Building Up Laila’s Confidence to Eliminate her Separation Anxiety

By: David Codr

Published Date: January 8, 2014

LailaThis is Laila, a one and a half year old Boxer Lab mix. Her owner called me for help with the separation anxiety that was causing her to break out of kennels.

When I arrived for the session, I could instantly tell Laila was lacking confidence. She avoided looking at me and stayed behind her owner. Even when her owner sat down on the couch ti discuss the situation, Laila jumped up and attempted to almost crawl behind her to shield herself from me.

When a dog lacks confidence, a number of behavioral issues can take hold. One of the most frequent being separation anxiety. This is a result of the dog leaning on their human’s for “protection” from the unknown.

When Laila attempted to burrow behind her owner on the couch, her owner took to petting her in an attempt to sooth her. While this is a natural thing to do with a human, trying to sooth or calm a dog in an anxious state of mind actually reinforces the dog’s belief that there is something wrong. When we pet a dog while its doing something, the dog sees the petting as agreeing with what its doing. In this case, being scared or insecure.

I suggested that instead of petting Laila when she gets this way, to try to engage her in an activity where she moves forward such as chasing a ball or going for a walk. Dogs learn to get over or become accustomed to things by literally moving forward physically in order to be able to mentally move forward. By engaging in a different activity we can help the dog get over their fear by distracting them into doing something else.

Dogs are similar to humans as they gain confidence from experience. Without it, they don’t know how to properly interact with people and situations they are not familiar with.

To start building up Laila’s confidence, I showed her owners a “recall” exercise. We all sat in the far corners of the room and took turns calling her. When she came over, I used a hand movement to communicate I wanted her to sit down in front of me. As soon as she did, I rewarded her with a tasty meat treat.

At first she was slow to react when we called her and it took a little coaxing to get her to sit. But as we repeated the process and she became more familiar with the exercise, she started to move to the person and sit faster, until she did it without hesitation.

While this exercise teaches a basic command, it also helps her confidence and reinforces a positive experience when interacting with a human. I suggested her owners practice this exercise a few times over the next week or so, especially when new guests come over.

While I suggested they practice the “recall” exercise when guests come over, its important they only do so after the dog becomes comfortable. Many owner’s mistakenly think they can nudge or pull the dog over to meet a new person to help them get over their fear. In fact this usually does the opposite.

Instead I suggested that her owner’s tell guests to completely ignore Laila when they arrive. At first, she will stay away from them on her own. But as time passes during the visit, the guest’s lack of interest almost always causes a dog to get curious. This can be identified by the dog moving closer to the guest in an attempt to sniff them. When this happens, the guest needs to continue to ignore the dog so that it learns the human means no harm. Once the dog is comfortable (relaxed stance or movement, calm demeanor or lays down on the floor), then the guest can participate in the “recall” exercise.

Next I attempted to put Laila in her kennel. As soon as I did this, her confidence level dropped again and she attempted to avoid me and communicated the didn’t want to go into the kennel. I tossed a few treats inside it to help her go in on her own, but she showed no interest. I was finally able to get her inside but she was clearly uncomfortable, ignoring the treats I tossed in.

I let her out then after a moment had her owner tell her to “kennel up.” I followed the dog to the kennel and stood outside the door to the kennel, leaving it open. Instead i used my legs to block her from exiting. After I saw that she had relaxed (even though it was only slightly), I took a deliberate step backwards. After pausing a moment to see if she remained in the kennel, I took another step back. I repeated this process until I was 10 feet away.

After a few moments, Laila attempted to walk out the kennel so I quickly marched over to block her from exiting. When I did, she retreated from the doorway. This was my way of communicating I wanted her to stay inside. After a few minutes, she sat down. Then she laid down. As soon as she did I called her out of the kennel and gave her a treat.

This exercise helps a dog stop looking at the kennel as the thing keeping them from their owners as the door is open and its the dog that restrains itself. I coached the members of the family through this exercise and then suggested they practice this over and over after I left.

As I was going over the kennel training specifics, I occasionally walked over to the kennel and tossed in a treat. After i returned to the chair to continue the discussion, Laila got up and walked over into the kennel to get the treat. I repeated this a few times then had her owner do the same. After a few more treats, Laila was walking over to and into the kennel on her own sans treats. Her owner told me the dog always stayed away from the kennel unless being told to go in and that she never went in for no reason as she was now that we stopped tossing in the treats.

I suggested her owner occasional toss treats inside the kennel when the dog isnt looking as well as introduce new toys, etc there. This will help the dog see the kennel as a place that good things happen.

I suggested that they teach Laila as many new tricks and commands as possible as well as not let her lay down belly up at the dog park so that she learns she does not need to show submission to be accepted.

It will take some time and practice, but the exercises and new tricks will help start to build up Laila’s confidence while also teaching her to learn to relax in the kennel and new situations. Because she is a medium energy dog with a loving and dedicated family, I suspect Laila’s days of lacking confidence will soon be a distant memory.

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