Say you are training for a marathon (OK, suspend belief if you must). Some of you would look at it as a monumental, almost insurmountable task, right?
But let’s look at it from a training perspective. Where might you start when putting together your plan to get from your couch to the finish line?
The critical question for the person training for a marathon is no different than the one that we would ask when beginning a separation anxiety protocol.
What can the dog successfully do today, right now?
Sometimes people will set arbitrary separation anxiety training-plan “criteria” (that definable thing we’re asking the dog to do). They think, “A five-minute absence is pretty short, so that must be a good place to start.” Others will tip toward the overly conservative side and start by just touching the doorknob.
Both instances are worthy of reconsideration depending on what the dog can do today.
Getting the Timing Right
If the dog is starting to panic the moment the door closes, staying outside for five minutes could be hugely overinflated and far too difficult. Conversely, if the dog is able to handle a one-minute absence before displaying any concern, why would we start with such easy criteria as doorknob touching? No sense wasting time there, right?
If you can barely run a mile without gasping for air, you wouldn’t start your marathon training with a fast-paced 10K. Neither would you start out walking to the corner at a leisurely pace, if you actually can jog a mile.
So the question is, then, how does one determine what the dog can do today?
In a nutshell: you watch the dog when you’re not home, using the sep-anx-dog family’s best friend, TECHNOLOGY.
Your New Best Friend, Technology
Careful observation through online web-based live viewing will dramatically impact the way that the dog’s threshold is determined. There are numerous technologies that can be used including Skype and Zoom or external cameras like Nestcam. Watching the body language and seeing when the dog starts to display small signs of stress will allow for proper understanding of what the dog is able to successfully do right now. From there, we can use very systematic and gradual steps (while continuing to watch closely) to determine when the dog is ready for the next more difficult step.
We must understand that each dog is an individual and their stress is manifested differently, so there is no exact amount of duration or general difficulty that will work for every single dog. This highly individualized customization of a dog’s protocol is what will yield success.
Eyes On the Dog
Things to watch for are pre-cursor indicators that the dog is starting to feel stressed: a dog may yawn, lick his lips, begin some very mild panting, or even do some light pawing at the door. These are vital signs to watch for, as they will help you keep the dog from being pushed beyond his fear threshold, at which point he might start to howl, become destructive, or eliminate in the house.
Often times, getting a second set of eyes on the dog can be extremely helpful. I know from personal experience with my own dog that my adoration for her clouded my judgement. It is an emotional undertaking to watch a dog who is starting to experience stress, and we want to make sure that criteria-setting is not being influenced one way or another by our underlying feelings. Having an outside observer will help clarify the picture.
It is also really important not to impose timelines on any protocol. Things will sometimes move quickly and other times slowly — sometimes there will be small regressions or plateaus too. All of this will be influenced by the individual dog and what he can do today. As sentient beings, we cannot simply state that in “x” number of weeks we must be at a certain time frame.
Most people have a bit of a hard time not knowing the length of their protocol from the outset, but I am here to tell you that the success trajectory will happen, and there are ways to stay motivated when setting daily criteria. Rather than put a timeframe as to when a certain duration will be accomplished, we can set celebration milestones, which works as a great incentive tool.
I recall a client who said their inspiration to get to the next duration was that they would be able to celebrate by walking up the street to the library to return books or movies. Another client said that when the dog reached the five-minute mark, she would splurge and get full-fat whipped cream on her mocha. Finally, I love when clients include the celebration with the dog — at the 20-minute mark, one client said she would purchase a new toy for her dog and buy herself her favorite bottle of wine.
All of these goals are not set with respect to when the duration will happen, but instead just with the understanding that they will happen. Celebratory milestones are an impetus to continue forward and make it more exciting.
Slow Training is the Fastest Route
So take the time with your separation anxiety dog to find out what he can do today and from there, set your motivational aids accordingly. We may as well make the process fun and rewarding while the dog learns to be home alone successfully.
As someone who has done some running in my life, I know that the returns from training slowly and incrementally are incredible. Admittedly though, the greatest rewards I have ever received have been through gradually training my pup, Tini, to be happy when I am gone.
If you ever feel like feel like you need more support, that’s what the CSATs are here for. Don’t hesitate to reach out to us.