Separation Anxiety – The Myths

I should know better by now than to read articles in journals which claim to have ‘experts’ writing about dog behaviors and how to resolve them.

The lack of real knowledge and understanding is astounding…and infuriating.

This serves to remind me that very few people have truly studied canine behavior in a meaningful way; ways which would put the canine’s perspective front-and-center rather than continue to promote human projections that do nothing but disservice to dogs and continue to make matters worse by continually disseminating wrong information.

The most recent piece of misinformation I skimmed (cringing while doing so, dreading what I would read) was about Separation Anxiety, something that has become very common over the last 50 years or so in our domestic dogs. The cause has everything to do with our human behaviors and interactions with our dogs, which have devolved (won’t say ‘evolved’ since it is truly a deterioration in behaving correctly and kindly with them) into seeing and treating the dog as if they were children.

The author stated Separation Anxiety occurs because “the dog hates to be alone” and that just thirty years ago, “Mom stayed at home all day while Dad went off to work, so dogs were less exposed to isolation…”

Hmm…so are they saying as an entire species, dogs ALL had someone at home with them all the time? So the majority of them now exhibit SA as a result of no “Mom” at home?

That’s just silly and I don’t know about you, but this statement is rather sexist and, in my own experience, isn’t correct at all. Thirty years (and more) ago dogs were left to their own devices, allowed out in the morning to wander and do their own thing, coming back later to eat and to be safe in the home at night. That situation was much more common than any kind of “Donna Reed” or “Father Knows Best” lifestyle.

Even if one parent did stay at home, the dog was given free reign to come and go as they liked and it wasn’t questioned by the humans. In fact, the parents I know would shoo the dog out more often than welcome them in, because they recognized them as being animals, not children requiring constant care, oversight and *shudder*, “stimulation”. The dogs were most often found lying about in the yard, under the porch where it was cool, or taking in the sunshine while relaxing on the grass.

In reality, Separation Anxiety is panic and that panic is caused by the dog’s belief that their dependent, their ‘baby’, is going out ‘into the wild’ without the dog for protection. Simple.

Imagine if your toddler walked out the door and you weren’t allowed to follow. The panic you would feel would drive you mad! This is the reason for the dog’s behaviors in worrying about where you are and whether you’re alright…or even alive!

In the article the author touts the use of “training” to resolve Separation Anxiety (SA). Training does nothing to change the dog’s mind about what it’s doing and why. In fact, training can actually back fire because when we react and respond to a dog’s behaviors we reinforce the very behaviors we don’t want. This means when a dog begins to panic because they know you’re getting ready to leave and we respond to it by giving them food, reassuring them, talking at them, interacting with them, the dog’s understanding is that you, too, are very anxious about leaving.

Dog can also quickly figure out that the panic behavior will get 100% of your attention and focus thereby keeping you with them longer, when our goal should be to help the dog to become relaxed and unconcerned about our departure.

In reality, when we give the dog the right information they will get to the point where they don’t even notice you’ve gone!

Toileting in the home is common with SA. This behavior is simply the dog’s way of trying to help the missing family member find their way home. By laying down scent, the dog hopes it’s loved one will pick up the scent and find their way back home. It’s isn’t at all about any expression of anger or resentment on the dog’s part. Dogs just don’t think that way. Their goal is to preserve the group, keep the numbers consistent for the group’s survival. Yes, they can grow to love us, certainly, and that love encompasses that concern and worry for the missing person’s survival.

Destruction is also common with SA. The dog tries to find something which has its family member’s scent on it in order to feel closer to them. Imagine your child has gone missing, and you go into their room, pick up a piece of clothing or their pillow, put it to your face and inhale their scent. We all have done this at one time or another; it’s an instinctive behavior. For the dog in a white-hot panic, however, it may not be enough to just have the scent so they begin to chew whatever they find. Quite often it’s the television remote, or shoes or socks; anything that’s saturated with the human’s scent. The chewing is calming for the dog because it releases beneficial, calming hormones in the dog’s brain, meaning they are attempting to self-medicate. In human terms, people with a missing child might bite their nails, or eat, or perhaps take in alcohol to calm their nerves.

Howling and barking are expressions of anxiety but also used to call their missing person home. The howling is simply about hoping the ‘baby’ hears it and follows the howls home again, safely.

Besides training, another recommendation that is always given by ‘experts’ is to give the dog possession of a stuffed Kong. It’s thought the by giving the dog food it will “keep them busy and occupied” so they won’t be acting out, presumably it distracts them, too. As we know, humans are often prone to engaging in emotional eating, but even when that is done, it doesn’t relieve the worry and anxiety from our minds, correct?

Very often people will recount the experience of returning home, only to find the Kong completely untouched. At least until the dog decides to use it to gain its human’s attention.

Adding to this, giving a dog possession of a food item, whether it’s a filled food dish that is left down all the time, or a stuffed Kong gives the dog the information which reinforces their belief in being responsible for everyone. Food is an extremely potent signal in the canine world, and it is the leader who makes all decisions around it, controlling this most precious, life-preserving resource. If the dog can take food anytime it chooses, then in the dog’s mind that would naturally make them the leader, decision-maker, protector, provider.

In essence, when we give the dog a stuffed Kong and leave, we make matters exponentially worse emotionally for our dogs in terms of their state of mind and state of panic.

