Dogs on Boats: Situational Separation Anxiety?

August 8, 2022

This summer at the marina, my normally calm and content two-year-old English cream golden retriever, Annie, developed what I’ve coined “situational separation anxiety.”

At home, Annie doesn’t seem to favor either me or my husband, although it’s evident that I’m disciplinarian and my husband is the “fun” one. But this summer at the marina something bizarre transpired: an unequivocal preference for my husband.

No big deal other than a bruised ego, right? That’s what I thought. Until it turned into Annie incessantly whining, barking, and pouting if she couldn’t have 100% unrestricted access to my husband.

Let me explain: if my husband walks to the bow (front) of our boat, Annie will chase him up the gunnel. If he gets into our dinghy (a small boat used to get to shore) without her, she’ll jump into the dinghy (even if it means falling into the water!). If he walks down the dock without her? A near total meltdown (even if I’m on the boat with her!).

Desperate to find some answers, I searched the internet for help but came up empty-handed. Sure, there are a bunch of articles on dog separation anxiety, and owner preference (Fun fact: it can switch throughout life!).

So, I turned to Annie’s dog trainer Lee Desmaris of Zippity Do Dog Training for help. Lee specializes in working with dogs who struggle with anxiety and fear-based aggression. She is a fear-free, force-free trainer who uses only scientifically proven training methods that do not involve the use of aversive training tools or techniques.

Lee reminded me of a skill (i.e. stationing on a mat to relax) I had long since abandoned practicing with Annie because I didn’t see its value at the time. Turns out that was a bad idea.

Here’s what she recommended:

For problems like Annie’s, I love using Leslie McDevitt’s Control Unleashed (CU) program and would make my first step a re-acclimation to stationing on the mat, which is CU Foundation skill. For Annie, this skill should have a strong reinforcement history because it was previously taught in puppy training.

However, we didn’t practice this skill on the boat, so we would want to build a strong Conditioned Emotional Response (CER) to being on the mat, while on the boat, first. From there the focus would be on shaping Annie to a down position while on the mat, then down to her hip position being rolled out, rather than having her rear legs directly underneath her because this is when dogs are most likely to pop up and out of position. With her hip rolled out, her body would be in a more relaxed position.

Once Annie has mastered a relaxed body position on the mat, we would focus on teaching her a start button targeting behavior, ideally a chin rest, that would be shaped to a target. Start button behaviors are any behaviors the dog has learned to use as a “cue” for the human to do something, or for the human to ask the dog to do something or to offer consent. In this case, Annie would learn to ask for “Dad” to leave by using her start button behavior of a chin rest. (Note: now Annie will understand what she is supposed to do while stationing on the mat). From the mat, the next skill would be Leslie’s Requested Approach Training or (RAT), except, in this case, it would be used in reverse. The RAT game empowers the learner to direct how close they will get to something, or how close something will get to them. In Annie’s case, we would do RAT in reverse letting her control when Dad leaves the boat.

It would look something like this: station on the mat in a relaxed position, offer start button behavior, Dad starts to leave, Annie gets fed, and the food continues until Dad returns, then the food stops.

The entire CU program is about having a silent conversation with your dog and allowing your dog to have the latitude they need to overcome whatever their issue(s) might be. This ultimately leads to empowering the dog that is worried about a specific thing and provides them with a safety net as they work their way through it. So, you may be wondering, does it work? I don’t know…yet. It’s fall now, and summer seems so far away. But I know what I’ll be doing in the meantime: working on Annie’s mat stationing!

Have you and your pup experienced situational separation anxiety? If so, what did it look like and how did you and your pup deal?

Live in Massachusetts and interested in training with Lee? Check out her website here: []. I can’t recommend her enough (and that’s my honest, unsolicited opinion).