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Managing Your Dog's Separation Anxiety

Missing you

Domesticated dogs naturally prefer the companionship of their humans. It's one thing to have your dog follow you around the house amiably, however; it's quite another to learn that your dog howls relentlessly when you're at work or defecates in the house to show his displeasure at your absence. When your dog's behavior in your absence seems extreme, he might be experiencing separation anxiety.

dog waiting at window

Canine separation anxiety is a set of behaviors that occurs in some dogs when their owners or "family" are not present. These behaviors include "destruction, vocalization, elimination of urine and/or stool, anorexia, drooling, attempts at escape, and/or behavioral depression," according to Debra F. Horwitz, DVM, as stated in her article "Separation Anxiety in Dogs" (Atlantic Coast Veterinary Conference, 2001).

Symptoms and treatment

It is important to realize that the symptoms listed above are not always indicative of canine separation anxiety. They can be indications of boredom, lack of exercise, or poor or incomplete house-training. Medical conditions can cause many of these symptoms as well. If your dog exhibits any of these symptoms in your absence, it is important to talk to a veterinary behaviorist for an accurate diagnosis and a treatment plan. In this author's opinion, separation anxiety may be the second most over-diagnosed canine behavior problem after dominance. However, it is important to address any and all individual problem behaviors. A competent veterinary behaviorist should be able to offer effective behavior modification techniques for any of the symptoms, whether or not they result from canine separation anxiety.

When your dog's behavior in your absence seems extreme, he might be experiencing separation anxiety.

Once an accurate diagnosis has been made, treatment is usually a combination of medication and behavior modification, depending on the severity of the condition. Medication can play an important role in the treatment of genuine canine separation anxiety. It can provide a window of opportunity to undertake behavior modification techniques in real-life settings, something that can be difficult to implement without pharmacological assistance. Sometimes real life raises criteria too fast for effective behavior modification; medication can provide a necessary advantage and relieve a beloved pet of discomfort and anxiety.

Internet searches provide a vast amount of information about the treatment of canine separation anxiety. Keep in mind that a veterinary behaviorist is the best source for treatment protocols. This article's single useful exercise seeks only to give an understanding of the behavioral principles at play in canine separation anxiety.

The Calming Yo-Yo exercise

The Calming Yo-Yo exercise is designed to teach a dog how to remain calm during short, controlled absences from its owner. This exercise is useful for dogs who suffer from very mild to severe cases of separation anxiety, or for dogs who just don't like their owners to leave the room. A professional diagnosis of canine separation anxiety is not necessary to begin this exercise, but if your dog has a strong reaction to this exercise, it would be wise to consult a competent veterinary behaviorist soon.

The Calming Yo-Yo exercise is designed to teach a dog how to remain calm during short, controlled absences from its owner.

The principles of the Calming Yo-Yo exercise are the same as for most realistic, sensible treatment protocols, which makes it easier to understand how those protocols work. The insights gained from this simple exercise make it less likely that serious errors will be made if or when more complex behavior modification procedures are attempted.

What the exercise does is demonstrate to the dog that being calm is the quickest, most reliable way to bring an owner back. Being anxious, whining, barking, stamping paws, panting excessively, or straining at the restraint won't achieve the dog's goal.

Like any good behavior modification program, this exercise starts off simply and works up, ensuring success all the way. It is important to make it easy for the dog to succeed at every step. Without success, there is nothing to reinforce; without reinforcement there is less of the desired behavior.

Getting ready

To start, find some way to restrain the dog so that he can't follow you. This can be a tether, a crate, a baby gate, or even a helper. It doesn't hurt to repeat the exercise with each of these restraints if they are available. Mix it up whenever possible, as it will be more practical to use one device over another in various situations. To simplify the explanation of the exercise, however, we'll assume that a tether is being used.

Make sure that your dog is in a harness or a wide, flat buckle collar fixed to a hook, post, or door handle-leaving just enough length of leash for your dog to sit, lie down, or turn around. As for you, start by standing immediately in front of your dog. Be quiet and calm. Don't give any cues—saying "Wait there, I'll be back in a minute" or "Stay," for example—as we want the ready behavior to be a default and not something that needs to be cued.

If your dog is excited, wait for him to calm down before beginning. Allow plenty of time to complete this exercise; you can't bail out partway through if your dog is displaying anxious behaviors.

