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Canine Behavior/separation anxiety


QUESTION: hi there, 2 weeks ago i rescued a 1 1/2 year old pup who has been doing really well (potty trained, walking, etc), except when i leave her alone.  i bring her to work with me, so i really only leave her for an hour or two in the evenings.   she loves her crate at night, but when i put her in there so i can go out for a brief period she cries and barks, at least in the beginning (once i'm in the elevator i can't hear her).  when i come home she is quiet but jumps around like a maniac when i let her out, as if she hasn't seen me in years.  i don't make a big deal when i leave or when i come back, and i wait until she calms down before i greet her.  i just want to make sure i am doing the right thing and not traumatizing her for leaving her for that short time- I feel bad to leave her but I need to do things by myself, of course!  should i keep going, and she will get used to it eventually?  thank you!

ANSWER: Two weeks is no time at all.  It takes an adult dog (even a young adult dog as is this one) months to habituate to a new environment.  Try my protocol for the treatment of separation anxiety as you see it below:

1.  You can create an emotional independence in the dog by conditioning a "time out" article.
Simply place the chosen article (something you don’t use for any other purpose, like an odd garden statue) in full view of the dog every day for thirty minutes to one hour and call a "time out", during which you actively ignore the dog.  When you remove the article, reward the dog with praise, but don’t overdo it.  Over the course of two weeks, your dog will begin to recognize the article and begin to acknowledge your unavailability (many dogs go to a corner to lie down, or their favorite couch spot, etc.)  Once you observe your dog’s recognition of the article, put it in plain sight about ten minutes before leaving the house (but NOT in the room the dog is confined to, the dog will lose its conditioned response.)  In other words, use the article as a CUE to the dog that you are not available.

2.  Make your dog earn everything for about one month, including pats, entering/leaving the home, etc.  (This is called “Nothing in life is free”.)  You will be promoting yourself psychologically, which will help the dog to feel calmer.

3.  Purchase Turid Rugaas' book, “On Talking Terms with Dogs: Calming signals” or go to her web site  Observe the dog’s behaviors before you depart to determine if your departure rituals are creating anxiety.  Use calming signals just before leaving the house WITHOUT saying “goodbye” to the dog (which can set the dog up for emotional distress.)  Dogs instantly respond to these signals and you’ll begin to see that response immediately.

4.  Change your departure rituals so you do not inadvertently "cue" your dog.  This means doing things differently EVERY day during treatment (which should last about two to four weeks.)  If you put your coat on last, put your coat on five minutes before you actually leave the house; if you pick up your keys last, put them in your pocket ten minutes before leaving the house, etc.  Again, given two weeks (at least) of this treatment, along with the others, your dog’s extreme sensitivity to your departure rituals should diminish and/or extinguish.  When you RETURN home, ignore the dog for a few seconds, and then ask the dog to “sit” and acknowledge him/her; keep your homecoming attention short and sweet.  If there is any destruction around (torn objects, etc.) IGNORE IT.  What you don’t want is the dog to fear your RETURN as much as s/he fears your leave taking.  

5.  Do not allow the dog free “run” of the house when you are gone; this places a heavy emotional burden to “protect” on the dog, and might increase stress (which accounts for excessive barking!) Put the dog in a protected space (kitchen, well ventilated and spacious laundry area,  etc., NOT the basement or the garage).  Keep “special” toys there the dog doesn’t have at any other time, like a “kong” with a ½ teaspoon of peanut butter, a Buster Cube which holds a portion of the dog's daily food and which the dog will roll around to obtain it, a squeaky toy, etc. The dog will begin to anticipate this treat and associate it with your leaving the house.  Leave a radio playing (on soft music or calm talk shows) and a light on when you are not home, and if possible move your answering machine (at full volume) into the room with the dog and leave your dog "messages" during the day.

Dogs that have been rehomed often develop separation anxiety; dogs that have been heavily bonded to a person that is then “lost” (not seen again for whatever reason) can suffer serious anxiety at the leave taking of the “new” human caregiver; dogs that have moved with their human family to a totally foreign environment are emotionally “lost” and may develop separation problems.  Some dogs are generally anxious or high strung and have a greater tendency toward emotional distress.  Ask your veterinarian if your dog may benefit from a course of medication while you are using behavior modification to change his/her separation related problem behaviors.

