#27 - Ellen Yoakum: Enrichment for Separation Anxiety

[00:00:00] Ellen: And I think we can often lose sight, of the things that make up this whole suite of behaviors, because it’s not just be home. What do you want them to do? How do you want them to spend their time? Do they have the skill set to self-regulate, and cope, and relax with you there, and then without your intervention with you there, and then without you there?

[00:00:20] Allie: Welcome to Enrichment for the Real World, the podcast devoted to improving the quality of life of pets and their people through enrichment. We are your hosts, Allie Bender…

[00:00:41] Emily: …and I’m Emily Strong…

[00:00:43] Allie: …and we are here to challenge and expand your view of what enrichment is, what enrichment can be and what enrichment can do for you and the animals in your lives. Let’s get started.

Thank you for joining us for today’s episode of Enrichment for the Real World, and I want to thank you for rating, reviewing, and subscribing wherever you listen to podcasts

The voice you heard at the beginning of today’s episode was our very own Ellen Yoakum.

Ellen Yoakum, Certified SA Pro Trainer, KPA-CTP is a trainer and behavior consultant with Pet Harmony. She loves helping families build communication and cohabitate successfully by developing strategies and plans that will benefit everyone. Ellen’s passion for animal welfare and training was ignited during her undergraduate studies at the University of Washington where she was able to work as a research assistant focusing on captive animal welfare and enrichment. For over a decade, Ellen has been working within animal care and behavior in multiple capacities, including dog day care and boarding, wildlife, rehabilitation, zoological, captive animal welfare, research, and private training.

In this episode, you’re going to hear Emily and Ellen talk about why separation anxiety isn’t that different from other maladaptive behaviors, should you use food when working on separation anxiety, and how enrichment makes your SA training easier. All right. Here it is, today’s episode, Ellen Yoakum, Enrichment for Separation Anxiety.

Are you a pet parent or behavior professional, working with a dog exhibiting separation anxiety, and looking for even more tips from our very own Certified SA Pro Trainer, Ellen? Head over to petharmonytraining.com/satips, and we will send you a free video from Ellen with five of her favorite tips for working on separation related cases.

[00:02:42] Emily: All right. Let’s start, as we always do, by having you tell us your name, your pronouns, and your pets.

[00:02:49] Ellen: I’m Ellen Yoakum, I use the pronouns, she, her. Name, pronoun, and pets. And I have two dogs, which I think listeners have already been exposed to. I have Griffey, who’s a six year old best guess hound mix, and I have Laika, who is a 10 year old best guess terrier mix, and I also have my lovely partner in the house as well.

[00:03:13] Emily: Yes, your lovely partner, Nathan, who we all adore. Tell us your story and how you got to where you.

[00:03:19] Ellen: It’s always such a big question, so I’ll give you the abridged version. I think like most people in this profession, I had an affinity for animals at a relatively young age. And when I got to the University of Washington for my undergrad, I lucked out that we had a psychology department that had a big emphasis on animal behavior.

So, in my undergrad, I went and worked with Dr. Eduardo Fernandez, who also has a podcast episode that I highly recommend. And Drs. Jim and Renee Ha on animal behavior. And from there I worked in wildlife rehab, dog daycare, dog boarding, zoological, live education programs, dog training, and now behavior consulting.

[00:04:01] Emily: Yeah. And we scooped you up a couple years ago now. And we’re never letting you leave now. So, so you’re with us forever now. One of the things that you have special knowledge and skills in is how to treat separation related problem behaviors.

You even went through a certification program, SA Pro, I believe.

[00:04:21] Ellen: Correct.

[00:04:22] Emily: Excellent, and you are really kind of an ideal person to talk about how we address separation related problem behaviors through an enrichment framework, because you have this deep background in enrichment research and application, and now you also specialize in treating and addressing separation related problem behaviors.

So, can you talk to us about that? What’s your approach generally using the enrichment framework to address those issue?

[00:04:51] Ellen: Great question. I could talk about all of these things that you mentioned for days, hours. And I think the first thing that’s really important as a professional, because I will tell you back in 2018, as I was shifting back from zoologic to domestic animal work, I would be the first person to tell you I absolutely 100% do not wanna work with separation anxiety.

