Helping a Dog with Separation Anxiety and an Unusual Talent

By: David Codr

Published Date: August 31, 2017

Griffith is a four-year-old rescue dog who lives in Santa Monica. His guardian set up this dog behavior training session to address his separation anxiety when left alone and unusual way of marking.

Griffith, aka Griff, was found in Griffith Park and adopted by his new guardian a month before this in home dog training session. He showed great confidence when I arrived for the session. Aside from jumping up a few times, Griff did really well greeting me.

I did note that I wasn’t able to use a hand motion or high value treat to move him into a sitting position when I arrived for the session. Griff is the first non-showdog who I have come across with this problem. As thing progressed, I started to develop some thoughts about his history at the park related to his back legs.

Although he moved without any hindrances, throughout the session I was unable to get Griff to sit on command. Although this wasn’t a problem for her, I showed his guardian how to use passive training to reward him for moving into a sitting position. Each time Griff sits, simply petting him within three seconds and saying the word “sit” should help get him to eventually sit on command.

I did some body manipulation while petting him to see if he had restricted mobility in his legs but it wasnt until I was manipulating his tail that Griff attempted to move away. When he got down he headed to the back door so we headed outside to let him do his business. It was during this very common dog behavior that I witnessed Griff doing something I have never seen a dog do before. You can see this unusual activity for yourself at around the 20 second mark in the video below.

Growling up, my father Frank recounted a story of seeing a three legged dog who backed himself up a tree to raise his remaining back leg without being able to support himself due to the other rear leg being gone. My guess is that Griff broke or sprained his tail or a bone that prevented him from putting pressure on one leg while he lifted the other while he was on his own in Griffith park. A vet should be able to see a healed break in an x ray. I recommended that the guardian take him in for a vet visit to review his hind quarters and tail to see if there is any lingering damage or treatment that should be applied.

While its funny to watch, this inverted position results in Griff urinating on his chest which is obviously not desired when you have a lap dog. His guardian’s priority was stopping separation anxiety so I didn’t work with Griff on this “issue” during our session. If it continues and is something the guardian wants to fix, I will have to get creative in another session down the road.

Next I wanted to show the guardian how she can help Griff get over his separation anxiety. Many people confuse this dog behavior problem as the dog being difficult. In all actuality, its similar to a human having a panic attack. If you saw someone undergoing one of those, chastising them for their fear would be the worst thing you could do. Unfortunately, many dog guardians use that same approach. Fortunately Griff’s guardian was not in that camp.

That said, his guardian was a little stressed about his separation anxiety as she didn’t want him to suffer and coped with the situation by staying home. While this is a loving and compassionate approach, its not a long term solution.

In Griff’s situation, I recommended a few minor home adjustments combined with practice at being home alone. For many dogs, they go from 100% contact with their humans to 0% which is too big of a step to deal with.

I like to show people how to help their dog practice being home alone to stop separation anxiety. I have found one of the best ways to do this is to train a dog to stay and practice the heck out of the exercise. In the video below I cover how to teach a dog to stay as well as some dog behavior tips for dogs suffering from separation anxiety.

Teaching a dog to stay with this positive dog training approach is pretty easy. It just takes a lot of repetitions in various locations and for gradually more challenging scenarios (longer duration, increased distance, amongst distractions). The dog training secret is to practice in short 1-3 minute practice sessions throughout the day (until she gets up to 3+ minutes of stay). Id like to see the guardian practicing the stay with Grif seven or more times a day for 1-2 minutes each time.

All-in that’s less than 15 minutes a day. Within a week, the guardian should be able to get Grif to stay while she goes into the other room to get a glass of water or a snack. In a few weeks, she should be able to leave him in a stay for 5-10 minutes at a stretch. He will know she is there, but without being able to see her, he will be practicing being alone. This is a key part of behavior modification for any dog suffering from separation anxiety.

Once Griff has learned the stay (should be within 15-30 days if the guardian is practicing seven or more times a day), she will be able to start leaving the house for brief periods of time as described at the end of the above video.

But in the mean time, the guardian will need to be able to go out without the dog. I knew I needed to come up with a transitional solution for this separation anxiety problem. My recommendation was for the guardian to pick up a few puppy play pen components and set up a puppy play area around her back door and also set up a play room in the spare bedroom like I did with my puppy Quest.

There is a link to the play pen section I ordered on Amazon in that link. I suggested the guardian order three of these play pens. Two can be joined and added to the spare bedroom giving Griff a safe place to hang out in the house. If she fills these up with Bullysticks, marrow bones and treat dispensing toys (a few are linked at the bottom of this post) and starts practicing having Griff in this play pen as she lays on the bed and watches TV a few feet away in the same room, he should adjust and start to relax and feel comfortable there. Having the guardian lay on the bed reading or watching TV the first 6-12 times Griff is in this room will help him feel comfortable. Once that is the case, then she can leave him there for a short time alone while she uses the bathroom before returning. This way he sees her leave and come back. That way he doesn’t look at being in this back bedroom as being sent away. After all, the guardian is right there next to him.

The other play pen should be set up in the living room around the door to the back yard. The guardian can install a pet door to the sliding door as seen here and then arrange the play pen around that dog door. This way, she can leave Griff in this spot when she needs to leave the home giving him the ability to go out to potty as needed and inside if desired.

This way the guardian is addressing the root cause of the separation anxiety, practicing a treatment plan along with having a temporary solution that keeps the dog safe and the house from being marked while Griff is unsupervised.

A few days after the session I picked up Griff to watch him for a few hours and evaluate how he did with other dogs. I wanted to see if he was fearful, guarded or relaxed around dogs he didn’t know. I had my Dalmatian Quest with me when I picked up Griff so I took them on a quick walk around one of my favorite neighborhoods in Santa Monica. Griff used this as another opportunity to demonstrate his unusual kind of marking.

I was really pleased with how well Griff did with Quest. It would be nice if he showed a little more interest in other dogs, but I was satisfied that there was no fear or aggression.

However Quest is a pretty well socialized dog so our next stop was a trip to Joslyn dog park which is right down the street from my place in Santa Monica. I like this park as it has a section reserved for small dogs which was great for Griff. You can see how he did at the dog park in the video below.

Griff did some nice sniffing around at the dog park, but not much social interaction. Id like to see his guardian bring him back to this or other dog parks at least once a week to keep up on and develop social skills. Its not healthy for any animal to live in solitude. Human companionship is great, but Id like to see Griff develop a few dog friendships too.

Griff is a great little dog and his new guardian hit the jackpot in getting such a smart and cute dog. By the end of the session we had helped him get over a few fears, was responding well to the stay and his guardian seemed more relaxed now that she has a better way of communicating with him.

It will be important that the guardian use passive training to pet Griff and say the word “sit” within three seconds of him sitting down on his own. With enough repetition, he should start to respond to a verbal cue.

But to put a stop to separation anxiety, the guardian is going to need to first train him to stay for duration, then distance (allowing her to move beyond his eyesight) then distractions. Its going to be the distance step that will be the most beneficial. This will allow her to put him into a stay and practice being alone for short periods of time. With practice at that, combined with the temporary play pens, his guardian should be able to help him get over separation anxiety.

We wrapped things up by filming a roadmap to success video filled with many of the positive dog training tips I shared with his guardian during the session.

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This post was written by: David Codr

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