what I want them to do, or they should know this or that,” says Jill Sackman, veterinary behaviorist and member of the American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior. “I don’t think we [reward] enough with human beings either. We live in a culture where it’s like, ‘I’m gonna point out your negative’ instead of capture you doing something really great and continuing to reward that.”
Twenty years after the first publication of Culture Clash, there is still evidence of trainers using pain to punish dogs for being “disobedient” rather than teaching them what to do and reinforcing that behavior.
Nicky Wilke turned to trainers last year for help with her 90-pound Husky mix, Charlie, who would pull her to the ground when he darted after another dog. Wilke was horrified by the methods they recommended. She was expressly told by multiple trainers not to use food because Charlie would only behave for the “bribe” and not because he respected her. “Everyone was telling me I had to be more firm with Charlie,” Wilke says.
And by “be more firm,” they meant that she should use some incredibly cruel techniques to punish Charlie when he didn’t do what they wanted: Shock him with electricity from a collar around his neck. Wrap his leash around his belly near his genital area so that it would rub when he pulled. Squeeze a pressure point right above his back leg if he reacted to another dog.
“If we say something really clear like ‘come’ or ‘sit,’ and on occasion we witness the dog not doing it, it’s almost impossible for people to interpret anything other than, ‘He knows what to do, I’ve seen him do it, and now that he’s not doing it, it’s because of some sort of power struggle,’” Donaldson says in a phone interview. “And as soon as you get into ‘power struggle,’ then we’re down the rabbit hole.”
But Charlie is one of the lucky ones. Wilke persevered, and six months ago, she found Renée Erdman, a positive reinforcement trainer and graduate of the Academy for Dog Trainers. Erdman has helped Wilke teach Charlie how to walk politely on leash and how to behave around other dogs.
“She saved our lives,” Wilke says. “I used to have anxiety taking Charlie out for a walk. I went from not being able to walk past a dog to introducing Charlie to dog parks and playing with seven dogs at the same time.”
Erdman used food to do it.
“Once I started getting into different treats—really tasty treats—it was like, okay, now he’s paying attention to me. Now he’s interested in playing the games and learning,” Wilke says. “It was an amazing feeling to finally have control of the situation, and I feel more connected and bonded to my animal because he’s actually looking to me. He’s wanting to learn.”
I continue to be questioned—and even, at times, judged—by friends and neighbors for feeding diced chicken to Emma when she’s scared or using it to lavishly reward her for not eating that dog poop when I say “leave it.” They don’t get that Emma is not working me for food. She doesn’t love me any less because she knows she’ll get a jackpot of chicken when she runs to my side. In fact, it’s quite the opposite. I still have wonderful memories of splitting a hot-fudge sundae with my dad when I got straight A's in school. To me, it’s the same thing.
“I think that to play that dichotomy of food versus true love is ridiculous,” Bekoff says. “It’s just not supported by any research at all.”
Dog's Life: Lifestyle
Viewpoints from both sides. The pros and cons of invisible dogs fences
November 2 2016
Eleven years ago, Linda Teasley and her husband wanted to give their two puppies — Goldendoodle Noodles and English Bulldog Sheba — access to their yard so the dogs could run around and play. But in order to do so, they wanted to make their half-acre property safe.
Having previously suffered through their local association’s laborious design-review process when they planned to build an addition to their Northern Virginia home, Teasley didn’t want to revisit the process to build a fence. “They just make it very difficult if you do something they don’t like,” she says.
So, instead, the couple installed an electronic fence—a so-called containment system in which dogs wear collars that send electric shocks to their necks if they attempt to cross a buried wire.
Today, many pet owners in the U.S. are making the same choice, as an increasing number of homeowners’ associations, as well as cities and counties, are putting restrictions on the types of fencing allowed—physical and electronic alike—and where they can be built.
