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Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Tools to Help With Separation Conditioning

If your dog is already upset by being left alone, think about how you can change the picture for her.  If she is normally left in a crate, can you leave her in a different way?  Perhaps in an ex pen or a gated room?  If she is left in one area of the house, can you leave her in a different area?  Take time to condition her to enjoy and relax in the new area, just as if she was a baby puppy learning for the first time.  Can you avoid leaving your dog alone for a while until you can teach her a different way?  Perhaps taking her to a dog daycare or finding a friend or family member to stay with her while you’re gone? 

Giving your dog a totally different picture and environment can help break the habit of being stressed, but only if you take the time to help her know that it is OK to be alone.  Moving her to a different area or situation will prevent her from reacting to any possible associations she’s created with the current confinement space.

The more stress you can eliminate from your dog’s life in general will also be helpful.  There are several blog posts on this blog about recognizing and lessening stress in your dog’s life.  Dogs, like humans, hold their stress cumulatively, which means while they may be able to handle a little stress just fine, the more stress that just piles up and piles up on them eventually creates a breaking point and that’s when their behavior can really go south. 

There are tools that can help you in conditioning relaxation and low stress separation.  Of course, this list of tools is not complete.  It is meant to give you some options that you may not have considered before.  Not every tool is right for every dog or every situation.  Some dogs may not need any of them, and some may be helped by several. 

Remote treat dispensers – Remote treat dispensers can be set up to reinforce your dog while she is in the confinement area, and can be used to distribute treats when you are not in the area, so can be useful for transitioning to you being gone.  Be aware that if your dog gets very excited by food, this may not be the best option, as you won’t be conditioning calm, relaxed behavior if your dog is starting at the machine anticipating a treat all day.  These dispensers can be a nice tool to get you started though or to reinforce specific behaviors like being quiet in a crate.

Enrichment – Any enrichment activities that you can fit into your dog’s day will help with giving her mental exercise and help her be more likely to be able to relax when you want her to.   Some enrichment may be safe to leave with your dog unsupervised to help give her something to do while you’re gone.  This will depend upon your own individual dog and finding what works for her.  There are many posts on this blog about enrichment toys and games that can be used for any dog, not just blind and deaf ones.

Covered crate/ open crate – Some dogs are more comfortable in a covered or airline type crate with solid sides, and some are more comfortable in an open wire crate.  Yes, even blind dogs seem to have a preference.  Solid sides make for a more cozy feeling and prevent air drafts coming in from all directions which is disturbing to some dogs.  Some dogs can relax better in a solid crate because they feel secure knowing there is only one opening, where the wire crate feels open on all sides and can cause them to feel nervous or vulnerable and unable to completely relax.  Some dogs are not comfortable at all in crates and prefer a totally different solution. 

Chew toys – Any toys or bones that you leave with your dog unsupervised need to be very safe, and you need to have watched your dog with them enough to know they will not be biting chunks off and eating them.  Chew toys can help by giving your dog something to do and to help them relax.  Dogs tend to relax and nap after a good chew.

Bodywork – Bodywork can help your dog learn how to relax, and you can use it with your dog while she is in her confinement area to help her associate being there with relaxing.  Using bodywork at her normal bedtime may also help, as she will associate it with relaxing and then drifting off for a long sleep.  Massage, Tellington TTouch, Healing Touch for Animals, or any number of bodywork modalities can be helpful.  Some of these can be learned from books and videos, and others can easily be learned by taking classes in your area. 

Essential oils – Some essential oils like lavender have long been known for their relaxing effects.  This is not the only oil that may be helpful – consult an experienced practitioner or veterinarian for more information about this.  The best results come from therapeutic grade oils, not ones just made synthetically to smell pretty.  A practitioner can help you choose a quality that is appropriate.  Diffusing the oils in the room where the dog will be can help, especially if she is conditioned to relax with the oil diffusing before being left alone. 

Thundershirt, TTouch wrap – These are great tools for increasing your dog’s feelings of well-being and confidence, and in helping a dog learn to relax.  But they need to be worn when the dog is being supervised.  So, they could be worn if you are practicing separation but you are home and checking on the dog often to make sure she is not tangled or that she is not eating the shirt or wrap!  So, if you are doing cycles of leaving and coming back, this could be helpful. 

Sniffing and nosework games – I love any type of sniffing or searching games as enrichment.  Dogs love to sniff and search.  Giving them games like this to play every day, and especially before you leave them alone for the day can put them in a better frame of mind for relaxing and a long nap! 

Calming music – If your dog can hear, playing calming music can help her to relax, but can also drown out noises from outside which might keep her alert and wondering what’s going on out there.  It is best to condition the music during relaxing times when you are home at first.  Classical music can work well.  Two of my favorites are Through A Dog’s Ear and Healing Touch for Animals CD’s created with relaxation and calming of dogs in mind.  Even my deaf dogs respond to the music’s vibrations and will often lie by the CD player on the floor so they can feel the vibrations.  They also seem to be able to feel it if the CD player is on top of a solid crate.   Be sure to keep any cords out of chewing range and tucked away so the dog can’t pull the CD player down on top of her. 