It’s scared the pants off of me. It was felt overwhelming in all of these things, and then I decided that ” Ya know what? You like to make yourself uncomfortable. This seems like a great way for growth.”

So, I think the first thing as professionals that we need to acknowledge is that if we’re working with maladaptive behaviors, whether it’s separation anxiety or we’re working with reactivity, aggression, resource guarding, any of the other things that we’ve talked about on this podcast, that it may look different, but the foundation is gonna be the same regardless of what issue you are.

So, if we’re looking at the enrichment framework, we might start with listing desirable and undesirable behaviors and goals. What are we trying to achieve? And that’s gonna be the same, separation anxiety, leash, reactivity, any of those things that we work with so commonly. The first thing is, what would you like to change, and to be as objective about that as you possibly can.

What do you wanna change? What would you like to see? And what are your goals? And once we set those, we have a nice foundation of what we’re working towards instead of what we’re working away from. And then from there, we can start to help families meet their animals’ needs that we’ve identified as a collective.

And one of the things that I always coach families on is that we’re gonna be working on a couple of different skill sets. It’s not just I want my dog to be home alone, or I want my animal to be home alone, because being home alone is comprised of a lot of different things.

Griffey who is my, I got this from a client last week and I will forever be using this is my “not his advertised dog.”

Some of you have heard me talk about him, read blog posts, he is the dog that had all the things that I was not interested in working through when I acquired him. As we were working through all of these things, we had to work on, can we leave you? So, can I leave the room? Can I leave the house? And you be comfortable with that?

Can you be home alone by yourself? That’s a different skillset than can you be cool while mom shuts the door to go to the bathroom, which was not something he could do when we first got him. Can you comfortable home alone for a certain level of duration. And when my partner and I looked at what that looks like, it looked like a dog who was able to sleep.

It looked like a dog who was able to drink, and eat, and play with toys without the presence of a human. When we were looking at the skill sets that he needed for that, it also included self-soothing, and coping, and self-regulation. Because whether or not Griffey was home alone, whether I was there or not, things would happen and he would react to them like sirens, motorcycles, dogs barking, packages being delivered, all of those things.

And before I could expect him to be comfortable home alone, I had to work on can you self-regulate with me home? It was too much to expect him to be able to without me. Come back down from this big explosion when a siren went by, so sometimes when we’re working on separation related stuff, we have to identify what are the needs that are gonna be foundational for you long term.

For him it was, can you cope, and self-regulate without me, but with me present for these other triggers that were something that you needed to work on? And I think we can often lose sight. Of the things that make up this whole suite of behaviors, because it’s not just be home. What do you want them to do?

How do you want them to spend their time? Do they have the skill set to self-regulate, and cope, and relax with you there, and then without your intervention with you there, and then without you there?

[00:08:49] Emily: Yeah, I love that, that we’re starting off with the same foundation, the same process that we always do, which is what can the animal already do? What would we like them to be able to do, and where are we hoping to get?

So, after we’ve established those goals and we have a clear picture of behavior, how are you looking at their kind of environment and their, the client capacity. And the dog capacity to determine how to treat this, what we’re gonna work on, and what you’re gonna prioritize, and all of that stuff.

[00:09:22] Ellen: Such a good question, and here comes the answer that everybody loves so much. It depends because it’s gonna depend on client skillset, it’s gonna depend on dog skillset, it’s gonna depend on what sort of support system the client has. I have clients that are like, “Yeah, I absolutely don’t have to leave my dog home alone while we work on this.”

And then I have other clients that are like, “Okay, most of the time I don’t have to leave my dog home alone, but there are gonna be times where I have to.” So, for some clients, we don’t need to create some sort of, when emergencies happen plan. Other clients, that’s absolutely necessary that we have some sort of plan about when you do have to leave.

So, that’s part of it. What is available to us in terms of time, energy, bandwidth, resources, and that’s gonna be different for everybody. And then sometimes it’s looking at what are the things that we can do in the day-to-day life that are going to help build a nice foundation for us to work on.

