Flitting Game... In Full, Extra Shiny...
Tedium and Boredom modelled excellently by Hattie Poodle!
The Flitting Game is something I came up with (following much discussion with another trainer Jo Law) back in the late 1990s/early 2000s - wow, I feel old! I actually don't know when but I was certainly posting about it on various forums almost 20 years ago! *fetches the zimmer frame* Since then it seems to have trundled round the internet all by itself, without me really noticing. Unfortunately as is often the case, bits of it have fallen off and got lost along the way - much to my surprise I discovered a Mumsnet post, stating boldly that the Flitting Game is NOT for dogs with separation anxiety! How strange... as thats exactly who it is for - but, it would seem some of the details and caveats, some of the nuance and subtlety has been... mislaid. I also notice lots of trainers sharing it (great! Please do, but credit me eh ;) ) but again, in a somewhat reductive version which in some cases may lead to it being used incorrectly. So here we go: Shinied Up, All the Deets... Flitting Game! Who is this for: Adult dogs who follow owners around like a furry shadow. Older puppies who we are assessing to see if they're ready for further training on being left alone. Who is this not for: Extremely stressed new rescue dogs. Tiny brand new puppies around the 8 to 14 weeks stage Dogs who still need to learn that home is a safe, secure place (ie are over threshold in their own home). Caveat: As with any behaviour modification, start out slowly, observe your dog. If it appears a game, method, tactic, plan... is sensitizing rather than de-sensitizing - STOP! This may be something your dog is not ready for now, but will be ready for later, or it maybe that this is not suitable for your dog or home layout. Also, re-read this, because of course if you're doing it wrong... it's not going to work! What is the purpose of Flitting? Many dogs follow us around, because they are worried we will leave, and/or because they don't know what we're doing when we are out of the room/gone/unavailable. Some will also do it because they have an expectation of reward (for example, if you go to the kitchen to make a cup of tea, is there a biscuit in the offing too?). To help dogs cope without us, it's a good idea to encourage them to choose to stay by themselves at times - that choice, whilst carefully engineered by us to be the one we want them to make, has to be informed by something or its not really a choice. So for example, if we give a dog with a big juicy bone and then leave the room - is the dog choosing to stay because they know following is boring, or are they distracted/overshadowed by the presence of the bone? We don't really have a way of knowing! So first we want our dog to learn that following won't be rewarded by us (caveat, it may be inherently rewarding for some dogs, the 'lifes natural optimists' and the types that simply adore being were we are, I'll come back to them later!), and may in fact be tedious, verging on irritating. Then we will occasionally introduce a significantly better option, to build a history of reinforcement in making the choice to not follow. Stage 1: Following You Is Boring... Pick 2 rooms, adjacent or nearby, not upstairs/downstairs and if at all possible, not the kitchen but, many people will have no choice but to use the kitchen (it's typically associated with food so if you can avoid using it in stage one, please do). When your dog is settled, set yourself a timer (silent!) on your phone and for 3 to 5 minutes, 'flit' between the two rooms. Move to the second room, linger for a few seconds, move back, sit briefly, repeat. Aim to spend a little longer in the 'start' room, where your dog is resting, than in the other room, and find something to fiddle with or break a simple task down into multiple stages - a cup of tea is a good choice. This is because simply moving to another room and then standing there like a lemon looks weird even to the daftest of dogs, and we don't want to sensitize or wind up your dog! 'Ignore' your dog - pretend you are ignoring your dog - if your dog needs a pee or has some sort of drama, casually stop the flitting as if this were your choice all along, and deal with your dogs needs, this is not a military operation! Sneakily, watch what your dog does - initially they are likely to follow, that is fine, as your dog can't learn it is boring to follow you if he can't follow you to find this out! Move off after a few seconds (this is not about building a duration of absence yet!), or as your dog settles into a sit or down, whichever happens soonest. Over the course of a few sessions, you should find your dog exhibits some, or all, of the following behaviours:
Huffing or slow to get up
Lingering in doorways
Side-eye as they get up 'what, really?'
