How to avoid separation anxiety in puppies.


Or ‘The creation of a visual cue that tells your dog you are currently unavailable, regardless of whether present or absent’…

For some dogs, we need a way to tell them that we aren’t available, we are boring and uninteresting and therefore there is no point bothering us.

This can be useful for dogs with separation anxiety, and for dogs who need to learn to calm down in the house due to previously learned attention-seeking behaviours*.

Dogs form associations between visual cues and our behaviour all the time, they are doing it constantly and this is how they know what’s going to happen before it does, it’s how they get excited for a walk when you have simply walked to the hook the lead is on, or start the dinner dance when you close your laptop and say ‘right then’ and head to the kitchen.

We can, if we are careful and clever about it, use this to our advantage!

Find a hat, or scarf (you can use other items, traffic cone on the coffee table, beachball hung off the light fittings, but a hat or scarf is convenient, cheap and portable), one that fits the following criteria.

  1. Your dog has never seen it before.
  2. It is of a colour they can actually perceive
  3. It changes your outline slightly, so they are aware of the difference between you wearing it and not wearing it.
  4. They are not scared of it.

The rules of ‘hatting’ are as follows:

* When you wear the hat, there is no dog. No eye contact, no talk, no touch**.

* Hat goes on and off without any link to the dog's behaviour.

* IF your dog has some sort of urgent need, you must remove the hat and deal with the dog's need in a way that looks like the two events are not related, so the dog never thinks you stopped hatting as a result of his behaviour.

To introduce hatting, ideally, you’ll have already spotted some sedentary or at least, stationary behaviour from you that your dog tends to assume means you aren’t available for attention. Things like ironing, playing on your phone, and using the computer will often meet these criteria.

If you already have something like that, simply wear the hat whilst you do it, remembering to remove the hat before you finish doing whatever it is.

If you do NOT have such a set-up already, or can’t identify one, the best thing to do is hat whilst reading a magazine (so your hands are occupied and you are clearly doing something). DO not hat by sitting staring into space, as your dog will find that weird and creepy and possibly be a bit upset!

The goal is that when you hat, your dog does not try to get attention from you and gradually learns he cannot get attention from you, without ever really needing to. This should look like nothing is really happening in the initial stages.

Very occasionally you’ll get a dog who will try to get your attention (most likely in attention seekers rather than separation anxiety cases), as long as you are not building frustration or distress by ignoring, carry on. If you think there is the slightest chance you are building frustration or distress, stop, time sessions for a shorter duration, and re-evaluate as there’s the possibility that this method is not suitable for your dog right now.

Once you get past the initial stages and you think your dog has grasped that you wearing the hat = unavailable (you should have a relaxed dog who has taken himself off to do his own thing, sleep, chew a toy etc) you can start to add in other hatting situations. So if you initially hatted whilst on the laptop, you may now try hatting whilst watching tv, or hatting whilst ironing, or hatting whilst reading a book in the kitchen.

Gradually add more hatting situations, OR increase the duration but don’t do both at once, take it steady!

Hatting can be VERY good for dogs who assume that when you go out they are missing out on a fun trip, and also great for dogs who can see you leave once you are outside your property. Once they understand the hat = no attention/this activity is not for you, it transfers quite well to you leaving… you were unavailable anyway, so there’s no cause for frustration!

It rarely works all by itself however, so you will have to work on absence duration, desensitisation or counter conditioning to leaving triggers as well as employing ‘hatting’, but it can be a useful tool in your toolkit!

* Attention-seeking behaviour should be taken seriously and not treated as if the dog is bad or wrong, dogs seeking attention are dogs that are not getting either the right amount of attention or the right kind of attention!

** You are NOT really ignoring your dog, he just thinks you are, this is not about ignoring a dog's genuine need or distress, ever.

Categories: Separation Anxiety