I just did an in-home consult with a dog that has separation anxiety. My first order of events was to teach the dog leash pressure/release with the owner about 15 feet away. Fear and anxiety doesn’t feel good mentally or physically. For anyone who has ever had a panic attack or some level of anxiety, you can relate.
My first goal was to let the dog go to the end of the leash in his attempt to get near his owner. This dog’s perceived excessive need to be near his owner creates anxiety within him. Using pressure/release, I worked him back to me where the anxiety decreased. Next I would let him go back out and repeat the process. WIthin 10 minutes he would go half way out and stop. At this point I allowed him some time to make a decision: Either go with the person who represents anxiety or come back to the person who represents relaxation. He made the choice that felt better which was coming back to my side. The key is that I didn’t use any commands. I could have asked him to sit next to me but that’s not as powerful as having him go through the process of understanding where he felt better mentally and physically. Then I would move away from him and watch what choice he made. Again, it was to follow me rather than go towards the anxiety.
I am going for a state of mind over compliance to a command. So, for me a “place” represents a state of mind. By spending the time to do the first exercise showing him that the “place” could represent the same state of mind, it was much easier for him to get it.
Here’s my trick: Once I have an anxious dog on the place in a relaxed state of mind, I give him a bit more time to enjoy what it feels like not to be anxious. Then I remove him from the place and put him back into a situation that will create anxiety. WHen I see the anxiety creeping back in I send him back to the place where he has felt the most relaxed. In time a dog will gravitate to this place when he feels anxiety or over stimulation.
I always want the dog to have an opportunity to make good choices. If the dog made a choice to get off the place and go outside to drink water or pee, I don[‘t have a problem. If he made a choice to get off and come back to the owner and practice the behavior of being anxious or following her every move, I would send him back to the place. Allowing him to make the wrong choice and sending him back to a more relaxed state is more powerful than demanding he stay there for an hour without the ability to make either a right or wrong choice. I don’t want to crush the dog’s spirit. Instead I want to teach him how to make better choices without having me in the equation.