And this might be things like scent work. I get most, if not all dogs started on some sort of scent work cause there’s been a lot of research that indicates that it has really positive effects when we are working on behaviors that we might consider emotionally charged, or frightening, or anxiety inducing or something along those lines, and just for general welfare overall.

And if we look at some of the things that we often recommend as professionals, food puzzles, scent work, certain physical exercise options, really depends on the dog and any number of factors, but if we look at those and say, “How can I make those things that we have to do anyway work for me here?” You can get a lot of bang for your buck without adding a lot of additional weight, time, bandwidth, energy to your client.

So, it might be one meal a day, can we do through some sort of scent work? Or what about a midday scent work opportunity? Or if your dog eats raw food, can we do licking instead of out of a bowl or something like that? So, you’re meeting the client where they are, and trying to take the things that are already happening, and morph them into something that is going to be beneficial to your goal.

[00:11:25] Emily: Yeah, I love that. And I would like to circle back a little bit to something that you said because you hit on something that absolutely blew my mind when I first learned about it. Because when I started out as a consultant, I had been taught, a sort of standard sort of, sep-anx protocol that didn’t it was a little more floody than what we do now.

And one of the components of that was just practicing leaving them right off the bat. And then as I learned more, and more research became available, so we all, as a profession learned more, when they were like, “Hey, we actually shouldn’t be leaving these dogs alone until they’re capable of handling it, because the more that a learner is exposed to that panic inducing stimulus, the more deeply kind of, embedded that panic becomes, right? And that blew my mind, and it was like completely changed my outlook, and also made so much sense because I was like, “Of course that’s true. I can identify with that with the things that induce anxiety or panic in me. The more I’m exposed to them, the worse that anxiety or panic becomes.” This idea that they’ll just get over it is, is a misunderstanding, but also that just became one of the things that I dreaded the most about getting any kind of client with a dog who had separation related problem behaviors or any species, not just dogs, because for me it’s really hard to tell people, ” By the way, you can never leave your pet alone until we’ve actually gotten far enough in the plan where they can be left alone successfully.” So, I would love to hear you talk more about that. How do you address that, especially bearing in mind the enrichment that needs to happen for both the dog, or the pet, and the client?

[00:13:11] Ellen: I think this is a great element and one of the reasons that I was wholeheartedly terrified about working with separation related stuff is because I didn’t wanna be the bearer bad news. Nobody wants to be the, well, I would assume most people don’t wanna be the bearer of bad news. It doesn’t feel good it’s just not pleasant.

And we also know that separation related stuff, if we’re going with the let’s not leave the animal, let’s not go through these trials, is hugely impactful to the family that is trying to work through this with their pet. And also, that is not a deal breaker for me to work with a family because there are gonna be times where it may not be something that is available to us.

And instead of saying you can never leave your dog. It is going to be, can we leave your dog three hours less? Can we leave your dog a day less? Can we find a way to navigate and leave your dog for two days less? So, that we can approximate into that schedule with the wholehearted understanding that what you said is true.

If we have a dog that five days a week is left for 10 hours a day and they’re panicking the whole time, you’re not going to see the results of the progress that you want by practicing a safe session one day a week. That’s not going to tip the scales in your favor. And for me, it’s really helpful to think of scales when I’m doing this, have that visualization in my head of am I putting enough weight in this safe situation for my dog to be able to learn that?

And the other thing that we run the risk of is that the dog doesn’t feel safe when we’re trying to do the safe condition. So, if your dog knows that these things tell you that you are leaving the entire time you’re practicing, they might just be holding their breath waiting for that thing that is uncomfortable them, dog or pet.

So sometimes it is, can we approximate into not leaving your dog? And some people this is going to be readily available either because they have a great support system nearby or because they have multiple people in the house, and somebody works from home or any number of things. And then other people, it’s gonna be more difficult if you have a dog that doesn’t do well with other dogs.

Dog daycare is not gonna be available to you. So, we have to come up with some more creative ways to minimize the impact of the time that you do have to leave your pet home alone. And often that means bringing in additional people onto their team. Working with your veterinarian or a vet behaviorist to make sure that you have any sort of support that they can offer already on board before we start to try and make progress on these things.

