Canine Behavior/EXTREME Separation Anxiety, Getting Worse with Age
QUESTION: Hi. I will start with a brief description of my household. I am a single guy, 30, with two dogs, no kids and sometimes a roommate. I have an almost 10 year old female English Pointer named Penny. I got her as a puppy from the local animal shelter at 12 weeks old and was told she was given up due to her high energy level and a lack of knowledge of Sporting Dogs needs. She is the first dog in a two dog house and has been with my other dog since the day it was born. My other baby is a female 7 year old Akita, Springer Spaniel, Rottweiler mix named AVA. They are complete opposite of each other as far as personality is concerned. Penny is the focus of my question/problem.
From day one, I learned there were some issues with being left alone. I lived in a house with a finished basement and a big fenced backyard. When I left the house with her there alone for the first time, I put her in the bathroom with a blanket and some toys. When I came home after a short trip, she was waiting at the front door, tail wagging, happy to see me. I knew something was not right because I had surely left her in the bathroom with the door closed! Well, she managed to chew THRU the door, with a perfect square, just big enough to facilitate her escape. I made getting a small crate a priority. She would absolutely not take to a crate though. I would try to get her used to it, but she would scream and chew and scratch to the point of bleeding and I gave up. She never chewed up shoes or anything so I just let her loose in the house when I was gone. Every once in a while, I would come home and she would have destroyed the couch. A kennel would not work, so I started using plastic mats with little "spikes" facing up so she couldn't get on the couch when I was gone. This fixed the couch chewing but she still would get into stuff. One day when I was at work, Penny got into something on the kitchen counter, and in the process, turned on the stovetop burner and caught the kitchen on fire. Luckily my neighbor was a stay at home parent and noticed the smoke and fire and called for help. The house was destroyed, but the fire dept. saved both my dogs! The destroyed house prompted a move to a new house. Every once in a while, she gets the mats off the couches and will rip apart a cushion. Once she sees the foam insides, it is over and she rips it to pieces. Well, now it is getting worse! I recently became unemployed so I spend a LOT more time with the dogs. After being gone for the day recently, I came home to a bedroom door that she had never been concerned with before, chewed in HALF! She chewed the locked door knob off the door and ate the door. I thought someone had broken into my house at first, then upon closer inspection, noticed blood and scratch marks... I have NO CLUE what she was going for or why she wanted into that room. Not long after that, she shredded another bathroom door, followed by the hall carpet, then the door leading into the garage. She ate the DRYWALL and pulled the door frame down totally. This has been getting progressively worse over the last two years, with the majority of this described destruction happening over the last year. It is getting unmanageable, to the point that I fix something, patch drywall, replace a door, only to have her tear it down soon after. Since I am not working right now, I have resigned to taking her EVERYWHERE with me, but this is not realistic if I am ever going to have a job again. She is the SWEATEST, best behaved dog with me, but she goes CRAZY when I step out, and I worry that all the extra time she is spending with me now is only making the problem worse. I can't leave her with friend or family ever due to the risk of her destroying their houses. My other dog is independent, doesn't mind being by herself, but Penny has cost me so much with her destruction, I don't know where to turn. People have said I need to give her up cause she has destroyed so much, but that is not even an option to me. She really is my baby!
I have tried to crate her, but she literally goes nuts to the point of hurting herself until she breaks the kennel, or rips her nails off. She goes to the dog park daily, so it is not lack of exercise. She has toys... I need a miracle worker@!!! This is only a brief description of everything in the last 10 years, but if you have any questions that would give better insight, please let me know. I am at my whit and wallets end!
ANSWER: Thank you for your question. You have put up with a great deal and have the patience of a saint!
I do have a couple questions before I provide a proper response.
1. Have you ever video taped her while you're out so we can see her body language before, during and after her destruction - also to determine when during your absence she's doing the behaviors?
If so, what kind of behaviors have you noticed: pacing, panting, drooling, yawning, vocalizing of any kind, urinating, defecating, vomiting - or on the flip side - napping, relaxing, drinking water, engaging with Ava?
2. What is Ava doing while Penny is being destructive (if you have video)
3. In the 10 years this has been going on - have you sought out professional assistance before now? What have they recommended? What have you tried and what was the result of that?
4. Have you discussed this issue with your vet? What does s/he have to say or recommend?
5. Can you leave the room she's in (even if not the house) and she's OK? Can you leave the house to get the mail and come back without her becoming distraught?