As far as how to resolve SA, which is truly quite a simple process, we need only to correct our interactions and make small changes in our own behavior with and around our dogs in order to send the information the dogs need to release the anxiety and panic about our absence. Learning to arrive and also to leave correctly is something that easily and simply begins the process of showing your dog you are confident and capable coming and going from the home. When all four areas of a dog’s greatest concern are addressed, the dog can then begin to trust your leadership and decision-making.

Also, a practice called Gesture Leaving shows the dog through concrete action that you can ‘disappear’ and still come back whole and healthy. Creating a separation between you and your dog such as walking into the next room and closing the door behind you re-enacts leaving. Stay behind the door for seconds at first, then come back into the room with your dog, all the while keeping your head up and going about your business as though nothing has happened. For the dog, however, this is a very big happening and the more it’s repeated, slowly lengthening the time of separation and successfully reappearing for your dog, the sooner he/she learns through experience that you are more than capable of taking care of yourself without their aid.

Learning through experience…observing your actions…not ‘training’ with food reward or “reassurance” to confound, complicate and distract. 

Setting up an environment for learning; creating “teachable moments” when our dogs are calm and when we are calm so the dog can focus, observe and actually take in what we are attempting to show them with our actions.

This is how dogs learn.

This is how to resolve Separation Anxiety for your dog.



BEFORE Adopting a Pet

Once again, posts are appearing on Social Media depicting long lines at rescue and shelter facilities of people who are wanting or needing to surrender their pets. This seems to be a common occurrence during the summer months as well as during the holidays; times when people are expecting visitors or when they themselves are wanting to travel, or for whatever other reasons. Odd that there is this pattern, and some dispute this actually happens, but I tend to lean toward verifying it with the shelters and rescues themselves if there is a question of the veracity of their postings.

There are a myriad of reasons why surrendering occurs, and whether it’s out of convenience or need I would like to believe there is an emotional cost to the person having to make this terribly hard decision.

Some reasons are unavoidable such as a sudden illness and the need for hospitalization; sudden death and no one in the family can or desires to take the decedent’s pet; an opportunity to travel; a change in location that results in the inability to find a new home that will allow animals; a change in health, such as allergies developing, or a debilitating illness that disallows care to be given by the owner; the breakup of a family and the animal cannot be taken with either party; a change in work schedule that would leave the animal alone for extended periods of time; a change in income so appropriate care and/or feeding can no longer be provided to the animal; a new relationship in which one of the partners doesn’t match up well with the animal personality-wise or health-wise ( I know, I know…some would say “get rid of that partner” but that’s really sticky for anyone…); and on and on.

We cannot possibly predict what life will hand us and how our circumstances can change in a heartbeat. It’s for this reason it’s so important we reserve our judgement.

Having said this, however, it is incumbent upon us to really think hard BEFORE we decide to adopt a dog, or any animal for that matter whether we are currently healthy and stable in our lives or not.

Case in point: I currently have two dogs. One is thirteen years old, the other is approximately eight or nine years old. I am turning sixty this year, and my husband is sixty-two. Hopefully, both dogs continue to live healthy lives and end up passing on the high end of things; optimistically the youngest could live to maybe fifteen or a little past that. This means I will then be about sixty-six, and my husband will almost be seventy.

If we were to adopt another dog  after our youngest passes and that dog lives a normal life span (small dogs: thirteen to fifteen years, tops, and larger dogs perhaps anywhere from ten to fifteen, depending upon the breed and size) this means we could be well into our eighties when the dog passes.

Certainly the hope is we would be hale and hearty and outlive our beloved animals, but who can say? Realistically speaking, it’s so important to think about the possibilities of things happening and if something were to happen to us, we don’t have anyone who would be able to, or would be willing to, take the animals.

So is it really fair to the animal(s) to adopt?

Why risk the animal’s future if it can be avoided by a simple, common sense approach of just considering what can and often does happen in the aging population and making a plan for what would become of the animals?

I can honestly say I’m not ecstatic at the prospect of becoming an animal-free household one day, but I also know there are lots of ways I can find to continue have happy interactions with them without bringing them into our home to live.

Please, think and plan BEFORE you adopt an animal. Plan ahead for the unexpected. Put the animal’s well-being at the forefront before you make what can be an impulsive, emotional decision to bring it home with you.

National Dog Day

Yay! It’s National Dog Day!

All day long I’ve been seeing posts on all of the difference social media platforms, celebrating this special day to proclaim our love for our dogs! Lovely, right?

Not so fast.

People who believe and claim they love their dogs make some very interesting choices regarding the way they live with them and treat them.

They will spare no expense, buying little clothes to dress them up, buy the best food, buy cameras with which to watch them while we’re absent or enroll them in doggie daycare, take a million photos and videos, posting them to show the world how adored they are by their family, proclaiming them to be their “furbabies” or calling themselves the dog’s “mom”, and posting about the sacrifices they make for them.

And yet, many of these same people…

Will use collars that shock, vibrate, beep, poke, prong, choke to “train” or to issue “corrections” to manage their dog’s behaviors.