[00:15:41] Emily: Yeah, I love that approach. I love how much care you put into meeting your human learners, where they’re at, and helping them to reach their goal by shaping through approximations, not just the non-humans. Obviously, as you know, that’s really important to me, and I have a similar analogy to yours.

I talk to clients, the scales analogy is beautiful. I actually think of it more as like movement through space where if we have an end goal, the more that we practice that, that safe experience for the animal, every time we practice that it’s like a step towards the goal, and every time the dog practices panicking while being alone, that’s a step away.

So, we have to make sure that we’re practicing towards the end goal more than steps away so that we’re actually in total making forward progress. I love hearing your analogy because when I can collect more analogies, I can pick the one that’s right for the specific client who might resonate more with one than another. But I love that so much.

So, you are taking care of both the client and the pet as you’re supporting them through this process. One of the things that I really love about your approach and what I learned from is splitting approximations, even tinier, so that instead of just focusing on the dog, practicing being alone while the client is gone from the house, the dog can actually practice being alone while the client goes to the bathroom or goes and gets the mail or the garbage can or something.

So, can you talk more about bridging that gap, like how you break those down? And identifying like where you, how you get from point A to point B?

[00:17:22] Ellen: Yeah, we talk about tracking progress a lot here in the Enrichment Masterclass, on all of our things because it’s really important to us. And sometimes what tracking progress can look like is reaching those milestones. Because when I have a family that comes to me and they’re like, “I need my dog to be home alone for six hours at most, six hours, and that’s gonna be four or five days a week.”

If we are tracking to your dog being home alone for six hours, it is going to feel miserable. Even if we go super-fast for separation related stuff, your dog is just blasting through and we’ve hit that like sweet spot where we can just get there. It’s gonna feel miserable to the person. So instead, we can identify, I’ve been doing this long enough that there are certain things that I know mean we’re trending in the right direction, and I can celebrate those with my clients.

So, there are certain things that I always track for my clients as approximations. And it might be those little things that your client comes to you and says, “I just want to.” When I have a client that says, “I just wanna be able to take the garbage out, that is not unreasonable.” Your dog thinks, or your pet thinks it’s unreasonable, but for you to say, “I just wanna take the garbage out or get the mail, or if I forget something in my car, I don’t want it to feel like this huge weight to go get it.” It lets your client take some load off when they’re working through these things so that they can really spend that time, energy, bandwidth thinking about the next thing, not preventing something.

The first thing I look for is the time that the dog chooses to go to their favorite bed instead of having to be with the person.

I remember there was one in one of our separation courses, we had somebody who said that they had to go out in the yard daily to check a fence line or something, and their dog hated the cold, but would go with them every single day because the cold was less worse. Being in the house with the door open and the first time that dog decided like, “You know what? I don’t have to go out in the snow.” That was huge. Because we don’t have a dog at that point that’s working under what is the least worse of these two options. We have a dog that gets to choose to think that they would rather do. So, it might be you can go out in the yard and your dog’s like, “You know what, It’s raining, not worth it.”

It might be a dog who goes and sleeps in their favorite spot, or a dog that goes in the other room to sleep in the sun. If that is something that you have observed that your pet really loves is sunning themselves or something along those lines, but they can only do it when you’re around. If you see that they leave the room you are in to go do that, that’s huge.

That is a massive win. That may feel really small, but it’s a really important first step. Being able to shut the door to go to the bathroom is another one. That was a huge one for me. For those of you that have heard me talk about Griffey, we brought him home, introduced him to our other dog. They did really well.

I went to the bathroom, shut the door, and he screamed like somebody was mortally injuring him. And so for me, the first time that I could close the bathroom door and he was able to be comfortable was huge. It took a huge load off of the number of stressful trigger stacking events that I was having throughout the day. Let your client tell you what is that like next step that they need to track to, rather than six hours or whatever it happens to be.

[00:20:42] Emily: Yeah, and it’s such an important component of helping people do this kind of, long term project, this journey that can take several months or more, to give them those like milestone goals along the way so that they’ve got something that they can celebrate between the beginning of the journey and the end.