Interestingly, there’s a pretty fierce debate as to the safety and efficacy of these systems. Thousands of American pet owners swear by them, but many others would like to ban shock collars, which would effectively end the use of electronic fences. Shock collars are already illegal in a number of other countries, including Sweden, Switzerland, Germany and Wales, and in some states in Australia.
Let’s look at how the system works.
Electronic containment systems can range from a DIY kit that costs a few hundred dollars to more than $1,000 if you go with a full-service product that includes professional installation and dog training.
To start, the sensor wire is buried along the perimeter of the area in which the dog is to be contained. Then, little flags are placed along that line so that the dog can see the boundaries. Different techniques are used to teach the dog to stay in the yard, but basically, for the first few days, the shock feature on the collar isn’t used. Instead, the dog hears a warning beep from the collar and then the owner shouts, dances, sings—whatever it takes to get the dog to retreat from the line and go to his person for some tasty treats and praise. Essentially, the dog is being trained to do a recall when he hears the beep.
Once the dog is reliably retreating from the beep, a consequence for ignoring it is added: if he ignores the beep and crosses the wire, he will receive a shock. Ideally, the dog only has to be shocked a handful of times before learning to respect the beep and retreat. But, no matter how well the dog learns to stop when he hears the warning beep, for the system to be effective, the collar must be worn at all times when the dog is in the yard.
Sounds simple enough, right? Well, let’s peek behind the curtain.
Shock collars are an aversive tool, which means they use pain and/or fear to motivate the dog to stay in the yard.
Proponents describe the shock the dog feels as similar to the zap we get when we touch a TV after walking on carpet. They say the dog isn’t hurt, that the sensation is minimal. But pain and fear threshold levels are different for each animal, just as they are for each person.
So the question isn’t whether that sensation scares or hurts us, it’s whether the shock scares or hurts the dog enough to keep him from leaving the yard. That pain or that fear has to mean more to the dog than chasing squirrels or feral cats or kids playing soccer or whatever exciting adventure lies beyond the invisible line. That’s how aversive the shock has to be.
Some dogs are motivated to stay put, some dogs become so afraid of the shocks that they won’t go out in the yard at all, and some dogs don’t care a bit and fly through the shock.
Sighthounds tend to fall into the “fly right through” category, says Michael McCann, who has worked with Greyhound adoption and rescue groups for 25 years. “Sighthounds will chase anything they see,” he says, “plastic bags, leaves, rabbits, pretty much anything.” And because Greyhounds are fast—40- miles-per-hour fast—by the time they hear the shock collar’s warning beep, they are likely to be on the other side of the boundary before they come to a stop, if they do at all.
The Teasleys ended up scrapping their electronic fence about two weeks after it was installed, because Sheba ran and hid upstairs when the collar was put on her and Noodles just trotted through the “barrier,” ignoring the shocks. “I call it my folly,” says Teasley, a music therapist. “I didn’t train them,” she says. “That was a big part of the problem.”
Beyond the system not working out, any time a dog feels pain or is hurt, there’s a risk of fallout behaviors developing, says Niki Tudge, certified dog trainer and behavior consultant and president of the Pet Professional Guild.
“What happens is that dogs start to generalize the pain to what they see and hear around them,” she says. “Then you end up with dogs who become reactive and aggressive towards children going past on bikes or people walking by.”
For this reason, cities like Overland Park, Kansas, stipulate that electronic fences cannot be used in front yards, and they have to be at least 10 feet from public walkways or neighboring property lines. Council Bluffs, Iowa, goes even further. Not only can the system not be used in the front yard, but the owner must be with the dog when the dog is outside.
Of equal concern is that electronic fences are not actually fences. No physical barrier secures a dog inside the perimeter or keeps other animals or people out. “Generally speaking, the electronic containment system is something that is an illusion of containment,” says Kenneth Phillips, an attorney who specializes in dog-bite cases.
In fact, “electronic containment systems usually are not considered to be any type of boundary fence as required by the ordinances of various cities and counties all over the country,” Phillips says. Municipalities that do include information on electronic fences generally state that they cannot be used for any dog with a history of aggression.