Do not feel "bad" because you are leaving her: your body language is instantly "read" and "understood" by the dog!  Your ultimate objective is to be able to leave this dog at home, where she feels "safe and secure", whenever you need to do so.  Don't give up!  And good work for giving this dog a loving home.

---------- FOLLOW-UP ----------

QUESTION: Hi Dr. Connor,
I have a follow up question:  The separation anxiety has taken a back burner to the fact that my dog has started to growl at any people who approach her (my co-workers and friends included).  Worse, she bit a friend of mine who offered her a treat (she growled first to warn him, so its partly his fault that he kept trying to give her the treat).  She also bit a trainer that we met with, though she didn't break the skin and the trainer didn't seem worried about it.  She tried to bite the vet, so she was muzzled for her exam and she also tried to nip a few handlers on her first visit to day care.  The day care has asked that she not come back until she is "more comfortable" with people.  My concern is that if she is a biter, I will never be able to trust that she won't bite.  I feel terrible to "give up" on her, but I have read many articles and essays on this, and it seems that I have a valid concern that she won't be fully rehabilitated from this fear/aggression.  Any advice or thoughts?  Many thanks!

It is possible to rehabilitate a dog that is biting out of fear (95% of them do) and has yet not gotten to a stage of bite that breaks skin.

I cannot help you in this text box.  The dog's aggression will worsen unless it seen IN PERSON and evaluated (with rehabilitation guidelines and work, perhaps weeks or more) by a CERTIFIED APPLIED ANIMAL BEHAVIORIST.  Make no excuses: a growl is a warning, you're correct.  NO DOG goes from a first warning to a bite.  That dog has bitten before.

Until a CAAB can see and offer treatment to your dog, you must protect her by not allowing anyone to walk directly at her, make direct eye contact, use her name, stretch out a hand toward her: on walks, use a head collar (Halti or other such).  The collar must have its own leash (DO NOT lead the dog by the head) and be trained in the following way:

As you put it on at home, feed the dog tiny bits of cheese or chicken frank.  Repeat this several times a day over the course of a few days until the dog anticipates the head collar and reward, then take the dog outdoors with TWO leashes: one on the dog’s  martingale collar and one for the HEAD COLLAR separately.  Keep your left hand lightly at the middle of the head collar leash while holding both in your right hand.  DO NOT LEAD THE DOG BY THE HEAD COLLAR, this is frightening to a dog and can harm the dog physiologically.  Go into your yard and do some exercises with the dog: walk in wide circle, then abruptly walk in a circle in the other direction.  Each time you plan to change direction, say, "Come along" and use the head collar GENTLY to turn the dog's head in the new direction, then pop a treat into the dog’s  mouth the moment the dog turns.  Keep walking in circles for a few minutes with the "come along" phrase and the reward when the dog follows the head collar in the new direction.  Then pretend there is a large, long ladder in front of you on the ground (or, if you have one, put it down.)  Walk in a zig zag pattern as if you are passing through the rungs of the ladder, weaving in and out; at the "end" of the "ladder", turn back with your "come along", GENTLY using the head collar, and treat, then zig zag back.  Then begin walking straight lines, occasionally doing an about face with "come along" and treat.  As dogs perform complex behaviors, their cognition increases (there is a change in brain wave patterns); the dog will not be afraid, the dog will be attentive and LEARNING.  When you are finished with this approximately 15 to 30 minute exercise, go in the house, praise the dog, take off the head collar.

ALWAYS use the come along signal when the dog is wearing the head collar and NEVER use it to force the dog into another direction.  If your dog lunges, attempts to pull, or demonstrates any problem behavior on a normal walk, use the come along command, gently turn the dog’s head with the head collar, walk in the opposite direction for a few paces, circle left or right, reward the dog (with tiny food treat) when the dog is obviously and freely following you (rather than attempting to reproduce the unwanted behavior) then go back in the original direction. Eventually the dog will respond to the come along signal and the head collar will no longer be used and can ultimately be removed.

This dog must NEVER be put into ANY situation where she can successfully "bite" or "back down" an oncoming human.  Most dogs wearing head collars are avoided by others on the street who perceive this as a muzzle (DO NOT use an actual muzzle).  You want to INTERRUPT any fear response BEFORE the dog begins to reach to it by changing direction, circling, etc. or the dog will connect its FEAR to the avoidance of people.