Raising criteria with the 300 Peck Method

  • Take one step away from your dog. If he is calm, click your clicker and return to your dog.
  • Take two steps away from your dog. If he is calm, click and return.
  • Take three steps away from your dog. If he is calm, click and return. If he is not calm, wait quietly until he calms down, then click and return. Then start again, taking just one step away from your dog.

The method used here to raise criteria is known as the "300 Peck" method. The 300 Peck Method directs you to raise criteria by one step each trial until failure, and then reset the criteria to one and start again. This method is an easy way to raise criteria while achieving a very high rate of success.

The 300 Peck Method is an easy way to raise criteria while achieving a very high rate of success.

With these small successes, you'll soon run out of room and will have to go through a doorway and out of sight. In keeping with a "set your dog up for success" policy, don't leave the room just yet. Take the dog to another room and repeat the procedure—from the start—in that room. Do this in several rooms in the house and then perform the exercise outdoors.

Moving out of sight is a big leap and would raise the criteria too fast if plenty of trials in different locations were not attempted first. In many outdoor locations you can take dozens of steps away from your dog before you move out of sight. When you can take 20-25 steps away from your dog while he remains calm, go back to the first room and try an "out-of-sight" trial where you move into another room.

When it's time for out-of-sight trials, start counting seconds out of sight instead of steps away. The exercise now uses a duration criteria rather than a distance criteria. Ultimately, the aim is to be able to stay away from your dog for long periods of time without your dog displaying any anxiety. This exercise is the first step toward that goal, taken under controlled and achievable circumstances.

Note that a baby monitor can be helpful in the advanced stages of the Calming Yo-Yo exercise, so that when you are out of normal hearing range you can still hear your dog.

What if my dog fails?

If your dog does not remain calm at any of the steps outlined above, all you can do is wait for calm, then click and return. Reset your criteria to one step away and try again.

Anxious behavior is just behavior. It looks and sounds terrible, but it can't go on forever. If your dog (or anyone nearby) is not coming to any physical harm, then wait it out. If you really can't wait it out, at least wait for a reduction in the anxious behavior before you return to your dog. If the anxious behavior is extreme, seek professional help sooner rather than later!

Where are the treats?

In the Calming Yo-Yo, exercise you are not asked to give your dog a treat, or play a game, or offer any of the usual rewards used in clicker training. If your dog has canine separation anxiety, all he wants is for you to be near him. Any other reward is unnecessary and can even fail to communicate the intention of the exercise.

If your dog has canine separation anxiety, all he wants is for you to be near him.

For a dog suffering separation anxiety, your return is an effective reinforcer. You will get confirmation of the reinforcer with the effectiveness of the exercise. Ideally, calm behavior will increase and you will be able to move further away, or remain out of sight for longer. If this progression does not occur, discontinue the exercise until you have sought professional help.

The Calming Yo-Yo exercise attempts to increase the threshold of how far away you can go from your dog or how long you can stay away from him before he becomes anxious for your return. Show him that you always come back if he remains calm. Tossing a treat confuses the issue—and the dog. If you toss a treat, you are not showing your dog that you always come back when he is calm, but instead you show that he earns a treat. This may or may not be a good reinforcer for a dog suffering from separation anxiety.

Watch and wait

Do we know if the Calming Yo-Yo exercise produces changes in internal emotional states? No, we can only observe the dog and the results. When you think about it, it's observed behavior that leads us to believe that a dog suffers from separation anxiety in the first place. Otherwise, we wouldn't have any cause for concern!

The Calming Yo-Yo is a basic and fundamental exercise for the treatment of separation anxiety. Keep in mind that in any separation anxiety case there can be aspects of the problem that require treatment and guidance from a competent and qualified professional in order to achieve the best outcome.

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Clicker or voice?


I'm new to this site and also a newbie in clicker training.

I have a 6 years old Spanish Waterdog suffering SA. When she was a puppy, we took her to a dog trainer coming from the 'old school' (positive punishment and all that stuff), and the result was null.

We've been 'avoiding' the problem because we used to let her in a place where her barks couldn't annoy the neighbors, but it's not our situation anymore.