They will use halters that squeeze their dogs, restricting their natural movement and breathing, or halters that go around their dog’s muzzles designed to keep the dog from turning their heads because while on their sometimes twice-daily forced marches (walks) that people claim their dogs LOVE, because they react to every dog and person they see out of fear and pull like freight trains so this activity is a constant struggle for control.

They’ll use their leash to yank on the dog’s neck to get them to walk beside them or to stop them from sniffing at something while on the walk. This yank, too, is called “correction”.

They will put the dog outside for hours on end, alone, because their behavior inside the home is irritating and bothersome. Or, because they believe a dog should be given the opportunity to be outside in the fresh air, because they are dogs.

They will take their dogs on a walk or run in every kind of weather, sometimes twice a day, in extremes of hot or cold, in any kind of environment no matter how scary for the dog, sometimes for hours on end in an effort to exhaust the dog because they’ve been told, “a tired dog is a good dog”. Even when the dog resists going.

They’ll crate their dogs for the entire day, sometimes up to, or even beyond, ten hours a day while they’re at work.

They take their dog into every conceivable situation, face them with every kind of frightening environment for the dog, to make them get used to it and call this “socializing”. And correct them for what the people see as bad behavior, when in fact the dog is responding to the fear it is feeling.

They’ll shout at their dogs to shut them up or to make them behave, or use a loud, scary tone of voice to issue commands because they believe that’s how a “leader” should sound. They’ll use shouting and a scary, threatening demeanor when they find their dogs have toileted in the home or destroyed something in their absence claiming the dog “knows what they did”.

They will issue constant orders at their dog, known as commands, in an effort to control their every move so the dog doesn’t have the opportunity to behave naturally, learn naturally or relax.

They’ll hiss at their dog, or chop at it with their hand as a form of “correction”.

They will strive to constantly “stimulate” their dog, not allowing them the natural times of rest and relaxation which would normally comprise the bulk of the dog’s day, then become frustrated with their dog’s hyperactivity.

If we humans were on the receiving end of this treatment, would we perceive it as being “loved”? Would we feel celebrated?

On the whole, I can’t fault people for their choices because quite honestly I have made many, many mistakes myself. People can only do what they know, and often advice is issued by their veterinarians who aren’t schooled in dog behavior and training themselves, but rely upon trainers they know or have heard of from clients. Or, celebrity status has elevated individuals to the level of expert where they have no business being. There is a dizzying array of books, manuals and DVDs telling people how to achieve “success” with their dogs, how to produce the “perfect” dog through obedience training. And very much of this advice misses the mark when it comes to truly understanding the dog as an animal of high intelligence who acts out of strong, purposeful instincts.

Up until now all we’ve had are trainers who focus solely on the behavior of the dog, treating the behavior in isolation and treating the dog as if they’re stupid creatures who behave mechanically, so a mechanical approach is best, ignoring the fact that our dogs are intelligent, feeling animals with a culture all their own. And because of this, we aren’t addressing the true reason for the behavior itself.

Putting things in human terms, if our toddler is screaming, we search for the source of the distress; we deal calmly, patiently, proactively and lovingly with whatever it is that is causing the upset and we do it in such a way that the child understands and is calmed by our response. We don’t just scream at the child, or yank on his/her arm, or shove them outdoors, or put something on them that shocks/vibrates/sprays/chokes/prongs them to get them to stop, or shout at them if they’ve toppled a water glass 20 minutes before we find it when they won’t remember what happened and won’t understand why we’re upset with them and are scaring them. If we did any of these things, we could risk losing custody of our child.

But we cannot do better until we know there is a better way.

And there IS a better way to treat and train and live with your dog.

First, one must understand why the dog is doing what it’s doing in any given moment.  Just knowing that your dog has a true reason behind its behavior opens a new connection between you. Understanding brings patience and compassion and real change.

So if we’re going to claim we love our dogs (and I have absolutely no doubt that most people truly DO love their dogs!), then we must open our minds to seeing our dogs in a different light, learn about how they see the world and why they do what they do.

When we do, we can discover that the love we thought we had for our dogs was nothing compared to what has been waiting for us on the other side of change, learning and growth.

Simple. Positive. Profoundly effective. #theABway

#AmichienBonding #JanFennelltheDogListeneroftheUK


What’s in Your Mouth?!

