Treating Separation Anxiety, Part 4.
Is it Time to Add Pushing and Collecting to Your Separation Anxiety Protocols?
“Fear is the collapse of a state of attraction. And because a dog doesn’t discriminate between physical and emotional equilibrium [feelings of] territoriality, phobias, possessiveness, owner addiction, separation anxiety, dominance, submission, all invoke the fear of falling.” —Kevin Behan
The Anxious Angelino
A few years ago a woman who had just moved to New York from Los Angeles, called to ask if I could provide doggie day care for her intact seven-year old bichon frise, Kobe. She was studying at NYU and had a very full schedule. Since the dog had a tendency to cry a lot when left alone, she wondered if being with other dogs would help.
“If he has separation anxiety,” I told her, “it’s not about needing to have other dogs to pal around with. It’s about fear, which is felt in the body as a feeling of falling. He feels that way because without you there to project his emotions onto he feels like he’s had the ‘rug pulled out from under him,’ so to speak.” She didn’t understand what I meant by any of that so I said, “Well, let’s try it and see what happens…”
It turned out that whenever Kobe stayed with me, and the other dogs, his separation anxiety was much less pronounced than when his owner left him alone in her apartment. He still exhibited symptoms. Whenever I left him and the other dogs alone in my apartment he would shriek, and cry, and wail as if in terrible pain. Fortunately, he would stop as soon as I got to the lobby and he heard the doors of my building close. Likewise, as soon as he heard me coming up the stairs when I came home he would also cry and shriek and moan. And when I came inside I would always find that his wee-wee pads were soaked with urine.
But even though Kobe was still anxious this was a better outcome than what sometimes happened when his owner was left him home alone in her apartment. He’d actually been hospitalized several times due to severe intestinal distress.
Since being around the other dogs seemed to have a positive effect on Kobe’s separation anxiety, his owner and I decided to see if his symptoms lessened as he got more and more used to hanging out with the other dogs. And that seemed to be the case. There were days when his crying was much less pronounced than on other days, just as there were some days when the wee-wee pads weren’t soaked through.
Still, this was not an optimal outcome. So one day I decided to show Kobe’s owner how to do two of the core exercises of Natural Dog Training: the Pushing and Collecting Exercises.
The Pushing Exercise
In the Pushing Exercise you hand-feed a dog all his meals outdoors in a specific way:
1) While the the dog is either seated or standing on a platform of some kind—a ledge, a picnic table, etc.—you grab a handful of food with your non-dominant hand and show it to the dog.
2) Then you close your hand and say, “Wait…” then put your “food hand” under the dog’s chin.
3) Then you cup your other hand close to the dog’s chest without putting any pressure on it.
4) Then you say, “Ready…?” then open your hand and let the dog eat.
5) While he’s eating you put your other hand firmly cupped against the dog’s chest and pull your “food hand” back so that the dog has to push into your other hand while he’s eating.
Over time you want to be able to get the dog so motivated to eat out of your hand this way that he’ll be up on his back legs, pushing as hard as he can into your other hand, which is cupped against his chest.
This works to resolve all sorts of behavioral issues (not just separation anxiety), because fear = feeling off balance while eating = pleasure.
The Collecting Exercise
In The Pushing Exercise a dog is projecting his energy forward, into you. In the collecting exercise the dog learns to gather his energy onto his haunches in a very pleasurable down position, the kind most dogs exhibit, on their own, when they want to get comfortable.
1) Have the dog sit.
2) Show him a handful of treats, cupping your hand so the dog can see the treats but can’t get at them the way he would if your hand were open.
3) Move your hand and wrist in a fluttering manner, as if your hand were a wounded bird.
4) Move your hand from side-to-side around and slightly behind your dog’s snout, praising him.
5) As he follows the movements of your hand, let it go further and further past his snout.
6) Start moving your hand closer to the ground, motivating the dog to lie down. Keep the fluttering motion going until the dog settles onto one hip or the other.
7) As soon as he’s settled on one of his haunches, praise him and let him take the food.
I had Kobe’s owner do these exercises with him every day.
After three days something very interesting—and quite wonderful—happened. Whenever I left my apartment Kobe either didn’t react at all, or at worst only gave out a couple of whimpers. Whenever I came home I didn’t hear him vocalizing as I came up the stairs. And once I got inside I found that the wee-wee pads either held only one or two patches of urine or that they hadn’t been peed on at all.
If you’re unfamiliar with the principles of Natural Dog Training this will probably make no sense to you. But remember what Kevin and I have said about fear: it’s always about feeling a sudden loss of balance or equilibrium. These exercises are specifically designed to help dogs feel more balanced, both physically and emotionally.
In the first case (pushing) the dog is put in a physical position where he’s deliberately put off-balance but is a) regaining his balance with the help of your hand cupped against his chest and b) is eating at the same time. In the second case (collecting), the dog almost automatically goes into a very pleasurable physical position where he’s collected all of his physical and emotional energy onto his haunches.
But don’t take my word for it. Try it for yourself and see what happens.
“Life Is and Adventure—Where Will Your Dog Take You?”