I'm starting to train her with the clicker, just a few tricks, but i don't know if it will confuse her if i don't use any treat after clicking (i think her learning capabilities are not as flexible as a puppy ones, even though she's really smart and works really good).

Will it be better to use a vocal tone instead of the clicker?

Thanks in advance.


Excellent article

I am going to use this protocol to teach my dog to be calm and quiet when I tie her outside of a store.

Using the ultrasonic home system in the meantime

The landlord is about to evict me after so many tenants complain that my dog howls all day while I am gone.  She is a 2 year old pit from the local shelter, and I have had her for about 2 weeks.  She gets a long walk then into the crate with chew toys.  I have a calming collar on her that emits phermones.  The only thing that keeps me from getting evicted is using the ultrasonic home system.  Will this have a long-term adverse affect on her?


Thank you,


Laurie Luck's picture


Hi Melissa,

I'm not familiar with your ultrasonic home system. If your system works by emitting an unpleasant sound/ultrasonic frequency, then it's a system based on punishment. The dog barks, which triggers the unpleasant sound, thereby reducing the barking. Generally, we like to change behavior using positive reinforcement instead of punishment. Punishment often brings along many unintended adverse consequences. If your dog is barking because of anxiety, for example, punishing the barking is likely to cause other adverse reactions. 

Can you have a friend, neighbor, or dog walker come in a few times during the day? Can your dog spend a day or two a week at doggie daycare? Can you spend time implementing this Yo-Yo program to teach your dog to be calmer and quieter during your absence?


Laurie Luck, KPA-CTP
Smart Dog University, LLC  
Faculty, Karen Pryor Academy for Animal Training and Behavior
Mount Airy, MD || (240) 394-1112
Join me on Twitter  and Facebook
Visit the Smart Dog Blog for information on all things dog!

Hey Aidan, I have two dogs,

Hey Aidan,

I have two dogs, older Whippet mix (6-years-old) and my "little problem" (2-years-old) Cirnechi.

Though the younger one is the "problem" with his behavior (barking and howling when left alone) that's been going on few months now and I was so happy when I founded this article! It was like answer to my prayers! 

I've been exercising Calming Yo-Yo while they're together  'cos my older dog stays calm while I'm gone and I'm hoping that she would help the younger one staying calm when doing exercise (and eventually in real too). So here's the question: Do you think I should start teaching my younger one on his own or just teach them together to the point he gets the point of this exercise and start teaching him on his own after that?

(He's checked by vet and he's OK. I also founded DAP and I've been using it all the time now.)

Laurie Luck's picture

Hey Aidan, I have two dogs,

Great question Elsake! I would practice the Yo-Yo exercise in whatever situation the dogs are normally left alone. So if they're usually together when you leave, I'd practice the Yo-Yo exercise that way, as that's going to be the "real-life" picture the dog will see. 

I hope this helps!


Laurie Luck, KPA-CTP
Smart Dog University, LLC  
Faculty, Karen Pryor Academy for Animal Training and Behavior
Mount Airy, MD || (240) 394-1112
Join me on Twitter  and Facebook
Visit the Smart Dog Blog for information on all things dog!

Why would clicking and treating be bad in this exercise?

Hi Aidan,

A great article! A couple of questions, though, I don't understand how clicking and treating would 'confuse' the dog? Isn't getting the treat for staying calm an extra R+ on top of the owner coming back? And for beginner clicker people and dogs clicking here without treating, I would think THAT would be confusing to both the owner and the dog? In one of your earlier replies you do say that you use another type of event marker now, which I think I would rather do as well.

We will test your protocol soon!


Best regards,


Mirkka Koivusalo, Karen Pryor Academy Certified Training Partner

MINDFUL BEHAVIORS-Positive Reinforcement Based Dog Training


mirkka [at] mindfulbehaviors [dot] ca

Laurie Luck's picture

Why would clicking and treating be bad in this exercise?

Hi Mirkka,

I'm not Aidan, but I think I understand his reasoning behind not clicking and treating with food. In essence, you are clicking and treating. Except that in this case YOU  are the treat! Your return to the dog is the only thing the separation-anxious dog is looking for. If you were to click and deliver a food treat, the dog might well think you're clicking a specific behavior, especially if the dog is a veteran at clicker-training. In this case however, we're simply clicking for calm behavior and then retuning - the thing the dog most wants. We're not mixing in another reinforcer -- food - into the situation as it will most likely just get in the way of the learning. The fewer elements to this equation the better. Hence, you -- the person -- are the ultimate reinforcer. 