At 1-1/2, this is not a puppy; this is a dog in young "adulthood".  You don't say WHERE or HOW you adopted this dog.  People dump aggressive dogs on other people (using ads, paper, Craigs list) and LIE; or they dump the dog on the street; or they dump the dog in a kill shelter and the staff is (unless the dog exhibits full blown aggression) not able to evaluate temperament.  Plus: in any surrounding where a dog is at risk of death (on the "street", in a kill shelter where adrenaline flows freely, etc.), the dog very well might acquire a strong fight/flight response toward Humans (especially men, if the dog is caught with a pole while on the street, most dog control persons are still men).

Find a CAAB at one of the following sites or by calling the Veterinary college in your geographical area.  Be absolutely certain of the educational credentials and experience WITH ACTIVE AGGRESSION of the individual you choose: ask for references (at least one veterinary associate and at least two clients from the recent past):

This will NOT be cheap.  YOU are this dog's LAST STOP.  She CANNOT be surrendered to a kill shelter, you would have to (morally) acknowledge her fear aggression and she would immediately be destroyed in a potentially very inhumane manner.  She CANNOT be "adopted" to anyone else.  She is failing.  Without an expert, she will have to be humanely euthanized.  This means: a sedative given, a vet who comes to your home and gives a lethal injection while the dog is sedated, then removes the dog.  I have had to do this once: my apprentice (at the time) insisted on my taking a Cocker Spaniel out of a kill shelter even though I knew full well the dog was most likely there for aggression.  She did a wonderful job of clicker training this dog and it was on full behavior modification protocol.  Unfortunately, it went after her college age brother.  It then became my responsibility to take this 18 month old dog, who was otherwise quite charming, to my veterinary associate's clinic and put it to death.  We both cried.  This is not an easy thing to do.

In future, if this dog cannot be rehabilitated and you wish to find another, ask me first.

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Jill Connor, Ph.D.


I have spent my entire professional life rehabilitating the behavior of the domestic dog and I can answer any question regarding any behavior problem in any breed dog. I have answered more than 5,000 QUESTIONS on this site in the past (almost) eight years. If you are a caring, committed owner and need advice, I'm here for you. I am personally acquainted with my colleagues (Turid Rugaas, Ian Dunbar, etc.) who were members of an elite group in EGroups that I founded: K9Shrinks. THERE ARE NO QUICK FIXES for serious behavioral issues; not only is it unprofessional to offer same, it is also unethical. IF I ASK YOU SUBSEQUENT QUESTIONS, I NEED YOU TO INTERACT WITH ME. More information equals more credible answers and a more successful outcome. If you want ANSWERS THAT WORK, participate in any way I request. I'm quite committed to working on this site for YOUR benefit and the benefit of YOUR DOG. Help me in any way you can.


30 years of solving serious behavior problems in domestic dogs; expert in dog to human aggression; Internet columnist for for 5 years; former radio talk show host, WHPC.FM, Garden City, NY "Bite Back" (1995 through 2000). List owner, international animal behavior experts, Seminar leader: "Operant Conditioning and Learning"; "Aggression in The Domestic Dog"; "Solving Problem Behaviors" -- conducted for various training facilities on Long Island from 1993 through 2000. Former clinical director of "Behavioral Abnormalities" in conjunction with Mark Beckerman, DVM, Hempstead, New York.

Member, APDT (UK); Psychologists in Ethical Treatment with Animals

Harcourt Brace Learning Direct: "The Business of Dog Training" "The Fail Safe Dog: Brain Training, not Pain Training"

Ph.D., UC Berkeley

Past/Present Clients
Board of Directors: Northeast Dog Rescue Connection; The Dog Project; Sav-A-Dog Foundation; etc. Pro Bono counselor: Little Shelter Humane Society My practice is presently limited to forensics. I diagnose cause of dog bite, based upon testimony before the Court, for attorneys and insurance companies litigating dog bites, including fatal injuries. I also do pro bono work for bona fide rescue organizations, humane societies, et al, regarding such analysis in an effort to obtain release for dogs being held for death in municipal shelters in the US.

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