Canine Behavior/Foster with Separation Anxiety?
I am fostering a suspected Boxer-Pointer mix who is a 4-"peater" at our Shelter: once as a stray puppy, twice as an abuse/neglect confiscate from two different owners, and finally as an adoption return because a landlord claimed she was a Pitbull. I have 5 years experience as a volunteer rehab behaviorist at the Shelter but would like your opinion on Lady's behavior. Lady attaches very quickly and strongly to her people; her greetings are frenzied and involve climbing all over you when you sit down; if separated from her safe-spot or person she will open the door by scratching at the knob until she gets it open. She is not destructive (other than to doors), terrific with my two male dogs, just hyper-dependent on her people. It is my plan to very gently crate-train her so that she can be safely left by a future adopter. What I can't figure out is how to lessen her need for her people...as possibly ridiculous as that sounds, everyone wants a dog that loves them! Right now her adoption prospects are limited to full-time care. Any suggestions you can give me would be greatly appreciated!
Kudos to you for taking on a project dog with this much baggage. It's such a shame that she's had such a hard life to this point. Hopefully, with some love and patience we can get her to the point that she can finally find her forever home and she can live the rest of her life the way she was meant to - in peace and security of family.
Gentle crate training is a good start. She should be getting all of her meals by way of stuffed Kongs and they should happen in her crate. Loosely stuffed (or a little more packed in if she's got a very dextrous tongue), and as many Kongs as it takes to provide her entire meal. Ian Dunbar helps dogs want crate time by letting them watch him load the Kong. He'll show them all the goodies - chunks of cheese, bits of bacon or fried chicken skin, chunks of melon or sweet potato (cooked), etc. So long as it's a dog-safe food, you can use it in this initial training. Show her the yummy, entice her with it but don't let her have it. Then stuff it into the Kong. The overall Kong formula should be about 80% her regular kibble, 10% other yummy treats and 10% some kind of soft binder to hold it all together (see below for binder options). Once the Kong is stuffed, tease her with it a little - let her sniff it, but don't let her have it. Walk it over to the crate, tease her with it again and then toss it in the crate and close the door - with her on the outside with you. She should be super eager to go in after it. Wait about 30 seconds (but don't wait so long she gives up trying to get to the Kong). Then, after about 30 seconds, you say something like, 'Oh, I'm sorry. Did you want that???" and open the crate door. She should charge in to get to the Kong. When she does, close the door gently and let her have her Kong for about 5 minutes. Then, open the crate and call her out (leave the Kong in the crate) and close the door again. Tease her and entice her with the fact that the Kong is still in there and still loaded with goodness. After another 30 seconds or so, let her back in and close the crate door again. After another 5 - 10 minutes, you can unlock the door and open it quietly. She's bound to stay in there until she's finished the Kong at this point, but she'll be free to get up and come out when she's done (not trapped).
Repeat that exercise several times over a few days, and all meals should be done this way. After 2 or 3 days (4 or 6 meals), you should be able to add in a cue such as "crate up", give her the Kong and close the door. Leave her in there until she's finished and then let her out. Then build up the time so that she has to wait 1 minute after finishing the meal, then 2, 5, 10, 15, 20, 30, 45, 1 hour before the door opens and she is free to come out. You may have to start with 5 seconds, 10 seconds, 30, etc. Build up as slowly as necessary that you are letting her out BEFORE she begins to panic and vocalize or start trying to dig her way out. Don't just increase the length of time linearly. Once she can stay in there for 1 minutes after she's done, then start varying it randomly so that her wait time might look like this:
1 minute, 20 seconds, 45 seconds, 10 seconds, 90 seconds, 1 minute, 2 minutes, 30 seconds, 90 seconds, 1 minute, 2.5 minutes, 1 minute, 3 minutes, 10 seconds, 1 minute, 30 seconds, 10 seconds, 4 minutes, 2 minutes, 1 minute, 4 minutes, 3 minutes, 5 minutes, 30 seconds, 10 seconds, etc.