I could write a book on this subject alone, how people reinforce the behavior of their dogs who grab things their people don’t want them to have.
It often begins when the dog is a puppy and begins to explore the world. Just as exploring babies do, puppies learn about their world by using their mouths. Add to this, puppies lack hands so they must use their mouths to pick things up.
Of course we don’t want them to harm themselves, so we often become hyper-vigilant. Every time the puppy picks something up that we’re either afraid will hurt them or are afraid they will destroy, we “mark” that behavior by rushing over to them, giving them lots of feedback by speaking to them, looking at them, handling them, putting their fingers and hands in the puppy’s mouth, all with much emotion.
What does the puppy learn from this reaction oh, so quickly? That they’ve found a behavior that is guaranteed to get 100% of our attention.
This isn’t because they want our attention for affection, love and play. This is because they must ask the all-important question that canines ask for their own survival: Who carries the weight of authority? Who has influence over others in the group? The only way they can ask their questions is through their behaviors. If they pick something up and we instantly run to them and fuss, then clearly the being on all fours holds sway in the group!
A good friend of mine is experiencing the fallout from the continual reinforcement of this grabbing behavior, a behavior which has escalated because of the stress the dog is feeling. She’s fostering a dog who is approximately 18 months old, an adorable mix of many breeds who has great potential for being a lovely companion. His grabbing and mouthing behaviors, however, also have the potential for him to eventually lose his life if they’re not resolved.
This dog’s behavior often bends to the extreme. He continually grabs whatever is nearby: shoes, slippers, clothing out of the laundry basket (which he doesn’t touch unless his people are trying to fold the laundry). He pulls on sleeves, pant legs, shirt hems. He mouths the sofa, grabs blankets. He doesn’t destroy these things, and when I recently visited and watched out of the corner of my eye when he took my shoe, he’s clearly watching for the reaction of the people and has no real interest in the item. The worst behaviors are when he puts his mouth on people, grabs their hands, their arms. My friend is bruised from this dog’s efforts to get and keep her attention on him.
It’s abundantly clear that this dog has experienced great success using these behaviors in his previous living situations, all to his own detriment and ending up in a shelter.
How do we prevent this from happening? Very simple. These suggestions are both for puppies and for grown dogs you may welcome into your home.
Firstly, do a twice daily sweep of the home. If you have youngsters in the house, get them involved. Think in terms of baby-proofing. I often ask clients to get down on the dog’s level, go through the house, clearing away anything they see that the dog may be tempted to take, potential dangers such as hanging cords, as well as anything they don’t want the dog to have at all and possibly destroy. Prevention from the outset is the best way to prevent these situations from cropping up to begin with.
If the puppy or dog does pick up something undesirable, don’t react. Have a selection of toys or healthy chew items stockpiled and stored just for these occasions so you can casually walk past the pup, shake it to make sure he notices it, drop it a little away from him so he must move away from what he currently has and then retrieve the item the little bandit had absconded with.
You can also go to another room and call the dog to you, reward him when he complies with your request, and have someone pick up the item the dog formerly had.
Peaceful, force-free, no feedback whatsoever.
Remain alert, however. If you find yourself frequently calling the dog to you to get him to drop something the dog, being the highly intelligent creature he is, may very well have realized that grabbing something = food reward. So as mentioned, the wisest thing to do is to make sure there aren’t any items hanging about that you don’t want the dog to take in the first place.
Simple. Positive. Profoundly effective.  #theABway

Changes are Challenging

This image is supposed to be funny. At one time, I might have thought it was so. Now I know more about dogs and their perspective, and looking at it breaks my heart.
People tend to believe that dogs don’t care who they’re with, that they can be dropped off at a moment’s notice to a shelter, or daycare or neighbor’s they’ve never met or barely know, or a new home and not have any worries or feelings about it and will just “get over it” quickly and be fine with the change.
That’s very far from the truth.
Dogs, like all animals (including humans) are first and foremost concerned about survival, in every day and every moment. This means that as group-living beings they will make alliances with others for the sake of numbers, meaning that the more of us we have in our group, the greater chance we can survive what we may face.
This is not the same as making “instant friends” or being okay with being abandoned by their family.
Think about this: If you were dropped into the most alien environment you can imagine without provisions with a bunch of strangers without explanation and you realize you have find a way to survive, how would you feel? You don’t know these new people, you don’t speak the same language, you don’t know their strengths, weaknesses, their character, how reliable and trustworthy they are, but you must band together to stay alive.
Is this a “happy” situation? Wouldn’t you feel fear and anxiety and doubt? How long do you think it would take you to get to know the others in your group to the point that you begin to feel some level of comfort in their presence? And how long would you need to feel comfortable in depending upon them to work with you? Would you be buddy-buddy instantly? Would you trust them immediately?
And the biggest question:  Would you love them immediately?
Of course not. You would feel loss, panic, worry, anxiety, fear, distrust. All of this and more.
I liken this kind of situation to when children who have been in a foster/adoptive family’s care since infancy are unceremoniously handed over to their biological family at the age of two or three. The horror! What that child is experiencing is unimaginable to us as adults. Not far off for the dog…
But there are kind ways to help your dog to become comfortable with new environments.
If you want to have your neighbor take care of your dog, set up dates to bring your dog there and spend some time in their home. Graduate to leaving them there, beginning with short periods, perhaps five to ten minutes, then build on the time you are absent. Make visits there a regular thing, so the dog can form what is called an “extended pack”, a relationship with that neighbor that he/she is comfortable with and begins to consider them a part of their family.
The same is true when it comes to boarding your dog or bringing them to a doggie daycare. Just because there are other dogs there, doesn’t mean your dog will be overjoyed at being dropped into the middle of a noisy, confusing place full of new smells and groups of strange, anixous dogs. Think of bringing a small child to a new daycare or their first day of school. You don’t just come to a halt in front of the door, push your child into the building and take off!
The worse-case scenario is when a family is thinking of re-homing their dog, for whatever reason. First and foremost, one would hope that if the reason for re-homing is behavior-related, serious and committed attempts to change the situation have been made (If the family finds a Dog Listener, then more than likely the dog will be able to remain in their home!) and surrendering the dog is the very last option. Sometimes this simply cannot be avoided, however, and there are times when it’s actually better for the dog to be removed from a challenging environment. Realize that the emotional cost to the dog is truly great, especially when they have developed loving relationships with those in the family. Animals feel grief and loss as we do, and this is compounded by the fact that there is absolutely no way we can explain to them what is happening and why.
That, to me, is the biggest heartbreak of all and the experience for the dog being in a shelter situation will hopefully be mercifully short, with a new home found quickly.
So before casually moving your dog from one place to the next, stop and think about what this does to the dog’s peace of mind and its stress level. When you disappear, they have no way of knowing if they will ever see you again. The kindest and most loving thing you can do for your ‘best friend’ is to find ways to ease them into a new environment and establish a pattern of behavior that lets your dog know that you will likely return and reunite with them once again, and in the meantime, they are in a safe, happy place, enjoying their time until you return.