Not having a physical fence in place can spell danger, not only for people and animals passing by, but also for the dog in the yard.
In December 2015, McCann—who has led many a Greyhound search-andrescue mission—got a call from his veterinarian to help find Dimitri, her 15-year-old Terrier mix. Dimitri was out in his yard with his two siblings when a coyote entered the yard and dragged him away. McCann grabbed his infrared camera and set out to look for Dimitri; after more than an hour, the search party found the little black pup gravely injured a couple of hundred yards from his home. He died two days later.
More recently, in April of this year, a man in Anchorage, Alaska, shot and killed a seven-year-old chocolate Labrador Retriever named Skhoop, also “contained” by an electronic fence. Jason Mellerstig had just moved into the neighborhood and told police he felt threatened by the dog, who was loose in her yard.
“My dog was in a radio-collar fence,” Skhoop’s owner, Dave Brailey, told Anchorage reporter Craig Medred. “The dog does not come out of the yard. If she comes out of the yard, she gets shocked. She knows exactly where the shock-collar line is. It worked like a charm. She was like a little queen. She’d sit in the front yard and just be happy.”
Given accounts such as these, as well as the basic question of whether it is ever okay to use pain or fear to train a dog, it’s unsurprising that the collars are banned in other countries. While groups, including the Pet Professional Guild, lobby to ban shock collars in the United States, some rescue organizations— Sighthound groups among them—will not adopt any dog to a home that uses an electronic fence.
Jody Karow offers a unique perspective on the debate. From 2007 to 2011, before becoming a certified dog trainer, she was a salesperson and then sales manager for Invisible Fence in Minnesota. Now surrounded by voices of the force-free-training movement, she’s heard countless arguments against using shock collars for containment.
“The thing that makes my perspective so different is that I sat with people in their homes and I listened to thousands of stories,” she says. “I can’t shake those stories no matter how much knowledge I have.”
One client who was scheduled for an installation had to cancel because his dog was on a tie-out and ran in pursuit of an animal. When the dog’s leash tightened, the collar pressed into his throat so hard that it collapsed his trachea, and he died. “I would rather see a dog on Invisible Fence than a tie-out any day,” says Karow.
So it seems that, as is the norm, there is no black-or-white absolute to this issue.
The Humane Society of the United States adds another layer of gray to the equation.
“We certainly want people to be cognizant of the pros and cons and safety concerns of electronic fencing,” says Cory Smith, director of pet protection and policy, “but at the end of the day, if an electronic fence is what is going to allow somebody to keep their pet by eliminating some kind of problem, then we want them to do it.”
Val Moranto and her husband are in the pro-electronic-fence camp. “We love it,” she says. “It has saved our pups from running into the country road where cars speed by.” The dogs are scared by the shocks, she says, but that has kept them safely on the property.
“We do not want a physical fence around the yard. We bought in an open, country setting so that we wouldn’t be fenced in,” Moranto says. For this couple, the electronic fence was the preferred choice. “I feel like it is selfish and selfless all at the same time, if that makes sense.”
Well said. It does.
News: Guest Posts
September 15 2016
On September 8th the vein on my forehead started throbbing. Garmin had posted a video ad on Facebook for its new Delta Smart smartphone-based dog activity tracker that includes an electronic shock feature.
“Your dog wasn’t born with manners,” Garmin wrote. The video showed pictures of a “mail carrier alarmist” Schnauzer, a “blinds shredder” Whippet, and a “counter shark” Border Collie, to set up the point that, with their new device, consumers will be able to use electric shocks to teach their dogs to behave. The video has since received hundreds of scathing comments and has been shared more than 2,000 times.
Though Garmin has been selling e-collars for years, the Delta Smart system has caused a community of dog lovers to speak out in protest. In fact, I created a Change.org petition on Friday to ask Garmin to remove the electric shock feature from the device. As of this morning, the petition has garnered more than 5,000 signatures from across the globe. (I have not received a response from Garmin yet.)
