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High-Tech Solutions For Your Dog's Separation Anxiety

Is online dog coaching the future of separation anxiety training?

by Tracy Krulik, CTC, CSAT
August 27, 2016
African American man with braids sitting on his bed using his computer with his dog next to him also looking at the computer

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Desperate for a way to help Emma with her separation anxiety, I brought in multiple dog trainers, consulted four vets, cooked her food from scratch, gave her interactive food toys, and played calming music. I even hired a doggie masseuse. Results?

Not only did Emma not stop barking, pacing, and urinating on the floor and couch every time I left, but she started chewing on the door frame. Her separation anxiety was getting worse, and I needed to find a solution, stat. As it turned out, the answer had been with me all along: on my computer.

The Shift Toward Online Dog Training

Malena DeMartini — a California-based dog trainer and graduate of the Academy for Dog Trainers under the guidance of Jean Donaldson — has focused solely on separation anxiety cases. Over time, she has become one of the leading experts (if not the leading expert) on the condition. By using technology (smartphones, tablets, laptops, cameras), she is also transforming the way dogs, in general, are trained.

DeMartini and the 20-plus separation-anxiety trainers she has certified do not work with clients in person. Instead, they do the job online: meet via apps such as Zoom or FaceTime, create and share spreadsheets so clients know exactly how to train their dogs each day, and even review video footage with clients to teach them how to read their dogs’ body language. Training online also offsets the complication of bringing someone into the home when the goal is to help the dog handle time alone.

She began online separation anxiety training in 2008, saving her time and energy and, more importantly, allowing her to observe a dog in real time. Rather than review what went on after the fact, she could modify the training protocol online as the behavior was in progress.

Creating an Individualized Separation Anxiety Plan

Working with one of DeMartini’s trainers, Caryn Liles, who lives in Toronto, we began our online training sessions. I stacked books on a chair facing the front door and set my MacBook on top while Liles observed Emma while I walked outside. The tiny pup had a threshold of 10 seconds — meaning Emma could only handle being alone in the house for 10 seconds. That was our starting point.

Until completing the separation anxiety protocol, Emma can only be left alone in the house during her training sessions. “The first goal is to teach the dog, “Hey, you know what? You’re okay for a full second of being left alone, or three seconds,” DeMartini says. “And once they get to that point, they’re like, The sky didn’t fall! Amazing!” The training wouldn’t work if their pet parent then drove away and caught a two-hour movie.

My husband and I have recruited friends and pet sitters to keep Emma company when we’re both out. (For dogs who enjoy spending time with other pups, doggie daycare can be a great option; unfortunately, Emma’s not a fan.)

The morning following that assessment meeting, I logged into Google Spreadsheets to find “Mission One,” a series of 12 exercises that started with the following:

  1. Open front door one inch, close it, return.

  2. Stand outside the front door for one second, return.

  3. Open the door one inch, close it, return.

  4. Stand outside for one second, return.

  5. Turn door handle, return.

At the start of each exercise, I grabbed my keys and purse from the kitchen and then put them back upon my return. I was instructed to wait 60 to 90 seconds between each exercise, at which time I would type into the spreadsheet a description of Emma’s behavior during my absence and what her recovery looked like.

While outside, I watch Emma on my iPhone through a camera mounted above the fireplace. If you have multiple smartphones or tablets, another option is to use an app that turns one device into a video camera and allows you to watch on another.

Making Quick Progress

Each day, Liles reviews the previous mission and then creates a new one based on the results. We repeated Mission One for seven days before graduating to five whole seconds out the door in Mission Two.

“I teach a dog to be relaxed in incredibly small increments,” DeMartini says about her training protocol. “People initially have a sort of pushback, if you will, like, ‘Oh my gosh, we’re starting with one second? What? This is crazy! It’s gonna be the year 2037 before I ever leave my dog!’”

Thankfully, it doesn’t take a decade for most dogs to be desensitized to being alone, although some dogs need medication to help them relax enough to succeed, and some, unfortunately, can never get past their fear. Most of DeMartini’s clients complete training somewhere in the three- to six-month range (meaning the dog can handle being alone for four or five hours). DeMartini hesitates to give time estimates, however. Each dog is different, and anxiety level does not necessarily predict speed.

Training Emma on her separation anxiety fears is also improving her fears in other areas too. By not losing it every time the front door creaks open, Emma has gained confidence overall. She no longer cocks an ear and furrows her brow when a construction crew bangs outside or televised gunshots ring out in surround sound. And rather than shake in terror in the car, Emma now sticks her nose to the window opening. When I glance over at Emma, flopped on her side napping peacefully in a sun patch on the rug, I know that we’re making progress.

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Tracy Krulik, CTC, CSAT

Tracy Krulik, CTC, CSAT, is a Northern Virginia-based certified canine separation anxiety trainer and honors graduate of Jean Donaldson’s prestigious Academy for Dog Trainers. Krulik is also the founder and managing editor of iSpeakDog — a website and public awareness campaign to teach dog body language and behavior.