Canine Behavior/Dog Anxiety and Giving up vs. Not providing fully
My husband and I are full time students and we work almost full time as well. We have a 5 year old corgi named Destro. I have two questions.
1 - We haven't been able to spend as much time with him as he needs lately and were wondering should we give him up for adoption hoping someone could better care for him? We don't take him on walks or to dog parks and he has to wait about 6 hours between bathroom breaks. When we are home he's let out of his room (he has a walk in closet as a room with a window.. so it's about 3x4 in floor space), and we play a little or pet him, but I'm afraid this isn't good enough and that he might be better off with someone else. I'm also afraid that if he is with another family, what if they don't take care of him and we put him in this stressful situation of an entirely new environment for no reason?
2 - All of a sudden, within the past weeks, we've noticed he's been chewing his paws when left alone. We'll come home and they're worse.. I'm assuming this is from boredom or anxiety. He has shown signs of anxiety before. We've tried creating food games for him and put pillows or blankets in his room with our scent on them and it seems to lessen the severity of the wounds (for lack of a better word.. it looks like a skinned knee). I was wondering if you had any helpful ideas on what we could do to treat it (like dog neosporin) and if we could do something else to help him relax?
I was considering getting something I saw at Wal-Mart, it's a vitamin for dogs that is supposed to reduce anxiety. Please let me know what you think of these two questions, any help is appreciated!
ANSWER: Thank you for your questions. Your first questions makes clear just how much you care about Destro and his happiness/well being. So my first question is this: is he happy when he's with you? Does he enjoy snuggle time? Petting? Playing with you? Other than his paw licking (I'll address that in a minute), does he seem depressed? Lethargic? Uninterested? Hesitant to engage? At 5 years of age, while still young and vital, he doesn't need as much exercise as he did when he was a puppy. He's a middle-aged man now and therefore more settled than when he was a youngster. Providing him with potty outings - even just brief 10-minute walks if you don't have a yard - is an acceptable off property exercise time. There are things you can do in the house that can provide both physical and the equally as important, mental activity to help ensure that he's living a fulfilled life while you and your husband are working and in school.
I understand your concerns for his happiness and it's appropriate at this moment for you to be wondering if perhaps someone else can care for him better than you. I can't make that decision for you, I can only guide you as to the pros/cons of such a decision. Yes, he may end up in a home with people who have loads of time, perhaps some kids to play with him (if he likes kids) or another dog to keep him company (if he likes dogs). But perhaps he'll end up in a home with just as little time as you have. We have no way of knowing this for sure. We have to put our trust and faith in the rescue who agrees to take him in as a foster. Taking him to the local shelter (as opposed to a foster) does include a real potential for euthanasia simply because there are so many dogs and cats that come into shelters every day. I don't say this to try to scare you out of doing what is best for you and your husband. But we can't ignore that possibility either. Perhaps a compromise might be a friend or family member who would be willing to care for him until you're out of school. This way you can visit him regularly, maybe have him on some weekends, etc. Perhaps if you continue to pay for his food and vet care, a friend or relative would be open to this idea for you.
But, he has a safe space which is "his" room and he seems comfortable there for the most part. He enjoys your company when you are home with him... So perhaps all you need to do is schedule in a half hour or hour once or twice per week (perhaps you have one session and your husband has another) for some undivided quality time with Destro. In the evenings, you can build in playtime with him right into your own dinner or study time.
When I was a full time graduate student, and teaching undergrad, my dog got less attention. At that time, it was just the two of us. She had a dog door to a fenced back yard, so potty wasn't a problem, but I didn't have as much time to take her to parks and on outings as I had previously. Dogs are incredibly adaptive. She lay on the floor next to where I was studying. I used to joke that she was the most well educated dog in the nation because I would read aloud, partly to be "interacting" with her and partly because some subjects like statistics were just so boring that if I wasn't reading out loud, I wasn't registering what I was reading... She would chew on a favorite toy while I studied. When I took a dinner break or time to watch an hour of TV, I'd play fetch with her, so she was getting exercise and attention from me, even though I was also doing something else. She was happy with this. Sometimes, our off property time was only once per month, rather than every weekend, but I would try to remember that I needed to recharge my own batteries if I wanted to do my best in school, and so that hour of time in nature with her wandering around off leash, or at the local dog park, was as important to me and my overall success as it was to her happiness.
You didn't share what kind of food games you've tried with him. There are loads of variations, and you can be creative in making your own as well. And some of these can be used while you're home studying, so that he can be with you and enjoying himself in your presence, even if your attention is not fully on him.