Perhaps it was the Facebook ad that called attention to this controversial topic—it was the first time I had heard that the company sold e-collars. But it might also be because the Delta Smart system pairs electric shocks with an exciting new GPS technology for dogs. Dog guardians without training will have the ability to send electric shocks to their dogs’ necks by a mere tap on their smartphone screen. They may not be aware of the fact that using such collars can have serious repercussions.
Organizations including the American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior, the Pet Professional Guild and the UK Kennel Club have all spoken out against the use of shock collars, and countries including Germany, Denmark, Sweden, and Austria have banned the use entirely.
“Countless evidence indicates that, rather than speeding up the learning process,” wrote Susan Nilson, Niki Tudge and Angelica Steinker on behalf of the Pet Professional Guild, “electronic stimulation devices slow it down, place great stress on the animal, can result in both short-term and long-term psychology damage, and lead to fearful, anxious and/or aggressive behavior.”The IAABC (International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants) also has just issued a position statement coming out, strongly, against this device, remarking that: “We believe this device has the potential to cause harm to dogs and should not be recommended by behavior consultants, trainers, or used by members of the public. This is because both Bluetooth and smartphones have the potential to introduce excessive latency. Latency is the delay between inputting something into a system, and the system’s output.” See the full IAABC statement here..
Will Garmin remove the shock feature from its new product? I’m not so naïve to think that will be an easy sell, but whether it happens or not, at least people are talking about the dangers of shock collars. With each signature to my petition, my forehead vein throbs a little less.
Learn more at on the change.org petition.
Good Dog: Behavior & Training
The Future of Dog Training
August 27 2016
DESPERATE TO FIND A WAY TO HELP EMMA the anxious Beagle not have a meltdown every time I walked out the front door, I brought in multiple dog trainers, consulted four vets, cooked her food from scratch, gave her interactive food toys and played calming music. I even hired a doggie masseuse. Results?
Not only did Emma not stop barking, pacing, and urinating on the floor and couch every time I left, but she started chewing on the door frame. Her separation anxiety was getting worse, and I needed to find a solution, stat.
As it turned out, the answer had been with me all along: on my computer.
For 15 years, Malena DeMartini—a California-based dog trainer and graduate of the Academy for Dog Trainers under the guidance of Jean Donaldson —has focused solely on separation anxiety cases. Over time, she has become one of the leading experts (if not the leading expert) on the condition. By using technology (smartphones, tablets, laptops, apps), she is also transforming the way dogs in general are trained.
DeMartini and the 20-plus separation- anxiety trainers she has certified do not work with clients in person. Instead, they do the job from their computers: meet via apps such as Skype or FaceTime, create and share spreadsheets so clients know exactly how to train their dogs each day, and even review video footage with clients to teach them how to read their dogs’ body language.
“[DeMartini] has completely revolutionized the way we’re going to be training,” says DogTec business consultant Gina Phairas. “It’s a good glimpse into what training’s going to look like in another 10 years.”
While cumbersome and clunky in the early days, when DeMartini lugged camera equipment to her clients’ homes and then collected 8mm tapes at the end of each week, video is ideal for working with separation anxiety cases. And, thanks to smartphones, it’s never been easier to do. It also offsets the complication of bringing someone into the home when the goal is to help the dog handle time alone.
“As soon as a trainer walks through the door, the dog is like, Oh, we’re in training mode,” Phairas says.
DeMartini began using Skype in 2008, which not only saved her time and energy, but more importantly, allowed her to observe a dog in real time. Rather than review what went on after the fact, she could modify the training protocol as the behavior was in progress. There is also another benefit to remote training: DeMartini can now work with clients anywhere in the world, and she has. Her clients can be found throughout the U.S., in Canada, Australia, the UK, Switzerland, Germany, Spain and Saudi Arabia.
