A State of Mind

By Sally Bushwaller, CPDT-KSA, CSAT, CNWI

Separation anxiety has many “roots”. One of those roots is that when your dog is overly stressed because of your absence, they stop thinking clearly and may make irrational decisions.

All separation anxiety dogs I work with are started on what I call the SPONTANEOUS BEHAVIOR PROTOCOL. This concept evolved as I worked with 100s of dogs over the years. Along the way I absorbed info from brilliant trainers, seminars and from books and videos I watched. It really started to formulate in my brain after watching video of zoo trainers doing clicker training with dangerous animals at the first The Art and Science of Animal Training Seminar hosted by ORCA at the University of North Texas – empower the animal to learn to make decisions on his own, without compulsion or commands.

The coalescence of these ideas rolling around in my head became the SPONTANEOUS BEHAVIOR PROTOCOL (wish I had decided to call it something shorter and catchier!). I then discovered that there were many other trainers around the country doing versions of this same thing.

The SPONTANEOUS BEHAVIOR PROTOCOL is definitely a deference protocol. There is a lot of controversy in the dog training world these days about the necessity for a strict deference protocol. I am a strong proponent of deference protocols for dogs with behavior issues. The more severe the behavior issue the more strict the owner should adhere to the protocol. But this is not your run-of-the-mill deference protocol. It’s a kinder, gentler, and VOLUNTARY version of a deference protocol, crafted so that the dog learns to happily offer polite behavior on his own without you cuing him to do so.

I have seen too many dogs who were completely “shut down” because a trainer or vet had recommended a strict deference protocol in which they told the dog to do something before earning a resource, instead of letting the dog learn to do it voluntarily. Yes, your obedient dog may happily (or unhappily in some cases) respond to a cue. But doing so doesn’t teach your dog to think for himself, and that is what we need him to do. We want him to get out of his amygdala (the part of the brain that handles emotional reactions) and into his cerebral cortex (the part of the brain handling decision making and problem solving) and make a rational decision.

If your dog has no behavior issues, he will still benefit from structure and rules learned in the SPONTANEOUS BEHAVIOR PROTOCOL, but you won’t have to be as strict as the owner who has a problem dog.

Dogs, especially anxious dogs, like knowing the rules. Most dogs like routine and knowing what will happen. It makes them feel more secure because they know what to expect. They don’t have to guess and that lifts a big weight from their shoulders. The SPONTANEOUS BEHAVIOR PROTOCOL gives them all this.

With the SPONTANEOUS BEHAVIOR PROTOCOL, we teach the dog to offer a polite behavior as a way to “say please”, usually a sit or down with eye contact, but the chosen polite behavior can be changed if necessary if your dog has any physical limitations.

You are not necessarily trying to teach your dog to sit. 95%+ of the dogs I work with already know how to sit when I meet with them. We are trying to teach your dog a concept. He can control the consequences of what happens to him by offering calm, polite behavior. Once your dog grasps this concept his world changes as that “aha” moment sinks in.

In my experience, the dog generally has no trouble learning or accepting this protocol, but the people do! People have to learn to be patient, wait for behavior, and not push the dog. That’s not easy for most people to do.

We want your dog to be as close to 100% successful as possible. That is accomplished by breaking each exercise down in very small steps.

When your dog begins making rational decisions about offering calm, polite behavior, you know your dog is on the right path. Now you can start working on the nuts and bolts of helping your dog overcome anxiety issues.

If you control the resource, you won’t have to control the dog! Make this your motto: Control the resource, not the dog!

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