As to the recent paw chewing... how recent is this? Did it happen to coincide with warming weather? It could be allergies, one of the most common manifestations of allergy in dogs is licking/chewing paws, scratching their chin, ears and belly. You may see all or just one or two of these. It can also be a sign of boredom or anxiety. But before we jump to that, since I'm guessing your school/work situation has been going on quite a bit longer than the sudden onset of the chewing (unless you just started school a few weeks ago), we need to rule out a medical issue that may be easily treated. You're right to be concerned since you're noticing a red/rawness to the area. Continued local irritation by licking can actually cause infection, making it much worse. So you should take him to the vet now to ensure that he's not already got a staph infection. If he does, it's easily treatable with antibiotics and topical sprays to help ease the itch/irritation so that it can heal properly. If it's allergies, then there are allergy medications he can take through the season to help minimize his reaction.
If it truly is a boredom issue, there are things we can do to help entertain him while you're out. Feeding him all his meals in the form of stuffed Kong toys is a great start. You can be creative in the recipes you use for this, though the bulk of the stuffing should be his regular kibble/food so that he's getting his proper nutrition. I've yet to be able to get an entire meal into a single appropriately sized Kong for any dog, so you'll probably want to have a handful of Kongs in your home. I have 7. This allows you to prep meals ahead of time for him, store them in the fridge and then just grab what you need when you need them. They are dishwasher safe for the top rack.
If you're regularly home for his dinner time, then perhaps he only needs his breakfast this way (though the joy of the activity is great even when you are home with him, and can help to give him something to do while you're studying, even as you're also petting him). Putting one or two Kongs in his room with him while you're gone gives him something to do. He may go at it for a while, then give up or take a break, then return to it when he's bored or gets a bit hungry again.
To begin, don't stuff them too full. The first couple times, you should give it to him while you're there so you can see how skilled he is at emptying the Kong. If he's emptying the thing in just 5-10 minutes, then you can stuff it a bit more compacted. If he's only getting the first inch or so out and then gives up completely, then don't stuff it so full. We need to find the balance for him so he can empty it (or nearly empty it), but it should take him 20-30 minutes ideally. By the end of that half hour, he's going to be ready for a break. The beauty of the Kong and other similar toys is that they are self-reinforcing. We don't need to train the dog to like it. As he chews, licks and otherwise engages with it, he gets food! That's good. He likes that and is likely to go back to it again and again. Also, chewing is a self-soothing behavior and so he's getting the stress relief of chewing and he's getting food! That's a very good thing. You can also stuff Marrow Bones or any number of other stuffable type dog toys. You can rotate between toys to keep it interesting for him from one day to the next, or put a Kong and a marrow bone in so he has two different approaches to his food that day.
There are also toys like the Kong Wobbler or the Tricky Treat ball which are used only with dry food. You'll have to show him how it works and help him learn the game of these (knock it around/roll it around and sometimes kibble comes out). You can add a couple of these kinds of toys to the mix as well.
You can also put on talk radio softly so he has voices, or a dog-soothing CD such as Through a Dog's Ear
to relax him during the day. If you have the finances, you could hire someone to come in and do a mid-day walk with him - spend a half hour, give him a walk and some love/snuggle/play time. If you don't have the finances for a professional, you may have a local neighbor kid who loves dogs who could use a little pocket money, or another student who maybe has a different work schedule who would just want to spend an hour studying at your house/spending time with him while you and your husband are out. If you have someone walk him for you, I encourage an arrangement where a daily note is left to let you know if potty happened (if it was pee or poop), and what time they were there as well as what they did. This way you can keep track of Destro's day and you have an assurance every day that the person did actually show up.
Kong stuffing recipe guidelines: The overall ratio should be roughly 85% regular kibble, 5% other goodies and 10% a dog-safe soft food to use as a binder.
Other goodies can include any dog-safe food Destro likes. It could be a few little treats of his own, or it could be shredded carrot, chunks of cheese, a bit of bacon or chicken (meat or skin), some hamburger, blue berries, melon or pineapple (not too much, it's acidic), slivered almons, some cheerios (assuming he's not allergic to wheat), broccoli or peas or green beans, etc. Anything he likes so long as it's not toxic to dogs.
Binders can include: liverwurst (most dogs love this, but it's high in fat, so I always cut this with something else), cream cheese, peanut butter, sour cream or cottage cheese, plain yogurt, apple sauce, Beechnut Baby Food (NOT Gerber - they tend to have onion and garlic, both of which are toxic, and corn starch which can be an allergen), mashed potatoes (no garlic), sweet potato puree, pumpkin puree, or you can just soak half of the kibble in a low sodium soup stock (beef, chicken or vegetable) until it's mushy. I usually combine at least 2 or 3 of these binders. Liverwurst and Peanut butter I always use with something else because they're very high in fat. But the low fat, low calorie options such as the purees can be used solo if the dog prefers that.