I live in Virginia, and feel incredibly fortunate to be able to work with one of DeMartini’s trainers, Caryn Liles, who lives in Toronto. Liles and I first met via Skype in June 2015 to assess Emma’s condition. I stacked books on a chair facing the front door and set my MacBook on top of the pile, and Liles observed Emma while I walked outside. Our tiny Beagle had a threshold of 10 seconds—meaning, Emma could only handle being alone in the house for 10 seconds. That was our starting point.
Until we complete the separation anxiety protocol, the only time Emma can be left in the house alone is during her training sessions. “The first goal is to teach the dog that Hey, you know what? You’re okay for a full second of being left alone, or three seconds or a quarter of a second,” DeMartini says. “And once they get to that point, they’re like, The sky didn’t fall! Amazing!” The training wouldn’t work if we then drove away and caught a two-hour movie. My husband and I have recruited friends and pet sitters—our own personal village— to keep Emma company when we’re both out. (For dogs who enjoy spending time with other pups, doggie daycare can be a great option; unfortunately Emma’s not a fan.)
The morning following that assessment meeting, I logged into Google Spreadsheets to find “Mission One,” a series of 12 exercises that started with the following:
At the start of each exercise, I grabbed my keys and purse from the kitchen and then put them back upon my return. I was instructed to wait 60 to 90 seconds between each exercise, at which time I would type into the spreadsheet a description of Emma’s behavior during my absence and what her recovery looked like.
While outside, I watch Emma on my iPhone through a surveillance camera mounted above the fireplace. For those of us with multiple smartphones or tablets, another option is to use a free mobile app that turns one device into a video camera and allows us to watch on another. (The list of surveillance tools, both hardware and software, is expanding daily; a little research will help you figure out what works best for you.)
Each day, Liles reviews the previous mission and then creates a new one based on the results. We repeated Mission One for seven days before graduating to five whole seconds out the door in Mission Two.
“I teach a dog to be relaxed in incredibly small increments,” DeMartini says about her training protocol. “People initially have a sort of pushback, if you will, like, ‘Oh my gosh, we’re starting with one second or a quarter of a second? What? This is crazy! It’s gonna be the year 2027 before I ever leave my dog!’”
Thankfully, it doesn’t take a decade to desensitize a dog to being alone, although some dogs need medication to help them relax enough to succeed, and some, unfortunately, can never get past their fear. Most of DeMartini’s clients complete training somewhere in the three- to six-month range (meaning the dog can handle being alone for four or five hours). DeMartini hesitates to give time estimates, however. Each dog is different, and anxiety level does not necessarily predict speed. Six months into her training, Emma, who falls somewhere in the mild to moderate range of separation anxiety, was only able to handle being alone for a handful of minutes. At seven months, she’s made it to 15 minutes, so we’re progressing faster.
Another one of Liles’ clients, Wally, a Lab-Weimaraner mix, only needed a few months of training, which surprised me because his anxiety seemed much more severe than Emma’s. While his guardian, Katie Rose McGauhey, was out to dinner with her mom one night, Wally escaped through the top of his wire crate, scraping up one side of his body in the process. He then ripped up the carpet and scratched the door, clawing his nails down to the quick. That was the night McGauhey’s friend-of-a-friend-of-a dog-trainer connected her with DeMartini.
“It was like a horror movie,” says McGauhey of the scene she returned to. “There was blood everywhere. Wally was terrified and traumatized.” And yet, within one month of training, he could stay home alone for 40 minutes.
How do I survive wondering how crazed Emma will become if I leave for 30 seconds to grab the mail, or knowing that I still can’t hop on my bike when the clouds suddenly part, because I hadn’t arranged for an Emma-sitter? That Google spreadsheet. It’s my lifeline.
Every day, I know exactly what I need to do, and, if my resolve falters, I can look back at earlier missions to see how much Emma really has improved. Liles agrees: “I love Google Spreadsheets. I’m totally over the moon with it,” she says. As the owner of the Toronto Centre for Canine Education, Liles now also uses it to give homework to her non-separation-anxiety clients.
