Canine Behavior/Onset of bizarre separation anxiety
QUESTION: I have a five year old male neutered poodle mix weighing about 14 pounds, "Pierre" that I have had since he was a small puppy who has been displaying very bizarre behavior since right around Thanksgiving 2013. A little background. My mother is 68 years old and I am 48 years old. We live together and have done so his entire life. No children in the house. We adopted two dash hounds nearly 16 months ago and Pierre likes both of them. Both are spayed and neutered. We have not gone on any trips or left him with anyone and he has never gotten lost or out of the house. According to my mother, Pierre has only displayed this behavior when I leave.
During the Thanksgiving holidays Pierre began to get upset when I would leave for work in the mornings. I usually leave at around 5:45 - 6:00 in the morning so it is still dark when I leave. The behavior has escalated from crying, whining and jumping on me to literally charging the door snarling and growling at me, trying to get in between me and the storm door. This behavior also happens during the daytime when I leave for errands on the weekend. I've noticed that just before I leave (picking up purse, keys, etc.), he starts getting "mouthy"; grumbling and pacing around while watching me getting ready to leave. If I forget something and have to come back in (pretty rare) Pierre is "mouthy" the entire time I am getting what I need and leaving again when he starts the behavior up again. Before November 2013 he didn't even react when I left, other than lifting his head to watch as I walked out the door. My mother tells me that as soon as he hears my car door close the behavior stops. If I leave during the day when she is awake, my mother tells me that he stands at the door with his tail wagging as if I'm coming back for a few minutes before going to play with the wiener dogs.
I have tried the following to help the situation. Several minutes before I leave, I get down on his level and pet him and talk to him, telling him to "be a good boy" and "I'll see you later" - that doesn't stop the behavior. As soon as he starts I will try reprimanding him "bad dog" "no" - that escalates the behavior. I try going out a side door, he just follows me with the same behavior. Ignoring him does no good either. A few times when my mother has been awake I have put him outside before I leave and that works, but she is usually asleep and I don't feel comfortable leaving him outside in the dark for an unknown amount of time - he is an indoor dog who goes outside to play and poop. I'm not sure about crating him before I leave because it's an open crate, more of a cage than an closed in kennel, so he can see right through it. That is one thing I have not tried.
I'm sorry if I seem to be rambling but I want to give you as much information as I can. He is a well behaved guy 89% of the time and with this new behavior coming out of nowhere I'm not sure where to turn next.
Thank you for taking the time to read this, any advice you can provide is greatly appreciated.
ANSWER: Hi Shelia (did you mean Sheila, or is "Shelia" correct?),
Thanks for the detailed information. I have a few questions of my own.
You say the behavior started around Thanksgiving. Did anythnig change then? Were you home for a few days, and then the behavior started? Did you have people over for Thanksgiving? Anything you can think of that was a change for Pierre?
Where are your two Dachshunds when Pierre displays the behaviiors you describe when you leave?
Where does Pierre sleep during the night? Does he wake up with you, or with your mother?
Waiting for your responses, and then, either a few more questions <smile> or my response. One thing I can say straight away is that I would change the way you behave when you leave, but more about that later when I receive your responses.
Madeline Friedman, M.A.
---------- FOLLOW-UP ----------
QUESTION: Nothing that I can think of. We went out to family for a few hours on the day of and did a little Black Friday. I spent 5 days off (Wed before Thanksgiving - Sunday after) and went back to work, I think that might be when it started. The holidays had everybody's schedule erratic, but that's never bothered him before. The only odd thing I can think of is that we were receiving a lot of boxes at the front door and all three dogs (yes the girl too) would hike their legs on them in protest.
At the beginning, when I would leave in the early morning the dachshunds were either in their dog beds on the floor or lying on the couch looking at Pierre as though he was nuts, but in the last 7-10 days the 18 month old male "Hot Rod" has started barking along with Pierre. The female just rolls over and goes back to sleep. I think Hot Rod just likes to make noise whenever he gets the chance (mostly when he's awake, but he's a bit of a goofy dog). On the weekends they could be anywhere in the house or outside playing. When they hear Pierre go off though, they come running into the living room.
Most nights Pierre sleeps with me. Sometimes he will stay up with my mother (when she's having a late snack) and ends up sleeping with her. He is usually at the end of my bed, but sometimes I will wake up and he'll be sleeping right next to my head.