This is our Emmett. He’s 11 years old now, a very well-mannered gentleman.
We adopted Emmett from a local shelter at the tender age of 5 months. Adorable puppy, killer cute and loads of charm, with that round, speckled puppy belly and irresistible puppy smell. Things looked good when we brought him home, but gradually all that changed.
Emmett claimed the sofa as his…and peed on it. If we tried to pet him, he would snap at us. If we sat on the sofa and his cushion moved, he would rush at us and nip. His barking was off the charts, as was his marking. Marking everywhere. Walks, although not horrible, were a struggle, with him pulling ahead like a freight-train trying to meet new people and dogs. Not enjoyable, because we lived in a neighborhood with lots of dogs. He wasn’t the snuggly, cuddly puppy we had adopted just weeks ago, and we were dumbfounded and completely confused.
We had never lived with a dog with such behavior challenges. Up until this point, all the dogs we had known were “easy”, sweet-tempered, calm. Emmett was a shock. And he had taken over.
Life with Emmett was exasperating, frustrating, sometimes exhausting. He was a ridiculous barker and living in a busy family neighborhood meant that any little noise would set off a cacophony of sounds from him. He would also strike at our other dog whenever he heard something; not biting him, but snapping his teeth in the air and rushing at him. Sometimes this ended in a session of teeth fencing between them but we knew it could escalate at any time. Numerous visits to the veterinarian yielded nothing but a diagnosis: redirected aggression. With this came the directive to “anticipate” this behavior in order to head it off and change it. That didn’t work at all, because living in a busy family neighborhood meant noises at all times; car doors, children playing, dogs being walked past the house, delivery trucks. The list was endless.
Emmett was also a boundary runner, and any time he was in our fenced-in yard and someone walked by, especially other dogs, he would crazily run back and forth, barking with all he had. Summers were noisy and I felt embarrassed by his behavior, but powerless, having used training tactics with little if any result.
Along the way, I received advice, lots and lots of advice. I was told to “be firmer” with him, meaning I should hit him. I was told to “correct” him by being physical with him, yanking on his leash when he didn’t walk well; to get into his face, growl at him and tell him, “No!” whenever he did something displeasing. I bought a bark collar that sprayed citronella past his face when he barked. Emmett figured out very quickly where the gadget needed to be sitting on his throat in order to be activated by the bark, and learned how to bark around it. I really didn’t like this thing anyway, seeing Emmett terrified as the spray came out. It would also spray when our other dog barked and this seemed terribly unfair. As per training books, I taught him to bark on command, and he even learned how to whisper, so we could control when he barked. He turned things around so that he trained me to reward him for barking. Did I mention how smart he is? I bought more training books, lots of training books, but nothing seemed to work or at least,  didn’t work for long.
I learned about clicker training, because it is humane and gentle in its approach, but failed at that, even with clickers hanging from my key ring, both wrists, and placed about the house and in the car so we could click whenever we saw a desirable behavior. Treats, treats, treats. Emmett would do what I asked for treats, such as come to me when I asked to short-circuit his barking, but then would immediately run back and commence barking again.
At one point, my husband asked what we were going to “do” about Emmett. I replied that we couldn’t bring him back to the shelter, because he would most certainly be bounced from one home to the next, would probably end up being put to sleep for being a biter. So, we adapted….to Emmett. We didn’t bring friends over. We kept things on the furniture so he couldn’t get up onto it, which meant that if we wanted to sit on a chair, either a laundry basket or a pile of books had to be moved before we could. Our home began to look as though it housed hoarders.
And we were always on edge, wondering what the next crisis would be.
One well-known trainer of German Shepards counseled me to ignore Emmett, completely, reduce his place in the pack, but then asked me to promise to never tell where I had received this suggestion. And we saw changes, positive changes. Emmett began to calm and show respect. We could uncover the furniture and invite him to be with us. I now understand why this worked, but didn’t then and at first it felt uncomfortable because it felt “mean” to be ignoring this adorable bit of puppy fluff. I’ve since learned that it’s a critical piece of canine communication and actually very kind. I forged ahead, because I saw that Emmett was gaining a clear benefit. We were as well.
Fast forward a year and a half, to the feeding issues.
We simply thought of our little guy as being quirky, and this applied to his eating. For a long while we simply assumed he had strong preferences about what he liked, just as people do. So we changed the food we fed our dogs. He would eat fine for a little while, then become picky once more. And by “picky” I mean he would approach his bowl, perhaps eat a few pieces, back up from the bowl, look hesitant about approaching it again, and so on. We would change the food again. And again.
Of course this behavior had gained our full attention. We tried coaching him on, rewarding him with praise when he did eat. We tried feeding with the collar on, and with the collar off. We tried several different types of bowls, and tried feeding him with no bowl, either dropping it on the floor or even hand-feeding. We tried moving his bowl to different areas in the house, thinking he was either distracted or uncomfortable by his surroundings. At every feeding, we were completely engaged watching him like hawks; “Will he eat? Is he eating? Did you see him eat anything? He’s barely touched his food, let make sure to fill in with treats…” In between, there were visits to the vet, to make sure there was nothing we were missing health-wise. The vet had no answers, other than to try their expensive prescription food and to heat it in the microwave to make it “stinky” and more enticing to Emmett. That worked…for a little while. Then we were always back where we started.
Ultimately, Emmett reached a point at which he stopped eating altogether. We were panicked.
I called a friend of mine and she suggested I pick up a copy of Jan Fennell’s book, “The Dog Listener”, which I did while thinking, “Oh, joy, another book, more advice, more failure.” I devoured the book, began using the simple techniques, making the small changes, and withing 3 days, Emmett was once again eating like a champ. We were floored.
And overjoyed.
Now I understand why Emmett was doing what he was doing.
When I look back, I so wish I had found Jan’s work sooner. I see the mistakes we had been making in our interactions with him. Such small things to us, but which made all difference in the world to Emmett (and our other dog, who we thought of as being an “angel”). They made all the difference to him because they were changes that made sense to him as a dog. That’s what we had been missing…Emmett’s perspective, his take on the world from his place in it as a dog. His concerns, his canine culture, his goals, his understanding of what his role was in our home relative to ours, and his drive to carry out what he believed were his responsibilities for the family group. It went to the very heart of why he was doing what he was doing, while giving us the tools we needed to help him. Because he did need help and was enjoying his life with us even less in many respects than we were with him.
This new journey to understand, empathize and answer Emmett’s questions and concerns wasn’t always easy, and it wasn’t always clear. It was a process, because we had to change our own behavior rather than trying to manipulate Emmett into new behaviors. Once we did this, we watched as he would respond to our efforts by slowly releasing those behaviors that had turned our world upside down. He became affectionate, playful, much less intense with our other dog, with fewer spats between them. We could see how he was able to learn new things because he was calmer and could focus. In all areas, he began to step back and became more patient.
Emmett, on the whole, has been the best teacher for me that I could ever ask for, and even after all these years, I’m still learning from him while changes happen within our little pack. He is still not the “easiest” dog we’ve ever lived with and keeps me on my toes, making me check in with myself regarding whether I’m behaving in the way that will, first and foremost, help him. The rewards are great, including evenings spent with a warm, sweet dog curled up and sleeping in my lap, something at one time I couldn’t have imagined experiencing with him.
So I thank Emmett for leading me down a path I couldn’t have dreamed up for myself; one which has benefited many, many dogs since I first picked up Jan Fennell’s book and opened the door to real understanding that I have since been blessed to share with others in my role as Dog Listener.
And I thank Jan, for being one of the very few people who asked the question, “What is most important to the dog?” and being wise enough to really listen to their answers.