Unsurprisingly perhaps, social media also offers a great deal of support. DeMartini has built a community of more than 1,700 members on her Facebook group page, “Treating Separation Anxiety in Dogs.” She also contributes to another Facebook group, “Fearful Dogs,” which was created in 2013 and now has more than 6,700 members.
Participants in these groups can watch educational videos, ask questions, share stories, and take away this affirmation: “I’m not in it alone, this really is happening and I haven’t lost my mind for wanting to keep the dog,” says Phairas of DogTec.
Some of our friends and family members roll their eyes or scoff when we explain that Emma has a babysitter. So, yes, it does help tremendously knowing there are many others out there in the same sort of pickle.
In fact, the Fearful Dogs group has become so active that while the content is open for all to read, those who want to participate have to demonstrate a basic level of knowledge about living with and training dogs with phobias and anxiety. The group’s founder, Debbie Jacobs, a certified dog trainer in rural Vermont, does most of her client consultations over the phone or on Skype. If people who have not worked with her want to join the group, Jacobs offers both on-demand and real-time webinars to watch.
When I look at these groups and see thousands of people reaching out to help their terrified pups, then glance over at Emma, flopped on her side napping peacefully in a sun patch on the rug, I know that we’re making progress … albeit slowly.
“It’s never just one thing,” Jacobs says about dogs living with anxiety. “If you can alleviate the stress in the dog’s life in one area, it can help in other areas.” I see that with Emma. By not losing it every time the front door creaks open, Emma has gained confidence overall. She no longer cocks an ear and furrows her brow when a construction crew bangs outside or televised gunshots ring out in surround sound. And rather than shake in terror in the car, Emma now sticks her nose to the window opening and lets her ears flap in the wind.
My husband I continue on our path of, let’s say, puppy steps—each day pushing Emma’s fear threshold a wee bit further.
“It’s a real kindness,” Jacobs says. “It’s amazing what people are willing to do.”
Good Dog: Behavior & Training
Separation anxiety is a two-way street.
July 8 2015
Patricia McConnell had me at “separation anxiety.” But not in the way you’d normally think.
“I do indeed suffer from separation anxiety when I leave my dogs,” the renowned animal behaviorist and author said in her 2014 APDT conference keynote presentation, “People, Dogs and Psychological Trauma.” “I don’t know about you, but I’m already starting to stress lick. What makes it okay is that I’ve come to talk with a group of people who are as stupid in love with their dogs as I am. So I’m in good company, and that helps a tremendous amount.”
My reaction? I’m not alone!
It turns out that separation anxiety in pet owners—which ranges from a reluctance to leave a companion animal for even a few minutes to a complete inability to travel—is a lot more common than I realized.
“It’s so individual,” says Faith Maloney, co-founder of Best Friends Animal Society, who, along with psychologist Linda Harper, PhD, runs the annual Giving Heart Retreat, a three-day workshop that helps people with problems such as this. “Every single situation that I’ve come across is unique to that person or that family,” she says. (Learn more about the retreat at bestfriends.org/What-we-do/Events/Workshops.)
One scenario does pop up a lot, though, she says. Something bad happens while the owner is away—the dog becomes sick at a boarding kennel, for example, or the pet sitter forgets to show up. “Then, based on some of these traumatic experiences, people say, ‘I can never leave again.’”
For others, the mere fact that their dog had a rough past before they adopted him can keep them tethered.
“I’ve got rescues,” says Sarah Bartley of Luling, Texas, who currently shares her home with a 14-year-old Pit Bull/Greyhound mix, an 8-year-old Shepherd/Border Collie mix, two previously neglected horses and, yes, a rescued bearded dragon.
“I gave my dogs my word when I took them on that they would have the best life possible,” she says. “They’ve come to love me, so I don’t want to go out without them.”
I made a similar promise to my Beagle, Emma, who was a caged breeder before she came to live with us. She crawled into my lap the moment I met her at the North Shore Animal League in New York, and my lap remains Emma’s safe place when she’s scared or insecure.
