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.

Jolanta Benal, CPDT-KA, CBCC-KA
5-minute read
Episode #221

A listener, Elena, writes:

“I have a 6-month-old puppy, Wilbur, with major separation anxiety. He did very well in his beginning obedience class, so we decided to continue his education. At the start of the intermediate class he was doing beautifully, but when we got to the 'sit-stay-out of sight,' he completely freaked out. Now any time I say 'sit; stay,”'he refuses to do it. I know that the separation anxiety has a lot to do with it; any ideas on how to get him past this hurdle? I’m planning to repeat the class.”

This week: How can Elena get Wilbur to sit and stay when she’s out of sight? And should she?


To begin with, props to Elena for taking classes with Wilbur – many a pet dog’s brain is left to idle, and boredom seems to be just as much a misery to our dogs as it is to us. But it might not be a good idea to repeat this particular class just now. I’ll explain why, and I’ll also give Elena some alternative ideas that should be fun for both her and her canine partner.

I’ll assume that Wilbur’s diagnosis of separation anxiety is correct – and his reaction to the out-of-sight stay exercise is what I’d expect from a dog who panics when left alone or when separated from some particular person or persons. Let’s analyze what probably happened when Elena tried to teach Wilbur to sit and stay while she was out of sight.  

What Went Wrong

Elena gives Wilbur his cue to sit and stay. Given that the class has gotten to the point of working out of sight, Wilbur’s had plenty of practice and he knows the cue cold. He sits; he stays sitting. In his earlier lessons he has, I hope, been well rewarded for the sit-stay. Learners rewarded for their success usually enjoy the work. But what happens this time? Wilbur sits; he stays; Elena leaves. And it’s not that she’s 10 feet or 20 feet away but still around; she’s out of sight. She’s gone.

From the point of view of learning science, Wilbur’s sit-stay has just been punished, and punished hard. And the mark of a real punishment is that it works fast – one rep, two reps, maybe three, and the behavior you’re punishing is killed dead. This is one of several factors that make punishment so tricky to use when you’re training your dog, by the way. If you don’t punish hard enough, you don’t kill the behavior you’re trying to get rid of. Your dog keeps doing it and you keep trying to punish it effectively – which means you’re repeatedly hurting and/or scaring her, but to no purpose. Eeew.

Elena and Wilbur’s experience also illustrates another important feature of punishment. Elena obviously didn’t mean to distress or punish Wilbur for his sit-stay! But Wilbur’s distress made her “disappearance” a punishment for him. Elena’s intentions don’t count. The other side of this coin sometimes appears when people try to punish dogs for jumping by squirting them with water. Some dogs hate it, but other dogs think it’s a party game. The human’s intention to punish them might as well not exist.


About the Author

Jolanta Benal, CPDT-KA, CBCC-KA

Jolanta holds professional certifications in both training and behavior counseling and belongs to the Association of Professional Dog Trainers and the International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants. She also volunteered with Pet Help Partners, a program of the Humane Society of the United States that works to prevent pet relinquishment. Her approach is generally behaviorist (Pavlovian, Skinnerian and post-Skinnerian learning theory) with a big helping of ethology (animal behavior as observed in non-experimental settings).