It’s my last week in San Francisco. As I prepare to leave, I am wrapping up work with clients here. The final client came to me with separation anxiety (SA) — a classic problem. The solution is not complicated, but it requires perseverance and effort. So here is the protocol.
To start with, we teach the dog to learn a little a gesture that calms him/ her down. As part of a study in Norway called the Dog Pulse project, we strapped a heart rate monitor on dogs to see the effect of our communication on them.
We discovered that this there was this little gesture that, without any “training”, told a dog to calm down and lowered his/her heart rate down. It’s the simple act of showing the palm of the hand to the dog in a calming way. It’s imperative that there is no vocal contact, eye contact or physical contact during this gesture. That means, don’t touch the dog, don’t give commands, don’t say anything and don’t look at the dog. (
The most effective way to start using the signal is when getting up from a seated position. Each time you get up, irrespective of whether the dog is looking at you or not, is awake of not, just show your palm to the dog as you get up and walk away. The effect of this little gesture on the heart rate of the dog is nothing short of miraculous. Do this as many times as possible on day 1.
On day 2, graduate to using the signal when going in and out of all doors. The particular instance where it makes most sense is when you are likely to come out of that door soon and your dog has learnt to expect your quick return. Good examples would be when you are going to the bathroom or going to get a drink of water. Use the hand signal.
On day 3, start using the signal through all doors and make it a universal symbol for all to use in the house. By now, it should have become a habit to use the signal when getting up and leaving through any door.
At this point you must solicit the help of a friend or a relative to start the SA protocol. The dog should not be left alone for any period of time while you work through this protocol. Hire a pet sitter if required.
Start by using the signal and opening the main door of the house, looking outside and shutting the door. Do that about 10 times in one day. Once that has been nailed, use the signal, open the main door, step out and step back in. Do that as many times as it takes for your dog to lose interest in the exercise. You are now ready to go to the next step.
The next step involves shutting the main door behind you after you exit. Shut the door for very short periods – say 2 seconds to start with. Then graduate to 5 seconds, 10 seconds, 20 seconds, 40 seconds, 1 minute, 2 minute, 5 minutes and so on. At this point, I will remind you again that there should be absolutely NO eye contact, vocal contact or physical contact. When you return, you can repeat the hand signal. But skip the exuberant greetings. If your dog panics, go back a few steps, linger there a little longer and try again. It takes time, but once you hit 5 minutes, you will move fast and you now have the hang of it. Best of luck.