Separation Anxiety in Service Dogs
This is a post that was written as part of our SD Foundations Class to help several students who were struggling with this common problem.
Separation Anxiety is a huge problem among SD Handlers because we work so hard at creating a strong bond with our pups and train them to focus on us as well as prepare them to go in nearly every environment with us. Yet many of us fail to teach our pups how to be alone or stay with another human. And since they get so little practice at being totally alone, this often causes distress when we leave them.
And that distress is often felt by the handler too! We get so used to having our little partner with us, they we often struggle with anxiety when they are not there for some reason. But thinking realistically, there is going to come a time where we need to go to a place that unsafe for our dogs. Whether that is a large music concert, theme park, or medical test such as an MRI...some places simply are not safe and I don't want to ask my dog to be there.
Take an MRI for example. I know some people take their dog and place them in a down/stay near the tech. But you are literally in a machine for 20-40 minutes unable to move a muscle. It is so loud they give you noise cancelling head phones and play loud music to help you block out the noise. What tasks could your dog do safely in that environment and how could you change what your doing to respond to your dog's task? You can't move!
If you plan to take your dog to something like that you have to know that they are not going to get distressed by staying with a the tech or an alternate handler while you can't manage them. So how do you train your SD to be able to stay alone and or stay with an alternate handler? This is the question I get often! And there is not one specific answer because like so much else it depends on the dog! The whole goal is to use slow exposure over time to eliminate the distress the pup may feel. If they are distressed you are moving too fast and need to slow down.
So the very first thing I work on is crate training at home. I feel like there is a ton of resources available on crate training so I'm not going to go into detail with that, but I do want to share one of my tips for avoiding anxiety in the early stages of crate training. Once I get pup comfortable with going in the crate and shutting the door without distress, I work on backing away from the crate. During this time, I'll sing a short repetitive song such as Row, Row, Row your boat or Happy Birthday. (Think teaching a kid to brush their teeth for a 3 min by singing or playing a song and they don't stop till the song is done.) By singing or making noise your pup can hear you and know your close so when you reach a point to step out of sight they know you are not disappearing. Plus this helps you keep time and every time you finish the round of that song you walk back in and give puppy a treat. This becomes a game as you try to walk further and further away before you go back and give the pup a treat. Then once your are successfully out of sight you start singing 2 verses then 3. At that point I start phasing out the song, because when you leave for real, they are not going to be hearing you singing. What this does is helps the dog get passed that initial fear of you leaving and learn that you will come back. Once you reach that point, I suggest you start adding in simple tasks such as going to the bathroom, putting away dishes or moving laundry from the washer or dryer then going back for puppy. This helps you build the time you are out of sight without stressing out the pup because you finish your task and go right back. Slowly the tasks get longer. While most of the time, we would just take our puppy to the bathroom with us, if we practice putting them in their crate 1-2 times a day to pee, that lets them practice being alone. We can then slowly build up to taking a shower or bath without them. Some days you might decide to take them in the bathroom to take your shower, which is also good training too, but occasionally doing it alone will be good practice for both of you.
Staying with a Family Member
There are several steps you can take to help your pup get comfortable with staying with a family member. I'm going to list a few to get you started, but then it's up to you to figure out how to add this in to your daily routine in real life situations.
Play hide--n-seek! This game has several great purposes but one is to teach your pup to stay with a family member. Put their harness on and maybe a leash if your family member needs it or use a door/gate to keep pup in one part of the house. Then you go hide in a simple spot, when your ready call the dog. The family member then talks to the dog while your are moving into position, keeping the dog interested in them until you call. Then they let go of the harness with the cue, Go Find Mommy! And follow the dog to you. You of course reward the dog with treats and praise when they find you. Then you switch places, with your family member hiding. Use this teach the dog names of every family member they live with. They will have so much fun that they won't even realize they are staying with a family member.
Have a family member help with down/stay practice. If you are using a blanket or mat, have them sit next the mat, as your family member to pet or hold pup if needed. And back away 1 step back, return and treat, 2 steps back, return and treat, 3 steps and so forth. If your pup is really struggling to get away, you are moving too far back, stop a few steps earlier where your pup can be successful and end the session for the day.
Build up to leaving them with a family member to use the bathroom, do the laundry, check the mail, etc. Have family member either use high value treats or a fun toy while you are away. If you have multiple family members they can even play hide-n-seek while your gone then end the game when you come back and they find you.
Short stays in the car with a family member while you pup gas, run in to an atm, pick up food from a restaurant. Slowly build up time away doing longer tasks. (Of course use safety in doing this by choosing locations you are safe in and temps that are safe for such training.)
Enlist family members to take pup out to potty. You can watch from a window, doorway, porch or sidewalk. But let a family member who is old enough to safely manage pup be in charge of the leash for the sniff-a-bout and potty time. Discuss this with the family member before they go out so they know what to do and you remain quiet and not interacting with the pup at all while they go with a family member.
The reverse stay. In this activity you are the one who stays, maybe you're sitting in a chair, on a porch, or on a blanket but you stay put and a family member walks your dog just a few feet away to sniff. As pup sniffs, they slowly move further and further away stopping before the pup gets stressed and looking back to get to you.
Often our dogs get stressed when they know they can't get to us. I start with indoor barriers such as a gate or door. This is just like crate training only on a larger scale. And you can use a family member or another dog to help with this training but eventually you want your dog to be successful totally alone on the other side of the barrier. Some people will use a puppy play pen to provide a pup with a safe place to play when not being supervised. This helps the pup get used to the barrier. But even if you don't do that, I suggest using gates and doors, even a screen door, to help put get used to not being able to reach you.
Then I branch out to outdoors. You could move the gate outdoors, but I tend to look for fences that can be used as a barrier. We have a small secure garden in our front yard so when Azul was a puppy, I would place him in this area and simply walk around the outside of the fence. Slowly I moved farther away from the fence and came back to him and slowly I started doing yardwork nearby. Now he stays there while I mow the front yard every few days. We also practice this at the empty dog park at 6am. He loves the sniffs and I use this time to rearrange or clean out my car. Sometimes I might put him in the empty park and walk back to my car for my coffee, anything to give him a moment where he can see me and can't reach me. This helps prepare him for being alone or slightly out of reach from me in more environments.
I wait till my dog is successful in the areas above before I start working on training my dog to walk on a leash nicely for other people, whether that be a family member or stranger. For the CGC test, it is often a stranger who will hold your dog's leash while you go out of sight for 3 minutes. While I'm not a fan of handling my leash to a total stranger, I do make sure I hand Azul's leash over to one of my other dog people that we train with regularly. In an emergency situation, he may need to stay with a first responder until a family member can get him. That isn't going to happen unless he can be well mannered with that person and listen to their basic cues.
I'm going to post some tips of Separation Anxiety in a second post as it I don't want this post to get too long and overwhelming. But here is a FB group you can join for more tips on helping a dog overcome the distress of being left home alone. Separation Anxiety with Rose Riggs
Rosee Riggs was nice enough to come and speak with us during a SD Handler Chat back in October 2022. Here is a replay of that SD Handler Chat.