Curing Separation Anxiety by Understanding a Dog's Feelings of Attraction & Resistance
Everything in the universe is geared toward seeking out connections with some other facet of existence. From sub-atomic particles on up to the need some of us feel to log on to Facebook each morning, the entire universe is about making connections. The underlying theme of how these connections get made - whether it’s the way sodium and chlorine atoms hook up to produce salt, how a bloodhound sniffs a criminal’s trail, or how two people find each other across a crowded room – it’s about physical, chemical, magnetic, or emotional attraction.
Things can’t form connections without experiencing some form of attraction, whether it’s purely physical (the way a jellyfish is attracted to its prey), or purely emotional (the way a dog is attracted to other dogs he meets on his walks or at the dog park). It’s pretty easy to see a dog’s feeling of attraction manifest when he pulls on the leash to get to another dog, or when he chases a squirrel, or jumps up on a person he likes.
The flip side of emotional attraction—emotional resistance—isn’t as clear cut, but can be seen vividly in the difference between the way a dog pulls toward an object of attraction along a straight line as opposed to taking a more circular approach. In my view, the curvature indicates that the dog’s feeling of attraction has met some form of resistance, either internal or external. In fact, if the resistance is strong enough, the dog won’t dog even look at it or acknowledge the so-called object of attraction.
Biologists talk about approach and avoidance, which are behaviors. Attraction and resistance are emotional states. A dog can sometimes be seen approaching someone while having very strong feelings of resistance toward that person, i.e., approaching very slowly, with the head and tail hung low. A dog can also have a strong attraction for something and hold perfectly still, not approaching it at all, as when he’s stalking something.
One of the rules I follow in training is that when using games like fetch or tug to elicit an obedience behavior, I always quit before the dog starts to get tired or bored. This is very important because what starts out as a pleasurable learning experience can quickly become the opposite, which will result in slower response time, and may even devolve into a general lack of interest in listening or obeying at all.
How can you tell when the dog is starting to get tired or bored?
I recommend studying Turid Rugaas's “calming signals,” a kind of encyclopedia of a dog’s behavioral postures and micro-expressions. Rugaas sees these “signals” as being produced with the conscious intent by one dog to communicate his intent to another dog or person. Since dogs produce these behaviors when people and other dogs can’t see them, I tend to think of these micro-expressions as “tells,” the kind of postures and micro-expressions poker players read when in their opponents when trying to determine whether they’re bluffing. In my experience, canine tells can be successfully used to determine whether a dog is feeling more resistance than attraction in any given situation.
So one way to determine when a dog is getting tired or bored with a game goes back to the difference between a straight line and a curve. If Fido chases the ball ten times, and brings it directly back each time, in a straight line, it means he’s still emotionally invested in the game. If, on the eleventh throw, he begins to come back in a more curved fashion—no matter how subtle the difference—his interest has started to wane, his heart is no longer in the game, and it’s time to take a break. (In fact, it’s better to take a break just before you see the dog’s interest start to wane.)
Of course, we could interpret this energetic decline in any number of ways. The dog is simply tired. The dog’s sense of smell is starting to override his joy in playing, etc. But I think it’s extremely helpful to be able to interpret canine behavior through the lens of attraction and resistance, which are properties of emotional physics rather than through intent.
A few years ago I had a student from Hoboken, New Jersey. She’s very smart. She has a degree in chemistry, and at the time she worked in one of the labs at a prestigious hospital on the East Side of Manhattan. She was also a dog walker, who wanted to learn my approach to dog training so she could help some of the dogs she walked be more relaxed and happy, and less nervous, aggressive, or fearful.
We were in Frank Sinatra park working on the stay exercise with a dog named Lexi, a shiba inu mix weighing about 35 lbs., who suffered from separation anxiety. When my student began doing the first stay exercise, Lexi held his position very well, but couldn’t look at her. I saw this is one of Lexi’s tells. He was physically obeying the command, but he was also feeling a deep, emotional resistance. So I suggested we stop working on the stay for the time being, and focus on an exercise designed to build Lexi’s feelings of attraction. In briefest terms, I held Lexi’s leash and had my student walk away—about fifty feet or so—and hide behind a tree.