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Laurie Luck, KPA-CTP

Smart Dog University, LLC  

Faculty, Karen Pryor Academy for Animal Training and Behavior

Mount Airy, MD || (240) 394-1112

Join me on Twitter  and Facebook

Visit the Smart Dog Blog for information on all things dog!


7 month american bulldog pup


  I recently adopted a young american bull dog pup from he local pound. She is a great dog but has fear issues as well as SA from what I see. We are crate training

her (at least till she is potty trained) and when ever we leave, even for a short time, and come back she is soaked!! She drools out of control, she is always foaming from the mouth and some times we find her with her stomach hard and inflated. I have been working on making her kennel a more positive place. But like you said in you're article her progress does not move as quickly as real life. I am thinking I am going to need to turn to medications but I am looking for any further

suggestions. Am I right in thinking this is SA?



Airedale Puppy - not coping with being by himself

Hi Aidan,

Excellent article.  I always enjoy your contributions on the Training levels list as well. Must be the Aussie perspective (i'm in sydney). 

Anyway, I have just got a 6 month old airedale (2 weeks ago) who wasn't hugely socialised prior to me getting him.  He has bonded very closely with me over the rest of the family so that he tends always be keeping an eye on where I am even though he plays with everyone else in the family. I work in the city so even though I am up a 5.45 to walk him and do some clicker training, I am the first to leave.  The kids don't go till about 8.45 and my husband has his own business and is in and out all day.  Kids are home by 4ish (husband picks them up) then I get home about 6ish.

He is an outside dog during the day and an inside outide dog when we are home.

We have been told by the neighbours that he howls all day when we aren't home.  He isn't into balls or games much, won't look at or play with a treat ball, and I think he works himself into a bit of a vocal frenzy (nothing has been chewed or dug up). He is pretty hysterical when we first get home but I have told the kids and my husband to ignore him until he has pulled himself together a bit.

Do you think  this yo yo approach will help in this situation?




Aidan Bindoff's picture

re: Airedale Puppy - not coping with being by himself

Hi Jean,  I would probably try a DAP Diffuser first with this pup.



Separation Anxiety - 2 different reactions

Hello Aiden,

I have an adopted 8-yr old mini Doxie who came from TN to NJ 2 years ago. She bonded immediately with me and is a very sweet girl - except that she makes in the house as well as the yard, has terrible seperation anxiety expecially when at my in-laws home where we must keep her locked in the bedroom with the other calm Doxie because she goes after the big Lab, and wakes us up in the middle of the night sometimes 3x to go out in the yard. We are at our wits end with how to manage her and she is now managing us (all 8lbs. of her). The YoYo excercise sounds like a plan for the anxiety but what about the other behaviors? Oh, and did I mention she eats poop too!

Terribly frustrated - any help you can provide is most appreciated.


Julie Jerome

Aidan Bindoff's picture

re: Separation Anxiety - 2 different reactions

Hi Julie, have you had a full medical check done? I would be booking a consult with a properly qualified veterinary behaviourist. Medication may be appropriate, if not long term, at least short term so that you can get a kick-start and work on the toileting issue (which may or may not be related to anxiety).

After the medical check I would also crate train her, and use the crate particularly at m-i-l's house and during the night. Set your alarm for some time in the middle of the night, and take her out just the once each night, setting the alarm a little later each night. But see the vet first to rule out any medical causes and possibly get a start on anti-anxiety medication if prescribed.

The calming yo yo will be a very useful adjunct and I do suggest you follow this plan, beginning immediately.

Coprophagia is probably a separate issue, just keep the yard tidy and maybe experiment with diet. There is a lot of information out there on that, raw feeding can often help.

click = one treat,

I'm a bit confused. I understood that one click = one treat / game. If there is not either, clicking does not seem to be the correct reward marker. Am I wrong?


Aidan Bindoff's picture

re: click = one treat,

The "treat" is the owner returning, which is what a dog with SA really wants.