This is all I can think of. Anything you can suggest I do about this is really appreciated, I feel like my loving dog has been replaced by a pod person, or pod dog.
Hi again, Shelia,
I'm getting an interesting visual thinking of a small poodle as a pod dog!
Let's see if I can help you unravel this.
I think several factors MAY be contributing to Pierre's new behaviors.
First, I think the schedule changes around the beginning of the holiday season, starting with Thanksgiving, contributed to Pierre's having a bit of separation anxiety when you leave. The fact that the behavior starts with all the classical signs predicting your leaving, such as picking up your purse and keys, is classic separation anxiety. This probably started because you spent several days home. Normally, that might not cause a change in behavior, but Pierre is 11 years of age, so other contributing factors might be changes in his sight or hearing, which might render a senior dog more insecure than usual; or, changes in his medical condition. One thing I would recommend is a Wellness visit to a veterinarian mentioning Pierre's "new" behaviors and the items I mention here, and ask your vet about any other tests she or he would recommend. Changes in thyroid or cortisol levels can change behaviors in dogs and other animals, as a couple of examples.
You're not sure how Pierre will behave in a crate. If he hasn't been crated with the door closed before, you can try it, but if it doesn't go well, you'll need to get him out of the crate immediately, as some dogs can try so hard to escape that they bloody their paws and mouths trying to get out. A better suggestion might be to try to gate him into a safe and secure area. How do you think Pierre would react if you gated him in with your mother while she's still asleep when you leave? You say that he has less of a reaction to your leaving when she's awake and with him, so being in your mother's presence might work.
Unfortunately, Hot Rod seems to be picking up Pierre's undesirable behaviors, so I would make sure that the two are separated when you leave. As well, Hot Rod may be reinforcing (rewarding) Pierre's behavior by joining in, and that will make the behavior more difficult to change. Not only that, Hot Rod may continue the behavior on his own, even if Pierre's behavior changes for the better. Dogs can pick up both good habits AND bad habits from each other!
I think, too, that you're inadvertently rewarding/reinforcing Pierre's behavior by kneeling down and telling him that it's "okay," and even saying "bad dog," as, for dogs, as with children as well, sometimes any attention, even negative attention, is GOOD attention. I would keep your comings and goings as low-key as possible. I know you wrote that you've alreaady tried that, but it doesn't sound as if you've tried consistently without "caving" to Pierre's demands - and, just in case you didn't know this, randoming your behavior actually INCREASES your dog's behavior in reaction to what you're doing! So, if sometimes you ignore him, and then sometimes you're trying to soothe him, your being random about how YOU have been behaving has actually been STRENGTHENING Pierre's anxiety behaviors!
There's a good book that you can get called "I'll Be Home Soon." It explains in very simple and do-able terms how to deal with dogs that are suffering from separation anxiety. One of the exercises I can tell you about here which is in the book concerns dealing with the classical conditioning components which start to trigger Pierre's anxiety, such as picking up your purse and your keys. If you do this over and over again on days when you're NOT leaving, Pierre will start to regard these actions as not relevant to your leaving, and he'll be less likely to react to them by starting to get worked up. Start this exercise when you have at least a few days off in a row, and each time you repeat the actions of picking up your "I'm Leaving" items, walk to the door, turn right back around, put everything back down, and just sit and ignore Pierre for several minutes. Rinse and repeat about 15 times! I know this sounds like a lot, but repetition is how dogs learn. If you can repeat this several times throughout the day, you may see quick results, even over a week-end.
Last, but not least, poodles are pretty intelligent dogs. I've owned a couple of poodle mixes, currently own one, and have worked with many. They're dogs that need a "job" and which like learning, tricks and training, at any age. See if you can spend a few minutes a day teaching Pierre some fun tricks and training. Some suggestions are: look right, and look left; look up; Put your chin on my knee and get a treat; Go to your bed, lie down, and get a treat; walk on hind legs; weave through your legs six to eight times in a figure eight; and, touch your tail with your nose, to name a few. You can lure Pierre into the right positions using food if he's motivated by food, or you can hire a trainer for a couple of lessons to show you how to start training Pierre. However you approach the training, make sure you use positive-only methods where the training is gentle and fun for both Pierre and for you.
Best of luck and thanks for your question!
Madeline Friedman, M.A.
AllExperts Volunteer and Dog Behavior Expert in Florida and New York