Lexi was now very interested in my student. Why had she disappeared? Where had she gone? Then his desire to re-connect intensified. He started whining, and pulling on the leash. When those feelings were at their peak, I let go of the leash. My student called him, using a high, happy voice, then ran away, encouraging him to chase her.
He raced toward her with all his might, and did so in a straight line: no resistance, just pure attraction. But then, for some reason, the old resistance showed up again, and his path curved toward a tree, which he immediately peed on.
This was very interesting because Lexi’s separation anxiety manifest primarily as urinating when he was left alone in the house. (His owners refused to crate him because he would go ballistic.) So, when I saw him “leave his mark” on that tree I realized why he’d been peeing on the carpet: all the love he felt for his owners, all the feelings trapped inside, had to flow out, and the only way he felt able to connect to his people when they were gone, was to pee on the carpet.
My student interpreted it this way:
“Lexi feels an immense void inside. And in order to connect this energy, he pees. And he pees in the part of the house that has an emotional charge to it, the living room where the family hangs out, where the family plays and laughs. It’s also possible he likes the carpet, how it makes him feel, because he likes to rub his body on it. But I think it also has his owner's scent and their vibration, a family vibration."
When Lexi’s owners leave him alone, he feels their absence deeply. This produces high levels of anxiety, perhaps even panic, which carries with it a very real feeling of physical pressure, causing him to tremble and panic. He’s learned that the best way to get rid of these uncomfortable feelings is to release the tension they produce by emptying his bladder. Some dogs with separation anxiety release tension through their throats by barking, others release it through their teeth and jaws by chewing on the carpet or furniture, and still others release it with their paws by digging at the carpet, or scratching frantically at the front door. But in all cases, the underlying dynamic starts with feelings of emotional pressure and stress that the dog can’t resolve in a normal way. So he finds a form of release which both feels pleasurable and enables him to momentarily feel a connection with his owners. (Of course the owners see it in a completely different light.)
At any rate, once I’d seen that Lexi had trouble running toward my student with no resistance, even in mid-chase, I suggested we bring him back to where we’d started, come down to Lexi’s level and just lie on the grass, and start doing some very gentle teasing and pushing games, the kind puppies do to initiate play with a littermate. We even nuzzled his body with our faces
We did this for a while, and then my student, sensing Lexi's desire to play, asked if she should take Lexi's favorite toy, Mr. Foxy, out of her bag, to see if he'd play tug outdoors with her, something he'd never done before (indoors, yes; outdoors, no).
So she took the toy and teased Lexi with it, dancing it around his face, then pulling it away to pique his interest, i.e., build up his attraction for it. And after about 30 seconds Lexi began playing tug outdoors.
Did learning to play tug-of-war outdoors with his owners, cure Lexi’s separation anxiety completely? No, but it was a turning point. There’s a lot of stuff that Lexi still feels, under the surface. So it’s going to take some time to make him feel safe enough to let go of those feelings. But playing tug with Mr. Foxy in Frank Sinatra park that chilly Sunday was a pretty good start.
“Life Is an Adventure—Where Will Your Dog Take You?”
PS: I saw Lexi again last Sunday. I was sitting on a bench at the entrance to the park. As soon as he saw me he got very happy. Melissa released his leash, knowing he would come directly toward me. He did, but halfway to me he started feeling the old resistance, and his trajectory began to curve.
So I got “small,” hunched my shoulders together, ducked my head, and made myself seem as non-threatening as possible, considering how big I must have seemed to the little guy. Then I spoke to him in a high, silly voice, and his trajectory returned to its previous happy, straight line.
I'm telling you, understanding how dogs feel and express attraction and resistance is very important. In fact it may be one of the most important aspects of dog training.