DAP collar, spray – Dog appeasing pheromone products can also be very useful.  I find the collars (which stay on all the time) or the spray to be most useful.  I have not had much luck with the plug ins, but know people who have.  If the dog is staying in a crate, I would opt for the spray so the collar won’t get caught on any part of the crate.  The spray can be spritzed on the dog’s bedding before you leave or can be sprayed on a cover put over the crate. 

I hope this has given you some new ideas to try.  Put these last several posts together to create a program to help your dog feel more relaxed with staying alone.  If you would like help getting started, find a positive reinforcement trainer in your area to work with to help get you started and set up a plan that you can continue to work on. 

Friday, January 20, 2017

Conditioning Separation

Here are some ideas to get you started on teaching your puppy to stay alone with as little stress as possible, and to help create a non-stressful association with the confinement area and being left alone.   Use these ideas as a jumping off point to create a schedule that works for you and your puppy. 

Pet sitters or dog walkers, even willing neighbors, can be so helpful when you have a young puppy.  A normal work day is too long for a puppy to be home alone.  It needs a break or two at least throughout the day to potty, walk around outside and sniff, have a game, have some lunch, etc.  If you’re unable to come home at lunch to do this, or to take your puppy to work with you, please consider hiring someone to help you for awhile.

Begin when you bring your new puppy home.  Schedule some vacation time, or at the very least, bring your puppy home when you will have several days to spend with her with no trips out planned.  Decide ahead of time to spend those several days creating as relaxed and happy association with the puppy being alone as you can.  And then be sure to schedule yourself or someone else to come in at least once during the day when you return to work to let the puppy out and spend some time with her.  This could be a neighbor, family member or a hired pet sitter or walker. 

Have your puppy’s confinement area set up from the beginning and leave it accessible to the puppy all day long – if it is a crate, tie the door open so she can go in and out and explore as she wants.  If it is an ex pen or a gated room, leave the area open for puppy to wander in and out of at will.  Leave interesting things in the area that will encourage relaxation and calm, quiet behaviors – a bed, chew bones and even food-stuffed chew toys like Kongs.  If you notice your puppy being wild and crazy in that area, entice her to come out of the area to play.  That area is for relaxing and calm behaviors.

Puppies take lots of naps between play sessions.  When your puppy is just about asleep or is already sleeping, move her to the special area and let her sleep there undisturbed for her nap.  She will begin to learn by association to be relaxed in that area.  Stay nearby and be ready for puppy to wake up.  As soon as she wakes up, before she can realize she is confined and begins to cry, go to her calmly and take her outside to potty. 

Most important is to keep the times when your puppy is confined to very short, successful periods of time at this point.  During times when your puppy is calm and sleepy, you can sit in the confinement area with your puppy – keep things calm though, no wild games and play time.  You can sit and read a book or watch TV and allow her to settle down and sleep on her own.  Then it is a gradual process for you to sit next to the area – on the other side of a gate or pen – and then farther from the area. 

Gradually you can put puppy into the area a little sooner than normal so she has time to play calmly for a bit or chew a bone and she will learn to settle down on her own.  Stay nearby so you can intervene if you see her beginning to get upset.  Maybe just go into the area with her and sit calmly.  Then try stepping out again once she’s almost asleep. 

If you are crate training your puppy for bedtime, bring the crate into your bedroom and put it right next to the bed.  You can dangle an arm over the side of the bed to put your fingers in through the bars of the crate to provide contact to soothe your puppy, gradually withdrawing your hand as she learns to soothe herself to sleep.  Remember that your puppy will need to potty in the middle of the night.  If she makes a fuss and has been sleeping, get her outside quickly.  But don’t make this a time for games or treats or snuggles on the bed.  Keep the trip matter-of-fact, out and back in.  Upon coming back inside, puppy goes back in the crate. 

What always works best for me at this point is to pull my pillows down to the floor and lie right outside the crate door with it open just enough for me to slip my arm inside.  My body blocks the door from opening all the way and puppy coming out, but my arm inside allows the puppy to snuggle up and go back to sleep.  If puppy decides this is a great time to cut its teeth on your arm, just pull your arm out and press it up against the crate door so it is close but protected from puppy teeth.  As your puppy learns the routine, you will need to spend less and less time on the floor or with your arm in the crate to help her settle back down. 

Puppies cue off our breathing, yes even blind and deaf puppies!  So, keep your breathing calm and relaxed while you lie there, and keep your body relaxed and quiet.  This will help her know it is time to go back to sleep. 

It is a gradual process to teach a puppy to be calm and relaxed when left alone and/or confined.  Yes, this is a lot of work to do properly in the beginning.  It is just one of the aspects of having a puppy that requires a lot of commitment on our part in the beginning to set the puppy up for success for the rest of her life.  She is a baby and it is our job to pay close attention and set her up for success. 