So, I love that. All right. I have one last question for you. I wanna talk about the use of food in these separation related problem behavior protocols because, I think what happened a lot and with some of the older protocols, certainly the ones that I was taught when I started out, is people would leave kind of food puzzles or something to keep the dogs occupied during the day, and then they would leave the house.

And so, that ended up resulting in reverse conditioning. The food became the predictor of the aversive stimulus instead of the aversive stimulus becoming the predictor of food. And then we would have this problem where the dogs didn’t wanna use their food puzzles or they didn’t wanna eat those things because they were like, “No, you’re about to leave me when those come out.”

So, I think because of that, I think because of that history now, there’s almost a stigma against using food when addressing separation related problem behaviors. I feel like that’s throwing the baby out with the bath water and it was really validating for me when you came on our team to see that you also still do use food during this process.

 So, can you talk to us a little bit about why you use food in separation related problem behaviors, and also how you use it, or give us some examples of how you use it.

[00:22:14] Ellen: Yeah, and you’re right, there’s a really big stigma, and we tend to take a prescriptive approach that all dogs need X, Y, Z for this thing. Rather than a descriptive approach that says, “I think this dog would benefit from a tweak to the system.” And that’s not all people, you do the Google search and you’re getting blog posts that were written to hit the majority, not your specific situation.

So, it may not necessarily apply to you. When it comes to using food, there are a couple of things. One, it might be a beautiful approximation into your ultimate goal. The way that I tend to work with clients is different than a lot of the way I see other separation people working with their clients where they will provide a daily training plan, and here are the steps that I want you to go through, and all of those things.

When I’m working with clients, I really coach them to be able to do that on their own. It’s a skill set that can be really helpful for them. And I like having clients that don’t need me. Like I love to support them and I am there for them and all of that, but it’s really satisfying to me when I kinda work myself out of a job.

So, that’s one element of it. It can be a really nice approximation, especially for people who are used to using food. So, one of the things that I saw happening really frequently is that we have an idea of what dog training is. And we are training our dog, and so it should look like this. and instead of going through this whole big, long thing about why we may not be using food or any of those things, we can approximate that in and say, let’s start with food, lay a foundation, and then if we see that this is helpful for the dog, continue, run with it.

Griffey was one of those where food was hugely impactful to the progress that he made in the speed that he made it. And then if we see that food is not helping us, or is hindering the process, because I want a dog that’s snoozy and relaxed, and if they are super excited about food, that’s not gonna be helpful towards my goal, then let’s adjust and go from there.

But I don’t need to change everything all at once. I can change one thing at a time and see what happens. You may find that depending on how each dog presents with separation stuff, some will benefit from the use of food. Some will, their progress might be hindered by the use of food, and that can be influenced by a large number of factors.

I think the other thing to, to keep in mind is the that we used to have with using food is that we didn’t have the technology available that we currently have. Food had to come first. There was not really a way for me to say, “Hey, Griffey, you’re doing a great job.” Chuck food and not be present. Now, we have all sorts of devices that can help us do that with visual access to our dogs and say, ” Oh my gosh, you just went to your bed?” Boom, food. And as long as they’re eating, and they’re comfortable, and they should be able to eat if they’re comfortable to the level that I would like them comfortable home alone. Then congratulations, you went to your bed, and it rained your favorite treat. You played with your toy? Treats. So, that we’re also reinforcing all of those things that we want them to be able to do while we are not home.

[00:25:19] Emily: Yeah. All of those remote treat devices that are out now. I mean, first of all, they’re getting cheaper than they used to, which is great, but also there’s just such a wide variety of them, which is also great because different dogs are going to, or different pets are going to respond to different noises better, or people, the structure of their house, it’s gonna make more sense for them to use a certain technology than another one, or how far away they are from their house.

So yeah, I agree with you that all of those different devices are certainly helping us. It’s making our job easier. So, before we wrap up, I would love to hear if you have any final thoughts or any like morsels of wisdom to share, just to kind of wrap up and leave people with something that you feel really important, or really strongly about.

