I have often spoken and written on the topic of suspending absences while working on separation anxiety. What I mean by that is that you can’t leave the dog alone except during training. A frequent reaction is that this is an outrageous expectation. I disagree. Expecting anything different is unrealistic.
Many types of behavior issues require strict management and separation anxiety is no exception. As an example, if a trainer is going to work with a dog that’s aggressive toward children, her first order of business would be to remove all access to children, or at least ensure children were at a safe distance at all times. Agreeing to work with this dog would be entirely contingent on this management requirement.
If, say, the dog’s guardians said they could absolutely comply with this request—except for Tuesday and Thursday afternoons when the neighborhood kids come over to play in their studio apartment, would you expect the trainer to shrug her shoulders and say that as long as it was just on those days, it would be OK? Of course not. That would be foolish from a liability and safety standpoint, not to mention detrimental to the training protocol.
No trainer worth her salt would take an aggressive dog and intentionally expose him to the stimuli that triggers him as part of the desensitization and counterconditioning plan, so why should separation anxiety be any different? Any time we put a dog over threshold, we slow down or reverse training progress. Why? Because intense stress and anxiety inhibits learning. As trainers we often talk about the importance of not rehearsing an undesired behavior, which is why it baffles me that people have such low expectations for management in separation anxiety cases. My guess is it’s in large part due to the considerable inconvenience and, understandably, because we hate to impose on the guardians.
Regardless, if we want to successfully resolve the problem, suspending absences is absolutely necessary.
Use this knowledge to bolster your confidence and stick to your guns when you first talk to a potential separation-anxiety-case client. Don’t fall into the trap of thinking you’ll get more compliance if you ask as little as possible of the client and don’t mince words when it comes to setting expectations. Saying something like “I’d prefer it if you don’t leave Sammy alone while we work on your protocol,” is a request and one that can easily be dismissed. It gives the client room to lay out all the reasons this is not possible, and you’ll be left with a weak compromise.
Instead, explain that suspended absences are key and non-negotiable. For example:
“If we’re going to get Sammy to be successful at staying by himself, we need to find a way for you to not leave him alone except during training. We can look at your schedule together and I can help you find solutions to accomplish this because it’s fundamental to our training.”
Will you still get objections? Almost always, yes. But you have framed the conversation in a way that doesn’t leave wiggle room. (For ideas on how to have this difficult discussion, see my article “Logic Doesn’t Apply to Separation Anxiety” from September 6, 2015.)
Discussing management options at this stage is much easier than later on and, if you get a little creative, there are more choices for watching the dog than most people realize. First, the widely available options of daycare or dog walking, a blessing for many people and their dogs. Then there’s friends and family or kindly neighbors or even an occasional work-from-home day or supportive office environments where the dog can tag along.
Beyond that, it’s time to think creatively. Maybe you can help. So many people adore dogs and go soft over a story of a dog in need. Dog lovers often appear in droves if you can touch their hearts, so writing a compelling email about Sammy with a cute photo attached and then blasting it to everyone in the clients’ address book is a start. Next, have them post on their social media channels (and yours, if you’re open to it) asking for occasional coverage and ask people to share widely. No need to post absence times or personal addresses or anything like that. Safety first. But getting the word out helps find the right people. There are vet techs at the veterinarian’s office, church and college bulletins filled with people seeking occasional work, there are the nice people at the pet store who know all the professional pet sitters that could help. There might even be several of your own separation anxiety clients who are willing to do some dog sharing. The more creative you and the client can be, the more possibilities open up.
If this post is about psychology as much as about management, it’s because so many trainers balk at asking clients to commit to a lengthy and detailed plan. In my experience, though, separation anxiety clients are a rare breed; the single most compliant group of clients that exists. Much of this extraordinary commitment springs from the behavior problem itself. These guardians can’t leave the dog alone, and not just because we ask for complete suspension of absences. They can’t leave the dog alone because he will howl, urinate or defecate, self-mutilate, or literally destroy their home. They face complaints from neighbors or landlords, and repair costs and medical bills in the thousands.
Plenty of motivation right there for clients to maintain a consistent and diligent protocol. Combine that incentive with their empathy for and compassion with their dog and the regular written plans they get from you, their trainer, and you have a winning combination for clients to commit to lengthy plans which lead to successful outcomes with their dogs.
Asking clients with separation anxiety dogs to suspend absences during training is not only not too much to ask. It’s the one thing you must ask your clients if you hope to be able to help them.