We All Look for Authority

We, as so many others in the Eastern part of the U.S., have been living through an Arctic deep freeze. For us, this means that during the coldest parts of the night, our house ‘pops’. The cold makes our house make noises that, if one didn’t know what they were, could make a person think that someone is hurling bricks at it. This leads one of our dogs, Tinker, to begin barking.

Usually at about 3:30 AM.

In many people’s minds our dogs are being silly when they bark about such things. We of course know full well that there is no danger because we’re humans and we understand such things. But really, how can our dogs know there is no danger? They’re animals.

But many people do assume that because our dogs live in our homes that they, too, understand that these noises pose no real danger so being roused at 3:30 AM a few nights in a row is more along the lines of a reason to become frustrated, even angry with the dog. Some may lie in bed and shout at the dog to be quiet, or stomp over to the dog and show it by talking (shouting) angrily at it how angry they’re feeling at being awakened at that time of night.

But has this really provided clear reassurance to the dog that there is no threat and that there is nothing to be concerned about?

Quite the contrary. When we behave in these ways with our dogs, they look at us, see our upset and decide that their person is very concerned about the noise too and furthermore is looking to the dog to handle whatever this potential danger is because they’re simply too rattled to face the problem well. This precipitates more stress being experienced by the dog, and very often this greater experience of stress means increased vigilance by the dog, pairing with increased barked warnings. The situation has been made worse.

When in scary situations, we all look for assurance and information, don’t we? Someone to tell us that all is well and we can relax.

I think of a time when our boiler began making strange noises in the basement one night as it turned on to provide heat for the house. It would roar to life and shudder while doing so, rattling the house and I can tell you I was more than concerned; I was terrified. I ran to my husband in alarm, telling him something is terribly wrong and that I’m afraid the house will blow up. Of course he became alarmed as well. Neither of us is schooled in how boilers work or how to maintain them. So we called on those who do possess the knowledge and expertise…the authorities on boilers.

Thankfully, after explaining what was happening, the gentleman at our oil company told us what was happening which was a very simple thing of water somehow getting blown back into the exhaust and making a problem for the boiler. He then said that all we had to do was to push the “reset” button on the boiler and it would resume normal functioning.

