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Case Study: When Separation Anxiety Collides with “Stay”

A dog has separation anxiety. He is taught to sit and stay on cue. But once his handler goes out of sight, he freaks. What next? The Dog Trainer is on the case.

By
Jolanta Benal, CPDT-KA, CBCC-KA,
November 19, 2013
Episode #221

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A Poisoned Cue

Presumably, Wilbur used to be happy to hear the cue “Sit; stay,” because he’d learned that it signaled a chance to get a treat if he sat and stayed. Another example is the dog who sits happily when you pick up her leash to clip it on. She has learned to expect a pleasant result – namely, a walk. But now, from Wilbur’s point of view, “Sit; stay” means that if he sits and stays, Elena will go away. For a dog with real separation anxiety, no treat will trump that horror. “Sit; stay” is now what trainers call a “poisoned cue.” That’s why he refuses to do it anymore. To get Wilbur to sit and stay at all now, Elena will need to re-teach the behavior using a different cue.

As for sitting and staying while she goes out of sight, I have two thoughts:

One, Wilbur’s separation anxiety needs to be resolved first. If it isn’t, then when Elena works her way back up to the out-of-sight sit-stay with a different cue, she’s likely to get exactly the same result she did this time. Some behavior modification programs for separation anxiety include teaching the dog to stay while the guardian goes out of sight, but in that context the practice would need to be broken down into much tinier increments than it does in the context of teaching a non-anxious dog.

Two, why bother? The out-of-sight stay is a feature of formal obedience competition, but I rarely (if ever) use it in ordinary life with a pet dog. I can’t think of any time when it would be wise to leave my dog out of my view in a public place, with or without instructions not to move. And if you need your dog not to enter a particular room at home, say while a workman is busy there, why not just crate him or use a baby gate or a closed door?

Varieties of Educational Experience

Elena can certainly take the class again if she and Wilbur would enjoy it! But, as Wilbur’s caretaker and protector, she should explain to the instructor why the out-of-sight stay is a bad idea for him just now. Perhaps the instructor can suggest a different exercise for Wilbur to learn.

Or Elena could look into some of the many other options for fun and learning with her dog. She could take a trick-training class with him, maybe even get him his Trick Dog certificate. More and more trainers are offering scenting game classes. The official sport is called K9 Nosework, but you don’t have to be official to have a good time partnering with your dog as he learns how to find and signal hidden items marked with scents.

Another relative newcomer on the doggy sporting scene is Treibball, in which dogs push giant balls one by one into a goal. It’s a variation on sheepherding, for those of us without access to sheep. My colleague Bob Ryder has hosted an episode of The Dog trainer about dock diving – admittedly, not the winter sport of choice for those of us living above a certain latitude. And then there’s that old standby, agility.

That’s all for this week. Thanks for reading! As always, you can write to me at dogtrainer@quickanddirtytips.com. I get so many questions that I can’t respond individually, but check out past episodes at quickanddirtytips.com/dog-trainer – I might already have answered yours. And please visit me on Facebook, where I’m The Dog Trainer.

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