Teaching a Bear to Relax to Get Over His Separation Anxiety

By: David Codr

Published Date: April 17, 2015

Bear Appenzeller

Bear is a two-year-old Appenzeller who has separation anxiety, doesnt always listen and gets over-excited when guests arrive.

When I first met Bear, I was impressed with his gentle energy. He was excited, but not overly so. I made a few movements and kept my body positioned in an authoritative way to make sure he didn’t try to jump up on me when I arrived. I also used some non verbal communication and calming signals that seemed to do the trick. His guardian told me that he was less excited than normal for a guest’s arrival, and that he calmed down quicker as well.

After discussing the situation with his guardian, we headed to the basement where they spend most of their time and where Bear’s kennel was. Bear’s guardian had stopped using the kennel due to the dog moving it across the room then chewing the couch through the bars of the kennel.

I never use a kennel as a punishment as I want the dog to feel that he or she can go there anytime things get too much or when he needs some time for himself. As a result I always take great pains to be sure that the dog has a positive connotation to the kennel itself. I never physically force a dog inside and when first introducing the dog to a kennel and I make sure to use a lot of positive reinforcement.

I start out by tossing in a high value meet treat to entice the dog to walk in under his own power. I make it a habit to introduce new toys inside the kennel but do so when the dog is away. This way the dog discovers the toy inside the kennel on its own. I also leave high value treats inside in the same way. My goal is for the dog to think “This kennel is a magic place. Every time I go inside it, I find a new toy or treat.”

But if you force your dog inside the kennel you are reinforcing its belief that the kennel is not a good place and it can damange the trust between dog and human.

I pulled the kennel out from the corner of the room and had Bear’s owner pull out all of the toys and blankets so the dog wouldn’t be distracted by them. Once we started messing with the kennel, Bear started to breathe heavily, was leaning on his guardian and had an anxious energy. I could see his pupils were the size of Tulsa so I sat down about six feet from the kennel and explained to his guardian about what I was going to do.

After Bear’s breathing slowed down and his pupils returned to a normal size, I tossed a high value treat in front of the door to the kennel. I wanted to gauge how bear dealt with a treat near the kennel before I tried to get him to go inside.

Bear jumped up off the couch and ran over to lick the treat up off the floor. When he started to turn away from it to walk back to where he was sitting before, I tossed another treat, but this time I tossed it right inside the front of the kennel. Bear turned around and leaned into the kennel to gobble up that treat, making sure he did not touch the bottom of the kennel with his paws.

After he got the second treat, I tossed in another one so it fell half way back into the kennel. I wanted to toss it into a location that required Bear to put one of his feet inside the kennel in order to get it. When Bear went in and grabbed it without much hesitation, I thought it was going to be pretty easy. I continued the process but was tossing the treats so that they fell into the back of the kennel so that Bear had to enter it completely to get them. Bear went right inside and kept getting he treats then exiting the kennel.

After tossing in a half dozen treats or so, I tossed in another, but this time i flowed silently behind him and stopped when I was standing at the kennel door. I remained in place with my legs blocking Bear from exiting and watched Bear. As soon as he saw the exit was blocked, his body stiffened a bit and his breathing got a little faster but he stated in place.

I waited a moment then took a small step backwards while keeping my shoulders squared at the kennel. When Bear started to move towards the open kennel door, I immediately took a step forward so I was blocking the kennel doorway with my legs again. I remained in place for a second then took step back the same way. This time Bear stayed in place so I took another step back. I paused again then then took another step away. I kept repeating the step, pause, step procedure until I was a few feet away from the kennel’s door.

The instant that Bear sat down, I took a big step backwards. I did this in a calculated fashion to make sure that I moved back at the same time that he moved into a sitting position to communicate to the dog that his sitting was what I wanted. Bear’s sit was a little unorthodox, almost leaning in between a lay and a sit, but he stayed in that position for a moment so I remained in place too. I took the photo below at this moment.

Bear Appenzeller 2

After Bear’s breathing slowed down and his body looked more relaxed, I sat down about six feet from the kennel’s entrance. A minute later, Bear laid down in the kennel on his own. This signifies that the dog understands I want it to stay inside and also shows that the dog was following my orders. This was the action I was looking for so I immediately called him out of the kennel with a recall command.

Bear moved forward slowly and initially ignored the high vale treat I was offering. I kept it in front of him and as soon as he took it, I started to repeat the recall command word as he chewed the treat. When he finished, I spent a minute petting and rewarding him with my attention so that he knew I was pleased with his actions.

I ran through the exercise again a minute later to build on the progress we made. But this time, it took Bear longer to sit and lay down. This was likely a result of the dog thinking about the situation this time whereas the initial practice just happened. I was patient and after a few moments, Bear laid down again. I gave him the recall command and rewarded him in the same way.

To make sure that the hesitation didn’t impact his progress, we all went out for a short walk as pulling on the leash was one of Bear’s other issues. As soon as Bear realized we were going for a walk, his energy level spiked so I had his owner put down the leash and lean against the wall. Separation Anxiety is related to a dog getting over excited or worked up into a panic state. This usually stems from a dog who is practiced at getting over excited.

I explained to his guardian how stopping or pausing when a dog starts to get excited and waiting for it to return to a calm state is one of the best things you can do for a dog with Separation Anxiety. When practiced regularly in any action or activity that gets the dog excited, we can help the dog learn to adopt a calmer mindset and energy all the time. This is a key aspect of treating a dog with Separation Anxiety.

When we returned from the walk, we went back into the basement. I had Bear’s owner run though the exercise again a few times and Bear did great. He showed no hesitation entering the kennel and he was sitting and laying down faster each subsequent repetition.

Bear’s guardian will need to practice this kennel exercise daily while gradually increasing the time the dog needs to stay in the kennel after he lays down. This gives the dog practice at being calm inside the kennel. By doing this exercise with the door open and the dog’s guardian in the room, we take away the reasons that the dog panicked when left in the kennel before. With plenty of practice combined with stopping when the dog starts to get excited for any activity, Bear will develop the ability to stay inside the kennel in a calm manner. Once this is the case, his guardian can start practicing closing the kennel door, then once he is comfortable with that, he can practice leaving the room for short periods of time. As the duration of that exercise increases, so will Bear’s ability to be away form his owner while remaining completely calm.

At the end of the session, Bear’s guardian’s parents came for a visit. I had his owner claim the door space and we spent a little time to allow Bear to calm down before he invited them inside. When his father commented on how calm the dog was, I knew the session had been a success.

It will take time, patience and practice, but Bear showed us that he can lean to stay calm. Once this skill is developed sufficiently and he decides that the kennel is a good place, his days of Separation Anxiety will be at an end.

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This post was written by: David Codr

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