He did all this in a calm, confident, relaxed and competent manner which immediately brought reassurance and calm to my husband and me. We pushed the button, and all was well once again.

My husband and I did exactly what our dog Tinker was doing: bringing to an authority’s attention that there was a possible threat to our safety and well-being in the hopes that we would receive support and information we needed in order to know whether there was further action to be taken.

In Tinker’s case, I simply walked through the rooms he inhabits, looked out of the windows in a relaxed and calm manner while he watched, uttered a calm, quiet, “Thank you”, and returned to bed. We all went back to sleep.

I did have to repeat it the next night, and this time our other dog, Emmett, got into the barking act. I did the very same thing for the both of them as I had done the first night. And we all went back to sleep.

Simple. Clear. Easy. Calm.

Think of the times you’ve been faced with a perplexing or alarming situation and see how your behavior is the same as your dog’s when he barks in alarm.

Calm communication providing information in the way our dogs can understand  answers their needs and concerns in any situation with them, just as it does for us.





Socialization – the Myth

One of my clients reached out to me with a very upsetting experience this week, asking me what I think of “socialization”. Hmmm…

What had happened was that she and her husband had driven to a drop-off point, meeting their dog food distributor, and happened to have brought along their NewFoundland. While they had parked in a place that had been previously far enough away from other cars, for whatever reason other people began parking nearby. Their dog doesn’t spend lots of time riding in the car, but had accompanied his carers to food deliveries before but what occurred was completely frightening to the poor boy.

My client related that at first someone took their dog out of their car for bathroom break, and walked near to my client’s car. Her Newfie barked (appropriately) and was answered by my client, although she could then see he had been a bit ruffled and was now a bit more on alert. More cars began arriving. More concerned barking ensued.

Shortly after this little incident, a person approached my client’s truck, having heard him barking and began sticking their hand into my client’s car, while at the same time asking, “Can I pet him?Is he friendly?” The dog began to growl, while also trying to back away from the person’s hand. My client answered, “Yes, he is, but he doesn’t know you.” She also politely requested that they ignore the dog, and to not put their hand into the truck, because it’s the dog’s space. The person then began to instruct my client on socialization (apparently this individual has lived with Newfies, so of course believe they knew about the breed), how important it is for this type of dog to be “socialized”, etc., etc.

Then, shortly after, another person approached the truck and began to put their hand in through the open window to pet the dog, while the dog growled and backed up. My client’s husband asked the woman not to do this, that although he is a friendly dog, there is too much stimulation for him currently and he needed to calm down.


To put this scenario in a human perspective, suppose you’re sitting in your car, awaiting a delivery, as these folks were. Suddenly, someone you don’t know approaches your car and proceeds to put their hands in your face, your hair, and on your body. Think you would pull away? Perhaps even shout at the person, push away their hands and tell them off? I know I would!

Or suppose your children are sitting in their car seats in the back seat of your car and a stranger walks up and puts their hands on your children? In my mind, they would draw back a stump!

What is this bizarre notion that a dog is supposed to tolerate everyone’s hands on them? That somehow we should “make” them be instant friends with all they meet?  Maybe train them to just put up with every person who wants to touch them, to get into their face and space. They are animals, concentrated on their survival every day. They cannot know who is kind and who isn’t by smell alone! And honestly, we share this same “stranger = danger” instinct with them. If a stranger comes to my door, I’m very cautious and keep the outer door closed to them until I learn what their presence means. If an unfamiliar person approaches my car, my window gets raised so I can feel safer. Imagine that you’re sitting at a stoplight and some random person jumps into your car with you. Are you going give him a big smile and ask where he needs a ride to? If he shows up in your living room unannounced, are you going invite him to tea?

Of course not!

It’s absolutely absurd for people to assume they can handle every dog they meet at that the dog “should” be thrilled about it. Dogs don’t have the language necessary to tell these kinds of pushy people to back off. They don’t have hands to push away those hands that are in their face. And often they are leashed so their ability to flee has been taken away or, in this case, they are in an enclosed space and have no means of escape.

They have teeth. That’s it.

The real crime is that if they should feel the need to use those teeth, after having given fair warning with a growl and demonstrated their wish to take flight by backing up as my client’s dog did as the intruder insisted they should be able to touch the dog, the one bitten would immediately cry foul, try to shame the dog’s carers by claiming they haven’t appropriately socialized their dog, and maybe even report the dog for a bite, saying there is something wrong with the dog and it’s vicious.

It happens every day.

It doesn’t have to. If people would learn about the true nature of their dogs, their dog’s perspective and survival needs, putting aside their own egos and investment as being seen as “dog people”, even take the time and interest necessary to learn what dog’s signals mean, then dogs would be given a choice, just as we given one another a choice about interaction, just as we give our children a choice about interaction.

It’s called empathy. It’s called compassion.

Doomed To Fail

I often read the short, informational write-ups about dogs who are in need of a home and so many of them state the dog is the type that “needs to be with their person”, meaning the dog has suffered separation anxiety in the past, this is just a part of who they are, so they need to be adopted by a person who can be with them 24/7.

My heart sinks.

