If you’ve ever had a dog with separation anxiety or who just can’t bear to be separated from you by a baby-gate or a door, you know the basic rules:
- Be positive and avoid reprimanding your dog–instead focus on rewarding calm behaviors.
- Avoid dramatic departures and greetings—instead work on setting up these situations so that your dog remains calm.
- Train independence: Start with short departures paired with a goody (such as treat-stuffed Kong toy). When your dog can handle these, systematically increase the departure time.
These general recommendations can be effective on their own. But what if your dog gets anxious when you’re out of sight or reach for just a few seconds? How can you get to that point where you even can leave your dog for short periods in a room or alone in the house and be sure he’s having a positive experience? The following is one set of exercises that can be pivotal in training your dog.
These exercises build up to the goal of teaching your dog that barking and whining don’t work to get your attention, but lying down or sitting calmly do. I prefer to have these dogs lie down because the down position is calmer. If your dog has already done some of the Learn to Earn exercises and is sitting automatically for other things he wants, the transition to these next exercises will be easy. In fact, I generally recommend that you at least take the 10–20 minutes to train the automatic sit for treats, as well as running after you and sitting when you stop, since both these exercises are fun AND useful.
Step 1: Teach a fantastic automatic down as well as a down on verbal cue. As an extension of the Learn to Earn Program that I have most of these dogs start first (in order to develop impulse control in dogs and leadership skills in humans), in this exercise you will train Fido that lying down calmly is what gets you to come back. Begin by teaching Fido a really fantastic automatic down even though Fido already knows to lie down with a visual cue or lure. With the Learn to Earn Program, we teach Fido games where we jog or run 5–10 steps and then stop; Fido sits to get a reward. Now we’re going to switch the end behavior to a down so that down becomes as fun and automatic as sit is now.
Run your 5–10 steps, and then stop. Once you have stopped, use the food lure to get Fido to lie down. (Refer to How to Behave So Your Dog Behaves, chapter 21 for how to teach down). Reward your dog with one treat for lying down and with a sequence of rewards for remaining lying down. Once he consistently lies down immediately when you stop, even if a food lure is still needed, you can start teaching the verbal cue “down.” Just say the word “down” and immediately follow with the visual hand signal or a food lure. Only do this if you’re sure he will lie down immediately; otherwise, the word will just come to mean nothing. This process of teaching the rapid down should take just a day or two, if you’re using the dog’s daily allotment of food (meaning well over 50 practices a day). Once your dog knows the word “down” you can start on step 2. Ideally he should also automatically lie down if you stop.
Note: You can get this down even faster if you’ve used the MannersMinder® to train a down or down-stay because your dog will already love to lie down and will be looking for opportunities to do so since he associates that position with so many rewards in the past.
Step 2: Work on down-stay (Full version in chapter 22 of How to Behave So Your Dog Behaves). Tether your dog by leash to furniture so he can’t get to you if he gets up. Next, have him lie down on a rug or some other comfortable place and give treats for remaining down. Then walk away just a step or half a step and get back to him and give another treat before he gets up. Repeat this 3–5 successful times in a row and then increase the distance you walk away by 1 step. The goal is you always get back to him and reward him before he has a chance to get up, but you can increase the distance pretty quickly.
Alternatively, use the MannersMinder® to train the down-stay and quickly build up the time your dog can lie down for just one piece of kibble. Once your dog is an ace at this behavior, switch to doing the same thing without the MannersMinder®. It will be easy because Fido’s already learned down-stay is fun.
Step 3: Training Fido that lying down calmly is what gets you to come back. Now you have the foundation behaviors to make the light-bulb come on. We’re going to teach Fido that lying calmly, rather than barking and whining, are what get you to come back. Start with Fido standing, tethered to furniture. Then walk away a few steps. He will stand and look at you, and if you’ve practice a lot of down-stay and rapid repeated downs for lots of rewards, the lying down to get what he wants should be fresh on his mind. But if it isn’t fresh enough that his mind starts to shut down, then go ahead and tell him to lay down once as a verbal “hint” (e.g., not “down, down, down, down, down!) and give him time to think.
Once he lies down go over and pet him if he wants petting (for instruction on how to train your dog to remain sitting or lying down when you pet him read chapter 5 in Perfect Puppy in 7 Days) or give him treats if he mostly wants treats. Generally, if dogs are pining for your attention, they want petting as their #1 reward. Make sure he remains lying down while you pet him and only gets up when you give him the “ok.” Then walk away and come back before he gets up and do so a few more times. Then restart the process again. To restart the process, toss a treat in a way that requires he get up to get it. While he’s walking to get the treat, walk away to the same distance as before (or less if it took him too long to figure it out) and repeat as before.
When your dog starts to get that he should lie down to get you to come back and can do so within a couple seconds of your walking away, you can increase the distance you walk away.
Systematically increase the distance until you can walk out of the room and then increase the time you are away. For instance, you may return to the room every 5 seconds for 10 successive trials, but then quickly increase to 10 seconds, 15, 20, 30, or 40 seconds. You can often accomplish this within the first several training sessions. Then start varying the time you are away. For instance, alternate between coming back every 5–15 seconds with much longer times, such as 30–60 seconds, but try to get back before he gets up and starts whining. Note that this is a great way for you to practice separation issues without having to leave the house! But you may need to get a nanny cam or other security cam so you know exactly when he’s doing the right thing when he’s out of your sight. If he happens to get up because you left for too long, wait him out until he lies down again or give him one verbal hint that lying down is what works. After he lies down again, make sure you go back and reward him before he gets up again.
When your dog can relax in a room on his own for 30 minutes or longer, apply the same exercise to leaving the house (for cases where leaving the house is an issue).
You can use the MannersMinder® system to help speed up your training—first by using it to train a down-stay and then a down-stay with distractions where we include departure cues such as picking up keys, walking to the door, opening and shutting the door, walking out and coming back in, and later departing for various lengths of time as the distractions.
The process may sound tedious, but compared to basic departure training, it’s systematic and relatively fast. You can even speed up the training by first working full-bore on the Learn to Earn where your pooch first learns to have impulse control (say please by sitting) to earn other things he loves—such as getting his leash on, getting petted, or any other super high value reward. As with all training, you’ll have to adjust the protocol based on the dog. For instance if your dog suffers strongly from brain shutdown when he gets confused, practice steps 1 and 2 a lot and add the other Learn to Earn exercises first. Or if he picking up on step 3 well, but when you go outside the room he starts to fall into the pattern of getting up and then lying down again to make you come back, you’ll need to work more on down-stay, perhaps with the MannersMinder® so he can get rewarded when you’re out of sight. Or you’ll need to just wait for longer down-stays before you come back. The method using the MannersMinder® is faster. So, don’t worry, if you dog gets stuck, you’ll just need to review your technique or get coaching on the steps because the overall approach is scientifically sound.