This is a long blog!
I think separation anxiety is one of the most challenging dog behaviours to live with. Not being able to leave your home without worrying about your dog or worrying about your home is challenging. It is not uncommon for people to be stressed, and worried and angry or resentful. After all, this was not on your list of things you sought when you decided to add a dog to your family. The whys and wherefores of what separation anxiety is will be the subject of a different blog (stay tuned). This blog is about the myths and boy, are there some myths out there. Dr. Google and friends or family will have no shortage of advice for you. This often adds to your guilt and frustration. Unfortunately, while well-intentioned, at best some of the advice may not be helpful and some, well, some is just downright harmful.
As is the case with most dog training, the first answer is ‘it depends’. What I mean by this that each dog is different and some of the myths presented here may just work well for ‘your’ dog. But in my experience as someone who works with separation anxiety is that for most dogs, these approaches will not work and may just make your situation worse. While pursuing these avenues you are wasting time and money and you and your dog are continuing to suffer.
What is it with muzzles that gets people upset? If I suggest to a client that we get their dog comfortable with wearing a muzzle, it is almost always met with resistance. There is such a stigma with a dog wearing a muzzle. Immediately people think that your dog must be aggressive. To the uninformed, even a dog wearing a head harness can lead a person to think that dog must be aggressive.
As a trainer, I know that there are situations where a muzzle could be necessary. I have three dogs. These dogs range from being super comfortable with being handled to tolerating it. And that’s handling by me. If they were being handled by someone they were less comfortable with such as our vet or a groomer, could their response be different? You bet! What if they were in pain? Of course, and would you blame them. It is not like they can say ‘ouch that hurts’. So, they may snap or growl. It’s how they communicate. Now if they were injured it is not like you can just ignore that, so the vet will need to muzzle them. It is a safety issue. In the interests of treating the injury, the dog would be restrained and a muzzle would be put on them. This is not how I want my dogs to be introduced to the muzzle. This would add another stressor to an already scary and stressful situation. It certainly won’t help them with the association with the vet for future visits.
So, I muzzle train them.
There are some perfect dogs out there. You may have seen them. Walking politely on leash, checking in with their handler or stopping what they are doing and immediately coming when called. In some cases, genetics may play a role. Lucky owner if that is the case. For the most part, that perfect dog is the result of an incredible investment in time, effort and dedication in building the relationship and investing in the training to make the perfection seem effortless. Just like the smoothness of a duck gliding across the water belies the effort happening below the surface.
So many things go into the 'Perfect Dog'. There are no short cuts. Hard work, training and practice. So much practice in lots of different places. Persistence to work through those inevitable plateaus.
This is a question I get a lot. My answer is always a resounding ‘Yes’, but there must be rules for the game. One of my dogs loves a good game of tug. She is also very vocal. She will growl and bark, all in the spirit of the game. This just adds to her enjoyment. She has her special tug toy which she runs and gets if she thinks we are up for the game. If she gets a bit over aroused the game stops, so she learns to keep things in check. Tug is an excellent impulse control game. I don’t recommend playing tug with puppies for two reasons. Firstly, they haven’t got their adult teeth yet so we don’t want to hurt their mouth and secondly, they are still working on impulse control so they won’t understand the rules until they are a bit older.
Don't believe me, check out this excerpt from Pat Miller's book "Play with Your Dog".
"The game of Tug has an undeserved bad rap in some training circles, while others, most notably the Agility world, have fully embraced it as an excellent activity to create focus and high arousal. Those two extremes aside, it's a great game just because it's fun, many dogs adore it, it's the perfect play activity for human family members who might otherwise want to get in appropriately physical with the dog and it's a terrific energy-burner.
Suzanne Clothier has this great quote, “If you are hanging on to your dog’s body, it’s because you’ve lost his mind”. I love this quote because it is transferrable to so many aspects of dog training. Can you say that your dog is well-trained if they only listen to you when they are attached to you? If they sit when you tug on their leash or put pressure on their hind end or get them to stop pulling because you give them a leash correction. Are they trained or are they complying because they want to avoid the pain of a correction? You might argue that they are trained because they are doing what you ask of them and you may be right. The real test is when there is no leash or when your dog is too far away to physically correct. Then what? Are they still trained? It is more difficult to argue that they are in this scenario.
For me, the sign of a well-trained dog is a dog that listens to me. He doesn’t have to be engaged with me all the time, but when I say his name he looks to me seeking further instructions. This can only come through training that builds a relationship. I don’t want or need my dogs to be perfect. I love my dogs for who they are and want them to be dogs. That doesn’t mean that there aren’t rules and boundaries. Instead of being a dictator, I prefer to be the benevolent leader. Coaching and guiding them. If my dogs aren’t responding to me, it is not their fault. The fault resides with me.