Not just because I know that separation anxiety is something that I regularly help my clients work through with their dogs to success, but also because I know that the dogs who are said to “have” separation anxiety will linger longer in shelters and rescues, some even to the point where they are put to sleep because a new family just can’t be found who can meet the dog’s needs. Those who seek to help the dog find a happy new home are without realizing it, dooming these dogs to lose out on a great home, just by typing those two dreaded words:  Separation Anxiety.

People speak of separation anxiety as if it’s a kind of character flaw, something that is in the dog’s DNA make-up, something that just can’t be changed and is an integral part of who the dog is and it’s personality.

No so!

Separation anxiety occurs when a dog is mistakenly believing that it is responsible for the people in the household, so when the people leave and the dog can’t follow, the dog experiences very real panic. Think of yourself, watching your toddler walk out the door and you’re unable to follow to supervise and protect the baby. We could all honestly say we would ourselves go into a blind panic!

Dogs who are experiencing this separation anxiety will then try to find whatever has their person’s scent on it, in an effort to at least “feel” closer to the missing member. Very similar to a person going into their missing loved one’s room, finding an article of clothing that has been worn, and deeply inhaling their scent. (Interesting how we share instincts with our dogs, isn’t it?) Think of the items that are chewed most often; remote controllers, shoes, sofas. These are all thing which we spend lots of time handling/wearing/lounging on. Or, it may be the dog tries to tear through the door, the window casing, whatever is nearest to the exit the person regularly uses to leave the home, trying their level best to break out and find their “baby”.

Sadly, though, just finding their human’s scent isn’t enough, so the destruction begins. I’ve often been told by clients that they think the dog is “angry” or, “bored” and destroys to exact revenge or to just enjoy or busy themselves. This is far from the truth; chewing releases endorphins in the dog’s brain that help to calm them. In effect, our dogs will chew to self-medicate just to get through this horrible ordeal they’re experiencing. In human terms think of relieving stress by chewing fingernails, or even emotional eating!

What to do about separation anxiety? Simple. Communicate clearly to the dog, in the way the dog can actually understand, that they have no worries, no responsibilities for the people in the home and, in fact, the people are the ones responsible for keeping everyone safe and protected. When this is done consistently and calmly, establishing leadership and maintaining that position through every interaction of every day, the dog can then simply relax and take the opportunity to enjoy the quiet home, settling down for a good nap!

Want to learn how to communicate clearly with your dog? Call me.

Asking Questions

Any changes in our dog’s environment can cause the dog to “ask questions”, that is display behaviors that we’ve either not seen in quite some time, or display new ones we’ve never seen. In our case, it was my husband’s schedule change once the new school year began.

John had been home all summer, all day every day, and the new school year meant he was once again leaving early in the morning and returning in the evening, sometimes late. I didn’t think too much about it until Emmett began some behaviors that I hadn’t seen in quite a long while. We’ve been applying Amichien Bonding with our dogs for approximately six years now and our dogs have calmed to such an extent that I hardly think about it anymore. So when Emmett began acting up, at first I didn’t quite catch on.

It began that first week with Emmett standing at the back door and barking as if asking to go out. Distracted, I would waited a few moments, then breezed by and opened the door to allow him outside. He didn’t go out but just stood there, sniffing the breeze. I closed the door. A few moments later he repeated this bark, looking at me expectantly once more. (I only know he looked at me because I checked in my peripheral vision). I didn’t comply, instead ignoring him. Emmett barked again. I left the room.

Now, the reason I did this was because Emmett had already been out that morning, just about an hour and a half earlier, so I thought this wasn’t a real “call of nature”, having given him the benefit of the doubt the first time. After all, we all have upsets from time to time. This time, however, I knew that this was his way of questioning and I answered in a way he immediately understood which was to not only ignore him, but to absent myself from him. Emmett is a very intelligent dog and one who leans toward the end of being an anxious dog as well, so my answers to him must be swift and unequivocal.

The next day, Emmett stood in the middle of our bedroom and issued a series of barks, just one or two, then would wait to see what would happen. Because I was in another room, I simply thanked him and kept on with what I was doing. Again, he barked. I walked into the room, looked out of the windows (without looking at him), said thank you once more and walked out. A few moments later, “Bark!” I walked past the doorway, pulled the door closed, made sure he was quiet, then counted slowly to five. I reopened the door and ignored him.

The week went on like this, with Emmett barking every so often, and at first I was just a bit exasperated because I didn’t understand why he was suddenly doing this questioning. In my mind, there was no reason that I could see that he should be uncertain of his place. Each time I gave him a clear answer, he would settle into his favorite nesting place and enjoy some downtime.

But then, it dawned on me. Of course! It was my husband’s schedule that had been a change, one that necessitated sorting out in Emmett’s mind. If he wasn’t satisfied that our pack had a trustworthy leader, regardless of the changes in the household, then he would have to step up and that is the last thing he wanted. The certainty of leadership is the key to the group’s survival. Emmett had no way of knowing whether John was going to return or not, so to Emmett the pack size had changed, meaning the roles of the individuals who are left must be sorted out. I told him what I needed to know.

It took Emmett a bit over a week to really understand the new rhythm of our schedule and now he’s stopped “asking” and is his old self again, snoozing in the sun, watching the birds through the window and enjoying life just being a dog. All because he knows I’m there, ready and capable of being the leader he needs.