Sunday, January 15, 2017

Having All The Answers

My last blog post got a lot of attention and comments, which is good.  That means it accomplished its purpose, which was to get your attention and get you started thinking.  Some comments focused on crate training, and while this concept certainly carries over to teaching a puppy to be comfortable in a crate, it is not exclusive to it.  My post was focused on teaching a puppy to accept separation, in whatever form that might be – behind a gate, in a puppy pen or room, in a crate, or just home roaming the house alone. 

My book Through A Dark Silence goes into how I start crate training for blind and deaf puppies (and other puppies as well). 

Some comments focused on why I didn’t give all the answers in my post.  While I have other posts planned to help offer suggestions, I wanted to first address the general idea and way of thinking.  The purpose of my post was not to give all the answers of how to do something.  Each individual situation and puppy is different.  Techniques and ideas are meant to be adjusted to meet each individual’s needs.  So, no matter what ideas and techniques I write about in my blog, they are not the only way or the only answer for each and every dog.  But those ideas can be adjusted to meet any dog’s needs.

Dog training is not about having all the answers.  Many of us have been teaching dogs (and other animals) for a long time.  We can never have all the answers.  There are always new possibilities to discover, ponder and try.  A wise person once told me – there are many answers to the same question.  But the problem is that we usually stop looking for the other answers when we find one that works.  That limits our learning and traps us in our box.  If we think that our answers are the only ones that are right and can work for a certain situation, we aren’t seeing the whole picture of many possibilities. 
If we remain open to learning and exploring new ideas, we can create a much better life for our dogs.  As we learn better ways, we can do better.  Just because an idea is not discovered yet, doesn’t mean it’s not an amazing one! 

Thursday, January 12, 2017

Just Let Him Cry It Out?

“Don’t go back to him if he cries.  No matter what you do, you must ignore him if he is barking or crying.  You will spoil him.  Don’t reward his crying.  Just let him cry it out.  He will eventually stop.” 

Have you ever heard this advice?  It seems to be pretty popular advice to give someone with a new puppy. 

Trainers may argue that going back to a crying puppy and giving it attention will reinforce the crying.  While there might be some truth in that statement, I don’t think much thought is normally given to the emotional cause of the crying in the first place, nor to the physiological changes that are happening to a puppy’s body and brain while he is crying. 

Yes, a puppy left to cry it out will eventually be quiet, but is that the best thing for the puppy?  Can letting the puppy cry it out lead to problems with anxiety down the road? Is there a better way?

I'd like to propose a different perspective about teaching a puppy to stay by itself.

Let’s talk about getting a new puppy.  Let's think about his first day leaving his mother and littermates, and that safe puppy pen.  Everything he had known up until this day had been comfortable and safe for him.  He was never alone.  He always had the comfort of others around him.  Taking him away from that safety and security is a major life change for him.  He is stressed and looking for his mom and littermates, and the sense of safety he had known.  Very quickly that sense of safety begins to transfer to the person who is caring for him.  

Is it really necessary for a puppy to learn that very first day how to be alone?  When he already feels terribly alone and wants to cling to the new person in his life so he feels safe?

Vinny feeling very safe in his confinement area.  

Staying alone and learning self confidence should be a gradual process.  Puppies who cry are distressed. They don't cry unless they have a reason to cry.  They aren't crying to keep you up at night.  They aren't crying to annoy you or to interrupt your favorite TV show.  They are scared and alone and they feel vulnerable.  They are calling out for someone to care for them and comfort them, and to help them feel safe.

Puppy brains are always learning.  Do we want our puppy's brain to learn and develop from a place of fear or panic (fight or flight), or from a place of trust and safety?  

I hear often about people who let their puppy cry and howl for an hour (or more) until it begins to quiet down.  Each minute that goes by increases that puppy's stress, anxiety and fear.  I have to wonder if letting a puppy cry it out and become more and more upset until it is exhausted may contribute to separation anxiety behaviors later in life?  It is something to ponder. 

I want to teach my puppies to have the capacity to self calm, so they are able to settle down on their own. To a puppy, being left alone must be a scary feeling.  He is unable to take care of himself, and the group of others he’s always been with has helped to keep him safe.  He may feel vulnerable.  He may become hypervigilant, watching everything to see if it is a threat.  

Puppies very quickly form emotional associations with the situations around them. Spending so much time learning that being alone is scary and stressful can't be good for staying by himself later on. These are not feelings we really want our puppy to associate with being left alone at home or with being in a confined space, are they?
It is a process to teach a dog to calm itself.  It is not something you can just throw at him all at once and expect him to get used to and understand that all is well.  Expecting a puppy to just cope with it and get used to it is very stressful for him.  Puppy is calling to you to help him and you don’t come.  Does this build trust in your new relationship?  Puppy doesn’t understand why the rules have suddenly changed. 

Perhaps this is how it's always been done - letting him cry it out.  Or perhaps it worked for a puppy we had a long time ago, so we are sure it is the best way to do it.  Or maybe you know someone with a dog and it worked for them, so you're sure it will work for you and your puppy.  But don't we owe it to our puppies to consider them as individuals?  To do all we can to build their trust and their confidence that we understand what they're communicating to us?  Sometimes we do need to think outside of our box ...