Barking possibly separation anxiety

Hi Aidan,

I have recently bought a German Shepherd from a PAWS Centre interstate. While he is very well trained

and well behaved, I have been told that he barks constantly when I leave him.  He rarely barks at other


I live in a van in a caravan park and have been threatened with eviction.  

I have tried a muzzle, an Anti-Bark collar, giving him a bone, giving him some of my clothes, Kongs, toys, long walks before I leave, but nothing seems to work.

Excuse my ignorance but I don't know what a clicker is.

I am new to this area and need to find work but don't know what to do to stop my dog barking when I'm away..

My dog only seems to do this when I go out in my car or my bike. 

Hoping you can help us,

Ricky and Rex


Aidan Bindoff's picture

re: Barking possibly separation anxiety

You may have figured out what  a clicker is by now, if not then explore this site further.

You don't need to use a clicker for this exercise, and these days I actually recommend

a vocal tone, something longer, but still unique.  You need something to "mark" the

response, and this will also serve to tell your dog that you are coming back.


This exercise would be a very good one for you.  Read it a few more times and really figure

out what is going on here - you are telling him "the best way to bring me back is to be calm".

300-peck yo-yo protocol for sep. anxiety

Hi Aidan,


I've just begun to employ this method with a client of mine whose dog doesn't really have separation anxiety, but rather issues with being alone.  He's fine when there is someone in the home but whines and cries when he's by himself.  Other than a few scratches on the door, there is no other evidence of servere anxiety.

My question to you is:  When starting the Yo-Yo protocol do you wait for a calm behavior first before moving back your first step?  And I'm also curious as to when you might add turning around.  My feeling is that after the dog has had enough practice of backing away in say, 5 rooms, the owner could easily begin to turn her body instead of backing up.  I read in a previous post that you just add it in and make sure it's successful.  Correct?


Thanks Aidan, I'll await your answer.


Deb M

Happy Tails Family Dog Training

Las Vegas, NV

Aidan Bindoff's picture

re: 300-peck yo-yo protocol for sep. anxiety

Hi Deb,  I'm not clear on your question.  I wait for calm behaviour before clicking and returning, unless the

dog is really bad, then I would wait for the least intense response.  You are correct on the other point.

Separation Anxiety

Hi Aidan,

I moved to D.C. a few months ago, and I just brought my dog "Taco" with me, a Chihuahua. He's amazing a very well behaved when I'm in the house and super obedient. however, i just realized that he's having big separation issues, up to the point that the neighbors have complained. He whines the entire time that I'm not with him. So I'm feeling trapped in my apartment, can't go anywhere because I'm afraid he'll be whining the entire time. And I definitely want to keep him with me.

What can i do to make it better. Can I fix it?



Aidan Bindoff's picture

Can you fix it?

Hi Marycarmen, I'd certainly give the Calming Yo-Yo exercise a good run. It's a fairly long progression to being able to leave for hours without whining, but if the journey is worth it and you can work on it almost every day then it's worth a try.

Speak to a veterinary behaviorist about a clinical diagnosis and potentially medication (short-term) to make the process easier.




Sanja Miklin's picture

dog-dog separation anxiety

I'm writing here seeking some advice on dog-dog separation anxiety. everything i read so far on separation anxiety referred to what happens when owner leaves and dog stays at home. Well, I don't have a problem with that. I have a problem when I take one dog out and the other one stays in. I'm not sure if that is separation anxiety, but that term seems to describe what my dogs are going through.I have two dogs, an older male and a younger female. If i would have to put them in some order in the pack, than the female is on top i would say, very often.and she's not this calm benevolent leader...
anyways, if i take the female out, the male is nervous, barking but i think calms down easier. If i take the male out though, problems arise. if the female is in the yard, she'll bark, whine for minutes, sometimes even until we come back (lin an hour and a half or sth).if she's inside, she'll just run around the house, look through the windows and won't be able to come down. she seems very stressed and nervous. sometimes, when my dad takes the male out, i try to make the female calm down but forcing her to stay in one place, holding ehr on a leash. that usually helps her calm down a lot. i think that just franticly running around feeds her arousal. but when the male is out, it doesn't seem to help much.
what is going on? what should I do?

Sanja Miklin


LPC UWC, Hong Kong

Aidan Bindoff's picture

Dogs who don't like to 'miss out'

Hi Sanja, I think your best bet is to use this exact same protocol but have one of your dogs with you on-leash while you do it.

