APDT Conference: Day 3.2

Still got a day and a bit to cover in the APDT Conference, so here is the next instalment, a further session with Malena DeMartini-Price, this session titled “Separation Anxiety. Don’t Run, it can be Done!”

Another excellent session that followed up on her previous and unfortunately, not enough time to cover everything. Malena had excellent video, which in my view outclassed the Robert Holmes’ NDTF sessions on separation anxiety (or canine separation anxiety disorder).

She started with how she classifies the level of anxiety into Mild, Moderate or Severe. Moderate is the most common form she sees.

Mild = panting, whining, intermittent barking, mild chewing (eg. bedding), excessive greeting (calming down quickly), mild depression, some shadowing (following), no key owner attachment

Moderate = anorexia, constant barking, howling, moderate destruction, elimination, excessive greeting (10-45 mins), panting, sweaty paws, moderate depression, wild door dashing (or blocking), frequent shadowing, pre-departure anxiety

Severe = self-mutilation, escapism, salivation/drooling, severe destruction, excessive water consumption, excessive shadowing, severe depression, aggression, diarrhoea / vomiting

Following from the previous session she summarised the plan she uses. The question everyone asks is how long does it take? There is no one-size fits all answer; however, it is dependent on the dog’s learning curve, the owner’s ability to suspend absences (she states the plan cannot work well if the owner is not prepared to work on the program, i.e. suspend being away so you can work on the plan), there can be no guarantees, and that mild does not mean quick (as an example, Malena provides the following as a guide: mild = 6-12wks, moderate/severe = 4-6 months and up).

Why can’t the owner continue with their usual routine of going out everyday to work? Well, for the following reasons: the plan is difficult to execute and makes it muddy for the dog, the dog suffers daily, constant anxiety inhibits learning, departure cues very salient/in constant use, owners take advantage of ability to leave dog alone, owners practice safe absences less over time, plan takes more time to complete, and as we have seen so many times in dog training – the owner gives up.

However, what does work (suspending absences): reduced stress for the dog, departure cues no longer salient, owners highly motivated to practice, plan completed more quickly, better case resolution.

When the owner says they can’t suspend their absences, then as a trainer, work together to find some solutions. Malena listed some of these such as doggy-daycare or dog minders but the list is really endless.

Another question that gets asked a lot is whether to crate the dog or not. Malena rarely uses crating unless there is an affinity to the crate. She prefers confining the dog with baby gates or similar. The point in the program is not to confine the dog but to desensitise it in a gradual manner to lower the dog’s threshold. The program is based on using the baby-gate area as an area for desensitising but the end goal is the dog will be free to go anywhere. The confinement permits the intermittent absences otherwise the dog will continue to shadow, etc.

She effectively has a two phase program:

Phase one = non-follow routine (stay and mat); establish the non-confinement area; introduce interactive feedings toys; regarding departure cues, the only one that is needed in phase one is the keys, the rest can come later. With the food interactive toys it is also important that the dog runs out of food, which teaches the dog to relax when left alone not just eat.

Phase two = there is no set number to how many repetitions (this is where the intermittent departure commences – see later for a summary); pause between repetitions so the repetition does not become a pattern as this is not ‘usual’ behaviour to the dog.

In Malina’s first session she provided a case study of Lucy the border collie x. Without going into intimate detail she always commences on a four week plan then reassesses. During this time there is feedback and communication between owner and trainer and expectations on the owner. Initially there should be 2 x 30 minute training sessions a day, building on duration increases.

Exercises include an increase on the use of ‘stay’ and ‘bed’ as this has three benefits: breaking shadowing, mini-absences, the dog gains confidence and sees it as a game. There is also a need for enrichment exercises with interactive feeding and games. And the desensitisation process using the baby-gate.

The area behind the the baby-gate needs to be seen by the dog to be a Disneyland – this obviously requires desensitisation, which is day 1.

Day 2 hang-out in the gated area, then step out and return (remember the earlier advice on the keys). Do this every few minutes (remember trying not to establish a pattern) and keep below the threshold.

Day 3 exit the gated area for 30 seconds but in view of the gate

Day 4 exit the gated area for 2 minutes but in view of the gate

Day 5 exit the gated area for 5 minutes stepping briefly into a partially obstructed view.

And you can see how it progresses. Week two built up to out of sight, then touch the door, then open the front door.

Week 3 progressed to open the door then exit for 2, 5, 10 seconds and progressing. And as the weeks progressed the desensitisation built up to eventually driving away in the car. After the four week program Lucy had stopped her shadowing, was happy to sleep in areas other than the owner’s bedroom, lost interest in the food but happily slept during absences. The owners indicated that when they both left, this was more difficult on the dog so those exercises were doubled.

As you can see through this it takes a lot of time and patience on the owners behalf but if they want to succeed they can reach the goal, although there are no guarantees. I can’t remember if I mentioned it previously but Lucy could remain by herself for the day after about five months and to make it easier a dog-walker came in also.

I probably found this (and Malena’s case studies) to be two of the best sessions with practical advice based on real-life scenarios and not the my-dog stories. Other highlights were the scientific studies, which I will touch on later so there is more to come.

Here are a few slides rom Malena’s lecture …

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