Frankly, I love that Emma wants to press into me every chance she gets, and comes straight to me when she needs support. But when I comfort her, am I making it harder for her stand on her own two … er … four feet?
“You can’t change what happened to [your dog]. You cannot make up for that,” McConnell says in a phone interview following the conference. “But you can do everything [possible] to help your dog be a healthy, happy and stable individual. Dogs who have been really damaged tend to be brittle. But we work toward creating individuals who are more flexible, who can bend rather than crack,” she says.
Understanding that the best thing my husband, Tom, and I can do for Emma is to help her develop the confidence and comfort level to be alone helped us “cut the cord,” if you will.
“When you think about what you’re really doing, to be effective as a pet owner,” says Pamela Uncles, MEd, CDBC, a Northern Virginia-based animal behavior consultant, “giving dogs the skills to be independent is one of the best gifts.”
It’s helpful for pet owners to understand that as soon as they bring a dog into their home, they need to start preparing the pup (and themselves) for time apart.
Of course, even if the dogs can handle our departures, that doesn’t guarantee it will be easy for us to say farewell.
During a four-day trip to Florida last year, Pamela Rachil, owner of Woofy University training, daycare and boarding in Rochester, N.Y., boarded her two Pomeranians with a woman who cares for dogs in her home. “The boys had a great time, but I was miserable,” she says. “I was lying by the pool thinking, Oh God, I wish I could be walking the dogs on the beach. I missed them so much.”
McConnell doesn’t travel as much as she used to, she says, and missing her dogs is a factor in that decision. “I know when I come home from being gone, the way they greet me, they’re clearly over-the-moon happy to see me, but I don’t have dogs with separation anxiety,” she says. “They’re fine. I think it’s more about me.”
Some psychologists, such as Chicago-based Linda Harper, who specialize in helping people deal with the highs and lows of caring for animals.
“It is in the animal advocate’s nature to experience intense feelings for animals,” Harper writes in her book, The Power of Joy in Giving to Animals (Cap Publishing, 2014), on which Maloney collaborated. “We feel what we think they feel. It’s not ‘just an animal.’ We read pain in their eyes, we interpret their whines and barks and meows. We feel their excitement and we imagine their disappointment.”
Sarah Bartley—rescuer of two dogs, two horses and one bearded dragon—does, indeed, feel such intense emotions. She recognized that she was giving all that she had to her animals and not taking enough for herself.
In eight years, Bartley had only gone home in England once, and that was a short out-and-back for a death in the family. She even reduced her hours working at a skydiving business from full-time to part-time so she didn’t have to leave the dogs alone so long.
Okay. You’re getting kind of crazy, Bartley recalls saying to herself last year. You have to let go a little bit. So she made arrangements for someone to care for her animals and headed out to Kanab, Utah, where she and about a dozen others attended the three-day Giving Heart Retreat.
Most people attend the retreat to deal with burnout and grief, Maloney says. For the obvious reason, people with anxiety about leaving their animals don’t often make it.
That is partly what motivated her and Harper to create The Power of Joy in Giving to Animals. “It’s something we did specifically to help all the people who, because of the nature of the condition, are not going to leave home to get the help they need,” says Maloney. “This is a way we hope we’re reaching those people.”
The good news is that the mere act of traveling to the retreat could, in some cases, give people the nudge they need to be able to go away again.
“A good first step is to travel to a dog behavior or training seminar,” McConnell says. Concerned owners can justify leaving the pup at home because they’re going to learn something that will benefit him. After returning home to a happy and healthy dog (assuming all goes well), they just might feel confident enough to try traveling again.
But for some—even when they know that their dogs can handle their absences and will receive great care while they’re gone—parting can still be such sweet sorrow. What does McConnell do during the really rough times? She turns to good ol’ classical conditioning.
“I eat chocolate,” McConnell says. “I literally give myself chocolate. Never, never, ever, ever dismiss the power of chocolate.”
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