What You Need to Know About Reinforcing Separation Anxiety

If you put 10 dog trainers in a room and get them to debate, what’s the only thing they all agree on? They’re right and everyone else in the room is wrong.

I was at a conference at Best Friends in Kanab, UT last week.

Vividly colorful striated cliffs rise behind a rustic fence in the western landscape of southern Utah desert near Pahreah.
Beautiful Kanab

There was a lot of debating right and wrong among trainers at the conference.

We’re all the same type of trainers – force-free. And yet we’re managing to debate all the ways in which we’re different.

I guess that’s just the way it goes when people from any profession gather.

And healthy debate matters. If we didn’t debate, we wouldn’t learn and our profession would get stuck in the dark ages.

The hot topic

At this conference, how to use reinforcement was the subject which caused the most division. What do I mean by reinforcement?

Well, in dog training, reinforcement is one of the things we use to get dogs do what we want. Reinforcement can use what the dog likes, and it can also involve using what the dog the dog dislikes.

Dogs seek out things that are fun, pleasant, nourishing and generally good for them. Their goal in life is to start the good stuff. And to not lose it when they have it.

And of course, dogs avoid the bad stuff.

They try to stop the bad stuff from starting, and if it’s already happening they look for a way to stop it.

All this got me thinking, what are we reinforcing when we're dealing with separation anxiety? And how much of that is intentional?

Before I get into that though, let's have more of a look at some of the ways dog training works.

Getting the good stuff…

When we use what the dog likes (food, play, petting, walks etc), we can give the goodies to the dog when the dog does the behaviour we want.

Doing this means there’s a good chance the dog will repeat the behaviour. In the example above, the dog is likely going to sit again so that he can get another cookie.

It’s as if the dog is saying “okay, doing that sit got me something pretty nice. I’ll do that again and see if I get more of the good stuff”.

Dog trainers call this method “Positive reinforcement”. You might also see people write “R+”.

…and not losing the good stuff

Sometimes we take away what the dog likes to make him do something different.

Puppy biting is a great example. When your puppy play-bites, you can take away you—’the fun thing’.

Here you can imagine the talking dog saying “Hmm, when I did that, I lost out big time. Maybe I won’t do that again”.

We call this “negative punishment”.

Don’t freak at the word punishment, though.

In the world of animal learning punishment is something which makes the dog do something less. It doesn’t mean something scary or frightening to the dog.

In fact, in the negative punishment example above, we used what the dog liked to get the intended behaviour. So we just took it away rather than give it to them.

And that’s how we use the good stuff.

Summing up, when we add the good stuff, the dog is more likely to repeat the behaviour. And when we take the good stuff away, they’re less likely to repeat the behaviour, the behaviour which made them lose out.

Getting away from the bad stuff…

What about the bad stuff? Force-free trainers don’t use fear-inducing methods, but it’s helpful to know what it is. Why? So we’re aware when anything we do unwittingly causes fear or pain to a dog.

Things the dog fears or wants to avoid are called “aversives”. Trainers who use aversives start or add the fear-inducing thing to make the dog change behaviour.

They might add a leash jerk, or an electric shock from a bark collar, or the stabbing of a prong collar.

Since dogs try to avoid aversives, and want to stop the pain, they will try to work out what it was which caused the pain to be inflicted.

If they can work out the connection (big “IF”), the dog will then decrease the behaviour. They want to make sure the pain or force doesn’t happen again.

This is called “positive punishment”. Again, the technical terms can be misleading. In this context, “positive” doesn’t mean good. It just means something was added.

…and stopping the bad stuff once it's started

Aversives trainers also use pain and fear in another way.

Dogs not only want to stop the bad thing from starting, they also want to turn off the bad thing after it has started.

If a trainer buzzes on a shock collar for a dog to come back, they would stop the electric shock when the dog returns.

Inside the head of the dog we might hear him saying “Whew, that was horrible. Seems like coming back turned off the pain. Maybe that’s what I need to do”.

