My dog Bamboozle has problems. He barks frantically, digs at his crate until his paws are red and swollen, wails like an abandoned child,and hyperventilates so dramatically that people stop to see if he's choking.
I know -- a dog trainer and an applied animal behaviorist, with pet problems... I should be ashamed. Some of my advisors have urged me to stay hush. In my house, however, no one takes my accolades too seriously -- least of all my dogs.
I have tried reasoning all four of them, of course. I spell out that they are "The Dog Trainer's Dog." They're supposed to be the models of perfect behavior from puppyhood to maturity. And while they sit politely and patiently, ears pitched to my reasoning, they really don't understand a thing I'm saying. And thank heaven for that.
Dogs on the whole do not respond to our words so much as our actions. They're more impressed with body posture and attitude than logic. I'm amused with people who say they've mastered their dog's behavior, or proudly claim dominance over their pet. I question if these people know their dog/s at all. Good dog training should encourage a two-way communication, an exchange of thoughts and ideas, a friendship between two different species.
So why, if I know all this, am I having behavior problems with my youngest dog who just turned a year-old? Well, I have four dogs and the truth is I've had issues with all of them at about this same age. Adolescents, it's never a pretty sight, no matter what your species. Whoopsie, my aging Labrador, was a counter cruiser in her day, stealthily waiting for backs to be turned to make her move. Balderdash, my German Shepherd rescue is a stress-monkey, and at least initially, would destroy doors, furnishings, and clothing whenever something triggered his tension. Hootenanny, our Golden-mix was what I call a "High Tailer." The moment I called her name she'd pause, look me straight in the eye, and pull a 180 degree turn as she high tailed it away from me.
Boozle, God bless him, is a dog all his own. His vice? Separation anxiety, which is an internal and physiological disruption as opposed to an externalized reaction such as jumping, chewing, or barking.
Last week I released Part One of this two-part series on separation anxiety, detailing our efforts with this condition. Read over this blog for a more detailed description of the various products and medical approaches that can help soothe a dog with this disorder.
Since this posting, I've received many emails and a few comments about various pheromone releasing products that synthetically introduce a "canine appeasing pheromone" to calm dogs during anxiety producing transitions including (though not limited to): separation anxiety, socialization, and thunder/firework phobias. While I've dabbled in herbal remedies and heard accolades from those who've utilized the related products, I've never had the opportunity to test it on my own brood. I talked in great length to Elizabeth Hodgkins, DVM, the director of veterinary services at Ceva, the company leading and distributing these therapies. I followed up our discussion with a conversation with one of my personal veterinarians, Dr. Steve Immerblum who sells the Adaptil products out of his Goldens Bridge Veterinary Care Center. Dr. Immerblum commented on the feedback he's received saying" I have found Adaptil is of significant assistance to some dogs, but makes little change in others. Response can't be predicted without a trial. However because it seems to be completely free of side effects, it is a valuable adjunct to behavior modification efforts in dogs with anxiety, fearfulness and/or phobias. It is important to remember that anxiety, fear, and phobias tend to worsen without appropriate interventions. "
I decided to give this approach a go, ordering the Full Monty -- from collars to room diffusers. Stay tuned to my blog for the results!
Today, however, I am going to sit down at my computer with Boozle on my lap and my inner dog trainer at the keyboard. I invite all of you experiencing separation anxiety with your dog to listen in.
The gospel truth? Dogs don't like being left behind. It's as simple as that. Once you can evoke some empathy for your dog, you'll appreciate their predicament. As sociable loving creatures, most dogs, if not all of them, would rather follow you than be isolated in what they consider a den (aka your home). While many dogs learn to tolerate routine and irregular departures, it's no picnic.
Of course, I wish I had a nickel for every time a client claimed their dog misbehaved out of "spite." Spite is pretty high up on the evolution scale -- on par with vindictiveness and the opposable thumb. Dogs capable of spite? Humans better beware.
If you consider Dr. Jaak Panksepp's research detailing a dog's five key emotional centers -- seeking/curiosity, play, fear, frustration, and panic -- ask yourself what your dog might be experiencing when the door closes on his hope, his optimism? Frustration -- definitely for some dogs. Fear? Yes, others fear isolation like some toddlers fear the dark. Panic? There is my issue: Boozle panics, going so deep into his fear of loss that he cannot access reason or routine.
For dogs experiencing separation anxiety, there can be no discipline -- not one iota. I know that heirloom doily made it through four generation before being shredded like confetti, but it's gone. Try to put it in perspective. A dog who is disciplined for behavior that occurred in a state of extreme panic or toddler-like frustration will grow even more desperate. Not only will this dog regret your departures, it will learn to fear your arrival as well. End result? More anxiety displaced behavior, not less.
So where to begin? Discover what triggers your dog's tension. Is it your keys, putting on make-up, or a phrase such as "Be back soon?" If so, try to link those early departure cues with play or seeking routines such as food rewards, meals, a satisfying chew, or favorite toy/game.
When you do have to leave, be subtler, even trying to slip out when your dog is unaware. When you return stay calm and detached, especially if your dog is reactive or hyper excited. Reinforcing these high emotional states only confirms the anxiety. Answer an email, make a call -- even take your dog out if you fear he might soil, but do not look to, caress, or speak to your dog until he's calmed down. Practice short departures when you need to go to the bathroom or speak on the phone. Tell your dog to "Wait," offering a toy or bone as a displacement activity and leave for a minute or two behind a closed door. If your dog over-excites to your reemergence, stay cool. Ignore him until he's come back to his sense and reward or pet him calmly.
Finally, try to organize a safe place for your dog. My German Shepherd, also a mildly neurotic, but lovable rescue, feels safer in his crate than roaming the house when I'm gone. Boozle, on the other hand, would scratch himself raw. His safe place? Gated in our bedroom, blinds drawn to induce rest and a sound machine set to a gentle heartbeat. Since last week I have left him with a Snuggle Puppy dog (which I would not recommend for dogs who chew destructively) and have wrapped him in a Thunder Shirt. Though these products have improved his anxiety, he still falls apart when we're forcibly separated by as much as two feet.
While I'm onto blogging about pool behavior and dogs who need swimming lessons, I will update my progress with Boozle both on this blog, as well as my new radio show "Your Dog's Best Friend." Feel free to write in questions about this or any other dog or puppy related topic and I will answer both in written format and on the radio (changing names to protect the innocent of course). Better yet -- circle the time and call in live! As we air on Internet radio, you can pick up my show anyplace you can get a connection. And even though you might be ready to head off on a summer vacation, I'll be here answering your questions, make no bones about it.