While doing my initial online consult with Erin and Scrabble, I go over the reasons the beautiful border collie mix is not at ease behind the baby gate, even though Erin believes her dog is just fine there.
Scrabble becomes visibly uncomfortable when Erin walks out of the confinement area, and I point out that she is yawning, lip licking, panting slightly and even doing some occasional mouthing at the gate. Erin has been leaving her behind the gate to go get her morning coffee or do her laundry, quite convinced that Scrabble is calm during these times. She tells me that when Scrabble does get upset, she is aware of it because the dog barks or howls, and even on occasion pees in the room or tears up something that’s been left out.
It’s not surprising that Erin doesn’t know that Scrabble is already anxious at these early stages of the absence. Many clients haven’t taken videos or otherwise watched their dog while alone and are aware of only the three most common separation anxiety symptoms: vocalization, destruction and elimination. Other clients may have watched their dog via video but are just not entirely perceptive about some of the more subtle body language signs, so they don’t recognize anxiety until the first whine or indication of digging at the door. This is something we can change; reading body language is for everyone.
Dog Trainer As Language Tutor
If you are like many trainers and behaviorists, you have been observing dog body language for a long while and hopefully have become something of a master at interpreting its nuances. That same level of mastery cannot be claimed by every dog guardian, and for many, the details are getting lost — a lot. The typical dog owner does not see what professionals see, especially the ones who spend hours reviewing video footage and meeting a variety of dog breeds and types.
Trainers need to help guardians learn dog body language. Luckily, the guardians of any given dog don’t need to learn all dog anxiety symptoms, just those specific to their dog. Do they really need to know the difference between a tongue flick in a brachycephalic breed versus other breeds or decipher what the various amplitudes and heights of tail wags might indicate? Not if they know what their specific dog’s stress signals are and at what point toward reaching his separation anxiety threshold those signals occur. When speaking specifically about separation anxiety, we are defining a dog’s individual threshold and the particular — and often individualized — suite of symptoms that a dog displays when becoming anxious.
As trainers we can observe the dog carefully and point out anxiety precursors to coach guardians to read their dog quite well. Many guardians already have a sixth sense that their dog is anxious, they just can’t specifically define why, so we can explain the exact body language cues that are contributing to the picture. Is it the yawning, the tight brow, the pursed mouth, the wide eyes or a combination of other body indicators? Finding observable and measurable behavior indicators is important. We can see the point where the body cues are leaning toward anxiety, thereby determining the dog’s threshold. These types of body language cues are all things that guardians can learn, and learn well because, remember, they live with the dog and know him closely. It is our job to help clients become proficient at reading their dog’s body cues so that as we guide them through their training protocol, they can help us be more skillful at our jobs in setting further criteria.
Tech Tools for the Teacher
There are many valuable applications available to support our efforts in teaching our clients, and although it’s traditional to meet clients in person, separation anxiety happens to be one of a handful of canine disorders that lends itself beautifully to online support. When we meet a client in person and then leave the dog alone to observe how he behaves during an absence, the absence that follows is not a typical one. We have completely changed the context of what a regular absence routine might look like.— it is not preceded by a stranger coming over who smells of jerky treats and other dogs. And certainly, if we repeated this routine regularly, any dog would be tipped off by the trainer’s arrival and know that an absence was about to occur (trainer arriving equals everyone leaving), so the organic nature of absence observation would be lost for sure.
For this and several other reasons, using online tools for observation and body language coaching is not only important, I believe it is essential. Tools like Skype, FaceTime or Google Hangout are the easiest for communication. Less well-known apps such as iCam, Camio, Manything and Presence are equally useful. Finally, apps like Coach’s Eye can be particularly beneficial in pinpointing body language cues. Whatever tools you use, however, being able to view and coach without disturbing the dynamic of the dog’s typical environment is key.
The treatment of separation anxiety depends heavily on maintaining a balance between allowing the dog to progress at his own pace and pushing just enough to move things along. Skillfully coaching clients to gain the knowledge of their dog’s body language cues will make this process better, faster and, frankly, more enjoyable for all parties, including you, the trainer, and yes, the dog, too. So when I say that reading body language is for everyone, I even mean Rover.