I would have the other dog crated if your dogs are well crate trained. Then later on you will be able to leave one dog crated while you take the other out.




Separation anxiety

Hi Aidan,
I am getting a puppy Shih-tzu on Nov. 24 but will have to leave the country for two weeks Dec 17 thru Jan 3. I have a dear friend who has two shih-tzus who i have taken care of when she was travelling, so naturally, she will take care of my pyppy. How soon does one start training for separation anxiety? My pyppy will be 8 weeks old when I take her home. Should I start the next day?

Aidan Bindoff's picture

Preventative SA training?

Hi, when I wrote this article I had dogs with established separation anxiety problems in mind, but after thinking about it I can see no reason why this wouldn't make an excellent preventative protocol.

So go for it! I think it's a great idea, and you know what they say - an ounce of prevention or a pound of cure.





Constructional Anxiety Treatment?

Goes nicely with Constructional Aggression Treatment, don't you think?

I've been informally using Kellie's CAT on my aggressive and timid lab animals and they work wonders on both behavior issues. They set the stage for the R+ quite beautifully, elegantly, even.

If I have an animal with separation anxiety I will definitely use your process. Gentle R- does have its place in training, imho, when it is saving an animal from a much worse situation.

Aidan Bindoff's picture

-R or +R?

Hi Mary, I avoided mentioning the 'n' word :-)

Two views:
1. the owner leaving is an establishing operation, and the return is a positive reinforcer (positive reinforcement)
2. the owner leaving is aversive, and the return is a reinforcing consequence (negative reinforcement)

As such I have simply referred to this as reinforcement, without saying whether or not it is positive or negative.

HOWEVER, I would agree with you that it is negative reinforcement because the reinforcer (aversive event) is present during the response. Functional Analysis in individual cases might tell a different story, though.

We're certainly not doing anything unavoidable, I think that's a key distinction. A remote training collar is avoidable, leaving the dog for periods of time isn't. It's going to happen anyway. If we were to use Classical Conditioning to deal with this problem then the dog would still be exposed to the aversive, and the process would almost certainly take much longer compared to this procedure. End result - happier dog in less time. That's something we all learned from CAT.

So is it CAT? I can tell you I first used this procedure 4 years ago with my GSD at Urbandogz School when an instructor needed to hold her for me for brief periods, but back then I thought it was a +R procedure. It wasn't until Kellie started talking about CAT that I realised that it probably wasn't. I also used to mix in food, depending on the criteria. Since CAT I have realised that this is not necessary.

I should add that this procedure would likely be improved by taking what has been learned from CAT - longer sessions spaced very close together with limited opportunities to fall back into unwanted behaviors (i.e reinforce unwanted behaviors). Andrea Bratt-Frick has written to me and advised that she has used this procedure many times with great success, and she uses longer sessions (up to an hour).

If anyone wants to know what on earth CAT is -
see Constructional Aggression Treatment by Kellie Snider and Dr Jesus Rosalez-Ruiz.




Separation Anxiety

Another great article, Aidan. I'm adding it to my "Positive Petzine Collection to use as a reference. It's amazing how often this topic comes up. I also think the behavior exhibited by a dog with separation anxiety if too often mistaken for a dog that hates his crate. Doggy is kept out of his crate to make him feel better. Doggy loses out on having a "safe haven" while he's stressed. Thank you for an article that is straightforward and user friendly for a dog's person to implement.

Separation Anxiety

Barry McDonald
DogSense Training and Consulting
APDT # 69416
225 Rod and Gun Club Road
Forestburgh, NY 12777
BMcD [at] hughes [dot] net

"A dog cannot be bad; it can only be a dog."

When I use the Yo-Yo method, I sometimes begin by backing away at first, one step, two steps, etc. up until about ten steps. Only then do I begin turning my back on the dog before walking away--one step, two steps, and so on. After the appropriate number of steps, I turn back to face the dog. By backing away at first, I believe I'm making it easier for some dogs to succeed.

I wondered if you usually turn and walk away from the dog (back to the dog) from the start? Or do you also employ backing away? Advantages of each?

Aidan Bindoff's picture

backing away

Hi Barry, I just do whatever it takes to set the dog up for success while working towards an accurate replication of an actual situation.




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