By varying it and building up as you do this, Lady will learn that it's not the case that every time she's in the crate it's for a longer and longer period, but rather sometimes it's just for a few minutes. Once she can be crated for 2 minutes with you present, you'll also start to build in out-of-sight. Initially it will be literally walk out of her sight and promptly return, with no hesitation. Then, just like with being in the crate generally, you'll build up 5 seconds, 10 seconds, etc. And just like above, you'll randomly vary longer and shorter out-of-sight crate time so that she gets used to it.
If she can sleep in the crate in your room where she can see you, that will help make the crate a comfortable and safe place (even if this means two different crates - one in the living space and one in the sleeping space). There should be a comfy bed in every crate and if she's in the crate, she should have something to do such as an antler or marrow bone if it's not Kong time.
As she gets comfortable with 30-second out-of-sight stays, you should start to crate her every time you need to go to the bathroom, or if you go to refill your beverage glass, etc. Little moments when you're still home, but will be out of sight for a minute or so at a time. You can also do this part simply by tethering her to something solid if you don't want to crate her for this. But she needs to learn some independence. Try to build up to being able to take a shower and get dressed all while she's out of sight. This should initially start during meal times when she is able to be in her crate AFTER finishing her Kongs for 20 - 30 minutes. That gives you nearly an hour of crate time for her.
You probably also want to try some tools that may help ease her anxiety a bit. I've had great luck with the Thunder Shirt
which is now available in all major pet stores. It's about 85% effective in that 85 out of every 100 dogs who wear it show some decreased anxiety. It's NOT to be worn 24/7. The effect of the shirt only lasts between 30-90 minutes and then the dog habituates to it. It won't harm her if it's on for a few hours, so you can put it on before leaving, but understand that the comfort of the shirt wore off after about 90 minutes. Taking it off for a few hours and then putting it back on can reestablish the effect for another 30-90 minutes. I've not done any formal study, but have found in my own dog that wearing the shirt for an hour or so, twice per day (and often during non-stressful times such as meals or play), can result in a lingering effect of increased confidence, even when the shirt isn't on. I recommend twice-per-day wearing daily for 3 weeks for this effect to manifest. You can put it on her for crate Kong time. You can put it on for walks or play time, or just hanging out. It shouldn't just be tied to scary stuff or the shirt can become a cue that something unpleasant is about to happen.
You may also try Through a Dog's Ear
or another similar CD designed for soothing dogs. The classical music selections on this disc have been proven (via a formal study) to calm anxious dogs. You may also try DAP - Dog Appeasing Pheromone
. This is a synthetic version of the pheromone that nursing mothers produce and is supposed to have a soothing effect on anxious dogs. Again, it can't hurt to try it, though there's no hard evidence that it works. I've had people swear by it and others say it did nothing. I would suggest either getting the plug-in that can be plugged in right next to her wire crate when it's crate time, or the drops that can be put on her collar a minute or 5 before crate time. I wouldn't bother with the ready made collar as the pheromone will wear off and need to be replenished anyway, so it seems more cost effective to me to plug in the wall difuser when necessary or put the drops on her collar (or the bedding of her crate) when needed so that it's fresh and potent each time you need it.
If none of this seems to helping, you may need to discuss with a vet getting her on something like Clomicalm - doggie antidepressant used for separation anxiety - as a way to help her feel stable enough that the rest of this stuff can work. The drug is a tool to be used with the behavior modification protocol, it's not the fix in itself. The idea is to wean her off the drug as quickly as possible somewhere between 4 months and 1 year. It takes about 4 weeks before you'll see a benefit from the drug if you use it as it needs to build up to a therapeutic dose in her body before it actually affects any behavior change.
**Soft binders for Kongs are any dog-safe soft foods. These include (but certainly aren't limited to): apple sauce, Beechnut baby food, peanut butter, cream cheese, cottage cheese, sour cream, plain yogurt, liverwurst, pumpkin puree, sweet potato puree, mashed potatoes (no garlic), carrot puree, high quality canned dog food, a portion of the dog's regular kibble soaked in a low sodium broth (beef, chicken or vegetable) until it's mush, and then use that as the binder...
I hope some of this proves helpful. Please feel free to followup if I can be of further assistance.
Los Angeles Behaviorist