This is an example of the dog working out how to stop the fear or pain by changing its behaviour.

This method is called “Negative reinforcement”.

Train with food and fun. Not force and fear.

Okay, so I know it’s getting a little geeky. But it’s important because we need to know what changes a dog’s behaviour, and why, if we’re going to get results.

I’m 100% clear in my position on which methods I use. I only use methods which take advantage of what the dog likes.

I will not use anything the dog finds scary, painful, or unpleasant.

I wouldn’t do it to a child. I won’t do it do a dog.

“The behaviour you reinforce”

So what does this have to do with separation anxiety training? We don’t use any of these training methods in separation anxiety treatment do we?

Well, it’s true. We don’t use these methods deliberately*. (*Note, force-free trainers don’t. Aversives trainer might suggest a bark collar. But read my blog on the topic here).

But behaviour is always happening. And reinforcement is always around us. Behavior and reinforcement are not exclusive to a training session.

Reinforcement can be intentional. Or unintentional. As renowned animal trainer Bob Bailey says, “You get the behaviour you reinforce, not the behaviour you want”.

If you give a dog a cookie for sitting, you're being intentional.

But if your dog steals steak from the countertop, that's unintentional reinforcement. There's a good chance you're crafty dog will try to jump up at the counter again.

In separation anxiety, there's a big risk of using unintentional negative reinforcement. [Remember, this is where the dog tries to use his behaviour to stop something painful or scary. Where he tries to stop an aversive.]

You go out. Your dog starts to freak. He does whatever his freaking-out-thing is: barking, chewing, destroying, whatever.

His anxiety means he keeps going and keeps going and keeps going. And going.

Lo and behold you come back.

The scary stuff (being alone) stops the moment you step through the door. This is a great outcome for the dog. He got relief from the fear of being alone.

Now, more than likely his barking or chewing didn’t have any impact on when you came back. You had to go to the store or to work, or wherever.

You coming in while he was still in destruction-mode was just a coincidence. Unless you have a camera, of course, in which case you no doubt hurried back.

But dogs are furry, four-legged, connection-making machines. They are always scanning for patterns and cause and effect. As far as the dog’s concerned the barking caused you to come back.

So as you open the door to return, the thought process in your dog’s head could have been something like this:

“Okay, so I barked and barked. And it took awhile, but it did bring mom back. Maybe if I bark sooner and louder next time she’ll come back quicker”. Or chew harder. Or shred faster.

The “managing absence” thing again

So can you see what could happen? When you leave your dog for longer than he can cope with, you risk reinforcing the very thing you’re trying to get him to stop doing!

On the other hand, if you practice leaving him for amounts of time he can cope with, which don’t make him anxious, you walking back through the door rewards calm behaviour.

He’s not freaking out, he’s just hanging. You come back. He likes that. And then decides just waiting for you calmly has a pretty good pay off.

Now, that only works if he’s truly okay with you leaving. For most separation anxiety dogs that means starting off with the teeniest, tiniest, departures.

And of course, the other big reason for not leaving him to freak out is it can sensitize him, making his anxiety worse next time. This is the reason you’ll hear separation anxiety trainers talk about most often.

All this makes suspending absences even more worthwhile:

  • We’re not going to worsen his condition
  • We’re not unwittingly reinforcing home-alone behaviours

You may well be rolling your eyes at yet another separation anxiety trainer telling you to suspend absences. But I do hope you can pause for a second to see why we ask you.

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before

You have to stop leaving your dog if you want the separation anxiety to stop. No two ways about it.

My aim, with all my clients, is to be empathetic and supportive. This is the one area though, where I think a tiny amount of tough love is needed.

I so desperately want you and your dog to get over separation anxiety. Which is why I go on and on and on. (Now you know how my husband feels about things which need doing in the house).

Remember, you have options. It doesn’t have to be you who stays with your dog. And you can also talk to your vet about ways to help with absences.

I know this is hard. Crazy hard. And I hated having to do it. But you do need to find a way. He won’t get better until you do that.

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