Separation Anxiety, Choice, Cues: Don't Leave Me This Way!

I’m currently sitting on a plane looking out over Griffith on my way to Adelaide, reflecting on two days with Peta Clarke at Mount Murray Farm, our home in the Southern Highlands.

Having a dog with Separation Anxiety is new for me, well at least in the context that I’ve fostered over 170 dogs and most tend to settle fairly quickly, and for this reason, I now don’t refer to many of these dogs as truly having Separation Anxiety.

Sometimes I feel like I have to best job in the world, I get to hang out with people I not only like but really respect their knowledge and skill, and it is often those spaces in between the workshop where attendees are around the table or we are sitting having lunch and we talk about things we see.

Tom has a love of all people and often has big emotions come out his mouth when initially meeting other dogs; my ability to leave him went down the gurgler at the end of 2018 when I acquiesced to being told my dog needed to tough it out in a crate. If there is one gift in all of this, I’ve learned to be an advocate for my dog. No matter what, listen to your gut when it doesn’t feel right, your gut doesn’t lie and the fallout of this has been I’ve headed into a world of self education that is not only inspiring me, but each day I feel like a beginner. After two days with Peta, my head is rattling working hard to connect the dots and I’m learning that this is ok. I don’t have to revert to old skills or beliefs to get an outcome, I can sit with the current confusion and let the pieces click into place.

Something I shared to the hive was how I’m using cues for Tom where he has choice and a cue for where there is no choice. We have the cue of ‘can you....’ for when it doesn’t matter if he doesn’t want to get in the car, like times when I can leave him at home. For when there is no choice, I use ‘time to...’ This can also kick you in the bum when you are like me and ask the question ‘can you put your harness on’ when you really meant ‘we have to get going from the dog sitters quick because I’m meeting someone’ and he says no. This happened and Tom walked up to his harness, me expecting his head to go though the hole so I could click him up and he did a last minute swoop away. Jon, who kindly looks out for Tom for us, and I, burst out laughing, it was a hard no. I just hung about for a few minutes more and then said ‘time to put your harness on’, he didn’t love it, but he did it.

And life is like that, we all have stuff we have to do. It sucks but if we know what’s coming we have a certain power over it and I believe we all want to know what the thing is to fear or not enjoy as opposed to the unknown fear of ‘Crap! What will happen this time?’ But I’m digressing.

So on with the weekend with Tom. As a group on the weekend, I had him stationed on a bed near the door of the training room, a few things were in place like his Kong and me with a bowl of cookies (Ziwipeak), where we could reward for hanging out on the bed. The presence of fifteen people in the room was a huge distraction for Tom, he adores mugging anyone who will let him launch at you and he can pick you out of the crowd from a mile away. I am lucky in that I do get to control the environment in these workshops when I have Mark, or Miriam to look after Tom if we need to remove him, but we also have the challenge of a large number of people and dogs coming into his home, yet we have backup when we need it.

Tom was shouting a bit, but he does understand the power of hanging out on his bed, and he was able to focus on chewing his Kong when I brought it in, and Peta then became the deliverer of random pieces of Ziwipeak. All the while the group was discussing fundamentals in Applied Behaviour Analysis. When asked what we wanted to work on, my issue with Tom was Separation Anxiety.

I then went on to say how the use of Location Markers, yes, I know this isn’t a highly scientific term, had meant Tom could get a handle on where reinforcement was coming from and I felt this had played a huge role in him becoming less frantic and more focussed. It makes sense, if I say ‘catch’ you are going to likely turn and face me and get your hands ready to catch what I’m about to throw. But if you don’t know if I’m going to hand you a biscuit or throw a ball, I bet you would be a little more on edge thinking ‘what is she going to do?’

Someone in the group said, ‘why can’t you put that onto lengths of time now that you are beginning to leave him for short periods’ (think 15-45 seconds before we get whining)

And it made me smile, I’m on holiday now but I’m already formulating in my head what cue I can put on these periods, how awesome for my dog to know ‘In a minute’ means a minute. Whatever a minute means to him, I don’t believe he knows the time! Just in case some of you think I’ve completely lost my marbles.

And so we have been able to use our collective hive mind to expand on our skills. I’ll be honest, I’m sensitive to the culture of dog training where we see hierarchical orders that make me wonder how force free trainers can really be force free with animals yet brutal in delivery with their human learners. I’m triggered by it, and it is fine to say ‘toughen up’ but I know, from five decades on the planet, that I don’t learn when the delivery of information isn’t pleasant. Call me a woose. I know my learning style.

So one little snippet of my weekend with Peta is to put a verbal cue on lengths of time I’m leaving Tom, the other, I’ll share next week, but it had a number of us moved to tears, and is why I’m so passionately cheering the work Peta does. Choice is real, choice allows dogs to feel safe, and twice now I’ve seen choice allow a dog that was so fearful it was hiding in its crate, choose to leave that crate and choose work over the fear. It is goosebumps stuff people and we need to let our learners have the choice to tell us, ‘this is too much right now, I need an out?’

Why? Because, most of all, I know relationship is everything for our learners, if you have the back of your learner, your relationship is going to let you screw up and keep on learning. If you don’t have the complete trust of your learner, I don’t believe you will be able to get where you really want to go.

And really, what a beautiful way to train.