[00:26:09] Ellen: I, I have two, so I can’t just pick one. The first one is if you can’t do it what you think is a hundred percent, that doesn’t mean you can’t do it. That just means you need help. So, if you are somebody who’s ” My dog really struggles being home alone, and I don’t know what that first step is because I can’t commit to X, Y, Z thing.” Then work with somebody and ask if there are approximations that you can do, or perhaps we have some really clever ways to manage the situation that you have. Because, if you’re a pet parent going through it, one, I’m so sorry, it’s exhausting. Been there. Two, we don’t expect you to have all of the answers, that’s what we’re actually here for, to help you make all of those things.

And then the last one is that I encourage people to reframe when we’re doing separation training from, “they’re not anxious” to “they are comfortable”. I use the word snoozy. So, for me, that looks like a dog whose muscles are nice and loose, their breathing is deep and very rhythmic, their eyes are droopy, their ears don’t hold any tension. This is gonna kind depend on the morphology, the physical look of the dog, what that might look like. But I’m looking for those indicators that they are breathing soundly and deeply, at any point could fall asleep. And when we’re working on that level, we can really see every little thing, every approximation. So, if I walk six feet away and my dog’s eyes bolt up and they were about to fall asleep, that tells me a lot about the impact of me walking six feet away on my dog. It gives me a really clear, nice slate to work with, and it makes it much easier to see the impact of what we’re doing on our dogs’.

[00:27:53] Emily: Yeah, I love that piece of wisdom and it, and you give me a way to talk about relaxation in general, even when we’re not talking about the separation related problem behavior. Because what I have been telling people about the relaxation protocols is you want them, to be melty. That’s the word I use. And if there are anything other than melty that tells us that we need to give them more agency, and give them more freedom, and higher rate of reinforcement, maybe stay here before we move on.

And so, I love that you’re even more specific than me just saying like an animal is melty. You’re like, “Hey, look at if their eyes widen,” if you know something like that’s good information about how they’re feeling about this exercise that you’re doing. I’m stealing that from you

[00:28:38] Ellen: And I got that, I’m gonna give a shout out to Tracy Krulik who has since retired, but I did a mentorship with Tracy Krulik and we had a dog that we were working on and we got, we plateaued it like a minute, 45 seconds, two minutes, and could not break past that point. And we zoomed in on this dog, got the camera quite a bit closer, and we realized that for this dog it was holding its breath.

Every time that the person left, if you were too far back, the dog looked super melty. They were a puddle, but a minute, 45, 2 minutes, it was like can’t hold my breath anymore, gonna get up and be sad about this. So, for me it was looking for what is the tell for whatever individual dog we’re working with.

Eyes are usually a good one. Ears are usually a good one, and breathing is usually a good one as a foundation, but it’s always important to know what your dog’s individual tell is.

[00:29:29] Emily: Yeah. Yeah. I love that. That’s, that level of specificity is so helpful, and I think a lot of people, including myself, undervalued that level of specificity until we see how powerful it is. So yeah, thank you for bringing that up. All right, thank you so much for joining us for our mini-sode today.

I appreciate all the knowledge that you shared with us, and I will see you all the time because we work together.

[00:29:56] Ellen: It’s been fun.

[00:29:57] Emily: Yay.

[00:29:58] Allie: And here’s the outro. Okay. How good was that minisode? I feel so lucky and grateful to have Ellen on our team so that I get to experience her wisdom every day. Ellen is the epitome of embracing the Pet Harmony Enrichment Framework to achieve big results for her clients. You do not need to be me or Emily to do all of this.

Next week we’ll be talking with Dr. Jessica Heckman in Does dog breed affect behavior?

And remember, if you’re looking for even more separation anxiety tips from Ellen, head over to petharmonytraining.com/satips, and we will send you a free video with five of her favorite tips for working on separation related cases.

That’s Pet harmony training.com forward slash s as in separation, A as in anxiety tips petharmonytraining.com/satips.

Thank you for listening. You can find us at petharmonytraining.com and @petharmonytraining on Facebook and Instagram, and also @petharmonypro on Instagram for those of you who are behavioral professionals. As always links to everything we discussed in this episode are in the show notes and a reminder to please rate, review and subscribe wherever you listen to podcasts a special thank you to Ellen Yoakum for editing this episode, our intro music is from Penguin Music on Pixabay.


Thank you for listening and happy training.

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