Slow to follow once up
If you have these signs, your dog is starting to figure out that following you in this context is boring. If you still have a dog who bounces up and dashes to the room you're going to or is glued to your side, OR you find your dog is exhibiting signs of stress, for example more inclined to be barky, sleep quality drops, behaviour on the lead suffers, more chewy... then stop, theres likely something else that needs addressing and you can come back to flitting at another time, OR, your dog is not one for whom flitting will work as they're inherently reinforced by simply coming with you. Assuming you now have a dog who rolls her eyes when it becomes clear you're flitting, not genuinely going somewhere, and either lingers in doorways or doesn't follow at all - you can move to Stage Two! Stage 2: Not Following Might Pay Off... Continue doing the standard Stage One sessions - but now, occasionally begin just after giving your dog a really big bone or a large filled food dispensing toy - something sufficiently nice and also awkward to carry around. If your dog DOES try to lug the bone around to follow you, again, stop and either pause the whole concept for a bit, or go back to Stage One. Dragging the bone with indicates some level of anxiety - either in you not being there (less likely) or that the bone may be LOST/TAKEN (more likely). So these issues need addressing first. Hopefully you now have a dog who knows you're Flitting, and chooses to stay put to eat the bone OR if there is no bone, chooses to stay put because you leaving the room is not an exciting event. Proofing/Expanding/Adding Criteria: So far you have likely been working between living spaces/kitchen - so now add in either: Longer times out of the room: OR New rooms to go to. Any new addition or change to the routine should be the easiest one possible, and you should change one element at a time. So you may go and sit on the bottom of the stairs, or you may go living room to kitchen, rather than living room to dining room, and make the time short and easy. You may decide to stick with living room to dining room, but increase the time. You would not change rooms AND increase duration though! Have a good think about which locations in your home will be easiest for your dog, external doors (particularly the door your dog goes out through for a walk!) and upstairs tend to be harder than say, living room to back garden. What next? Once you have a dog who understands following is not reinforcing, you can add this in to other concepts/protocols you may be working on to address separation related problems. You can morph a flitting routine into desensitizing to touching doors, fiddling with keys, putting on shoes/coat etc. This is just one game or tool, from a range of things you may need to do to help your dog with aspects of separation from you. It is not the whole story, nor is it a magic wand, it is simply a way to incorporate desensitization to you moving around your home, into real life. What about puppies? Puppies, being brand new to the world, need to be allowed to follow you around wherever possible, to learn about what you do around the house. Shutting puppies away builds frustration, and they have no capacity to cope with being alone so that can also cause distress. Until a dog has some understanding of daily household life and the novelty value of simply living with you has worn off a bit, Flitting can simply wind up or sensitize them. The same applies to new rescue dogs - they need to be with you, bond with you, find security with you and in your home, so Flitting may not be right for them for a while. It's also not suitable for a dog who is not yet toilet trained, or who is in a phase of chewing/destroying stuff for fun, as the game requires freedom to move around. What if it doesn't work? If this doesn't suit your dog, or your home, your dog may not yet be ready for this, or you may need to start desenitizing them at a much lower level - for example, you might need to run through simply standing up and sitting down again, doing several repetitions over a short session, and several sessions a week, until you can stand up and move without them leaping up. Take into account anything else you are dealing with/your dog is dealing with before attempting any behaviour modification. If you're also working on lead reactivity, chewing, barking, fear of specific things or your dog is recovering from illness or injury, or they have pain ongoing - it is not kind, fair or effective to work on everything all at once! It may be useful to occasionally test a new dog or a puppy with a short Flitting session, not to train or modify behaviour, but simply to see where they are 'at' currently. Bear in mind that puppy progress comes and goes, so what a puppy is ready for today, may not be suitable next week - meet their needs where they are now! ©Emma Judson - 2023 (Flitting since at least 2008!) Please feel free to share this content in its entirety only, with credit to Emma Judson. Do not trim, edit or amend!