I encourage changing the recipe up so that every couple days, there's something new and interesting for him to eat. If you have 8 Kongs (2 per day for 4 days), I might do 2 Kongs each with a single recipe and then put them randomly into a storage container in the fridge, so that I can grab them and we never know which one he's going to get... This keeps the whole thing interesting for him. And, you can stuff a hollow marrow bone exactly the same way you stuff a Kong, and you can refrigerate or freeze them the same as the Kong as well.
There's also a toy called an Everlasting Treat Ball. It's shaped like a hemisphere, so it's difficult (though not entirely impossible) for the dog to just bite. They can scrape their teeth on it and mostly they lick it. This can be a great replacement to his own paws. There are 3 or 4 flavors to choose from, so you can rotate that as well, as he finishes chicken, the next might be bacon flavor or peanut butter flavor (if those are the flavors - I don't recall just now...).
Game time in the house with you can include hide-and-seek for his meals. You can hide kibbles around the house and encourage him to find them. You can teach him to search boxes and hide the food in just one box. Just a few kibbles, then take him out of the room, reset the food in the same box, but move the boxes around and let him search again... You can use a laser pointer to get him running up and down halls or around the room. If he's running in a circle, make sure you switch to running the other way every 2nd or 3rd rotation so he exercises both hips equally. While he's chasing the laser bug, drop a treat or kibble every now and then and have the laser bug land on it so he can "catch" something periodically. End the laser game with him catching something and then switch to a different game, whether it's a few minutes of wrestle or tug or "here's your food-stuffed toy..."
In the end, you should have the paws checked out before you make any other decisions. It may not be a sign of depression, loneliness or even boredom. It could be allergies or an insect bite that's gotten infected. So your worries may be misplaced.
As for keeping him vs not, only you and your husband can make that decision. You need to do some serious soul searching and decide what you two are able to commit to and what Destro's needs truly are. There may be an easy compromise with a dog walker or a friend/relative keeping him for you while you're in school - with visitation of course. Or you may find that you really do feel what's best for him is to find him a new forever home. If you decide on the latter, I would approach local rescues and tell them that you'll keep him until they find a home for him. Most rescues are already at maximum capacity and will likely tell you they have no room for him. But if you're able to continue housing/loving him while they look for a new home for him, they're much more likely to be willing/able to assist you. And who knows, perhaps while they're searching, you'll find that you and your husband are able to make some minor adjustments and his needs are being met and you feel you can keep him after all.
I'm sorry I can't simply tell you what to do here. I hope I've been helpful with my thoughts and suggestions. Please feel free to followup if I can be of further assistance.
Los Angeles Behaviorist
---------- FOLLOW-UP ----------
QUESTION: Thank you for your response! I really appreciate your advice on soothing him, I'll have to look into the cd you mentioned. We give him a kong and we've done foraging games but I never thought of doing more than one kong.
I took him to the dog park today and he's exhausted :). And, yes, in answer to your question, he's always happy around us and always ready to play.
I told my husband your ideas on soothing and the fact that you said he doesn't need as much exercise as he used to, and how you coped with your dog while going to school and it seemed to relieve the stress of feeling like bad caregivers. I would absolutely hate to give him up so we'll try to adjust our schedule to taking him to the dog park at least once or twice a month and fit in 10 minute walks as well. Thank you again for your suggestions and compassion!
Also, in SF, there's a no kill shelter that waits a period of time to try and find a home, and if they don't get adopted, you take your dog back. But they never euthanize, my brother's dog (had behavioral problems and he was forced to choose between spending time with his newborn and training the dog) even with all of his problems was able to find a home so that's where we would have gone.
I'm glad I was able to help you feel better about the current situation. Remember that school is temporary and you have holiday breaks when you can "make it up to him" with lots of extra special time and outings and such.
Don't forget to have the vet look at his paws. Even if the licking is just from boredom, licking can open the skin to infection, and since you're seeing it red and irritated, the vet should make sure he doesn't need medication to help fix the problem, at least something topical to help dissuade him from licking while the irritation heals.
Good luck. I'm sure you and your husband will find that minor adjustments to the schedule - even if it's just 5 or 10 minutes of active play time in the house - will be easy to fit into your otherwise very busy schedule and so your pup will feel he's getting his needs met, even though you two are busier than you used to be.
Los Angeles Behaviorist