Dog Behavior Fix: Pointing the Finger Sometimes Works

Dog behavior problems like separation anxiety can be extremely difficult to work through, especially if the client is not on board.  To solve the problem, the client must understand their role in both causing and solving the dog behavior problem.


This client’s journey started like all the others – a phone call to the office with Leila taking the call.


I remember Leila talking to me about this lady and her unwillingness to think beyond “putting something on the dog” to fix the barking.

She and her husband had recently moved from a house outside of town to an apartment in central Houston. The dog was now constantly barking and whining whenever she left the apartment.

Her neighbors had already registered complaints with management.  The pressure was on to figure out a quick way to resolve the problem.


I think it’s because he’s adopted



The dog owner was convinced the separation anxiety was due to the dog being adopted. Regardless that she had had the 4 year old dog for over 2 years.

Leila explained how separation anxiety developed with her dog by her constant doting when she was there and then no attention when she was gone. She still refused to connect herself with being part of the problem.

Unsure about what to do she hung up to think about it.

The next day, she called back to book a series of lessons. She wanted to understand why her dog was like this and more importantly, how to fix her dog’s separation anxiety.

On the first lesson I could tell that her dog was extremely needy. I asked her to notice how he had placed himself between her feet and pawed at her for attention.

I also pointed out that each and every time he came up to her she felt obliged to pet and stroke her dog.

As I began explaining about the affects of constant doting, I could see that she was somewhat hard-pressed to buy in to this explanation until ….. I said, “What if we do an experiment? Each time Buddy comes up to you during the one hour lesson – and you pet and stroke him, I’ll simply point my finger at Buddy? Fair?

She was amazed at the number of times (even with my forewarning) she touched, stroked and petted Buddy.

I explained that if she factored in the number of days she did this purposefully or subconsciously over the years, can she now see how needy Buddy is for her affection and attention?


Here are some Take-Aways from Buddy’s separation anxiety case.

  • Sometimes simple works. It took the simple gesture of me pointing my finger at Buddy for her to “click” to the realization that indeed, she was the cause of his anxiety.
  • Granted, not all dogs are as needy as Buddy. But then they probably would be less inclined to develop separation anxiety.  Buddy on the other hand is extremely needy and had developed separation anxiety.
  • When she changed her attitude about the cause of Buddy’s separation anxiety and took ownership of her mistakes, that’s when I knew she was on board 100%. The program could actually progress from that point forward.
  • The real work would require rebuilding her relationship with Buddy: a relationship based on learn-to-earn praise (sit for pretty much everything) and creating much more social distance with Buddy. That simply meant consciously not petting Buddy every time he approached for attention.
  • Another phase involved confidence building in Buddy. Buddy didn’t feel as if he had control of his environment when his mom left. Teaching Buddy he can have control of his environment because what happens to him is simply a function of what his does. One of the most effective means of confidence building is positive reinforcement based training in general and, in particular, free-shaping. Have you ever heard of 101 Things to Do with a Cardboard Box?

The last part, and the real time consuming part, is desensitizing Buddy to all the departure cues as well as his mom’s leaving, starting in the home.

The interesting thing is I doubt we could have proceeded at all or with any degree of success without Buddy’s Mom on board by taking ownership of her mistakes.

Jim BurwellJim Burwell, Houston dog trainer for 25+ years, serving 8700+ clients, has a profound understanding of dog behavior and the many things, we as humans, do that influence that behavior – good or bad.  Jim has the ability and the experience of mentoring and teaching dog trainers how to excel and grow their dog training talents and their business.


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