6. Does she know when you're getting ready to leave (recognize your departure rituals such as getting shoes on, picking up keys, grabbing to-go coffee mug, etc)? Does she start to show concern during this process? You may need to think about this one a bit or even just pay attention the next time you're getting ready to go out and take note of when she notices you're getting ready to leave and how does she behave when she first notices as well as the rest of the time until you actually leave - does her behavior escalate or become more intense in any way?
Behaviors you might see when she realizes you're getting ready to leave include (but are not limited to) things like becoming clingier than usual, following you around, suddenly trying to engage you in a game or love-fest, whining, whimpering, barking, salivating/drooling, yawning, licking her lips, offering you squinty eyes, trying to block your path or lying near the exit door you use most, generally looking or acting nervous/anxious.
Her behavior is extreme and we definitely need to address it. Taking her with you everywhere right now - while you can - is exactly the right thing to do and would be the first step of helping her anyway. We want to create a world where she feels safe and is not experiencing the panic of separation anxiety nor practicing the panic-induced destructive behavior. So, for the time being, you are doing the right thing.
Kudos to you for not giving up on her with the amount of destruction she has caused. I understand your friends and family's comments, but that would have been a huge disservice to Penny so I applaud you for sticking by her. As we proceed in this conversation, keep in the forefront of your mind that she's not being destructive because she's 'naughty' or disobedient or anything of the like. Since she's only doing these things when unattended, it is likely that this really is separation anxiety and an extreme case at that. Separation anxiety is an actual mental disorder. It's a panic disorder and she can't help herself or her response any better than a person who is having a full blown panic attack. It's our job to help her feel safe and secure so that she no longer needs to panic. At 10 years old, she's had a very long time to learn that the world is scary when she's alone and that chewing (a totally natural doggie behavior) is very soothing. She's chewing with a vengeance in her panic likely in an effort to escape or to get to you. But chewing is actually a self-soothing behavior for dogs, much like thumb sucking for toddlers.
I will address a protocol for trying to begin improving this after I get your response to my questions.
Please use the Follow Up button to reply to this message.
Jody, CPDT-KA, APDT
Los Angeles Behaviorist
---------- FOLLOW-UP ----------
QUESTION: Thank you Jody for taking the time to provide feedback. I have not video taped her while i am out, but have considered buying/using a web cam to see what she is doing, i just haven't as of yet. My vet has recommended tranquilizers but i don't know that i want dope her up if there is another solution. I have been using a "thunder shirt" but the results have not been definitive. When i leave the room, I'd she can see me, out the window or knows i am down stairs or in the garage, she cries until i come back. She is my shadow, even when in a deep sleep, if i get up, she is right behind me. When i get ready to leave, she gets as excited as if we are going to the park, or a walk or something. It always seems like happy or excited behavior. I hope this gives a little more info for your analysis. Without seeing her behavior when I'm gone, i understand it might be tough. Thank you very much!
Thank you for the prompt reply. A Thunder Shirt can be a great comfort to many dogs. But there are a couple of caveats. First, if it only over goes on when something scary is about to happen (e.g. you're leaving), then we essentially "poison" the shirt and undermine any comfort it may provide because Penny has made the association that the sight of the shirt means your departure. So it's necessary to use the shirt when you're home too - I'll provide a protocol in a moment. The other thing to remember about the Thunder Shirt is that the comforting effect of the shirt only lasts about 60-90 minutes at a time and then the dog habituates to it. It won't harm Penny if she has it on for several hours, but it's important to remember that the effect wore off after 90 minutes (at the outside) and so is no longer providing active comfort to her if it's still on 4 or 6 hours later. You can reestablish the effect by taking it off for a few hours and then putting it back on again.
Here's the protocol I encourage my clients to use with the Thunder Shirt: For 3 weeks, Penny should wear the shirt for 1-2 hours, twice per day, every single day. Make sure that good things are happening (or at least neutral things). I like to make sure that meals, play and cuddle time happen in that first 90 minutes that the shirt is on. Making sure that good things are happening while the shirt is on does two things. First, we avoid creating the sour association that the shirt predicts your departure. Second, we increase the comfort the shirt naturally provides by pairing it with other things that feel good to Penny.
In my experience (entirely anecdotal, no formal research on this), I've found that the twice-per-day wearing of the shirt for good things for 3 weeks seems to allow the overall stress base line to come down to a more normal level, and this creates an increased confidence even when the shirt is off.
You can/should also have the shirt on when you do have to leave her (take a shower, do stuff in your basement or garage, etc). Ideally, right now she's never going to be unattended. But put the shirt on 5-10 minutes before you leave her presence so the shirt going on is not connected to your departure from the space.
You can also try the synthetic pheromone "dog appeasing pheromone". The brand name is Comfort Zone. I prefer the spray as this way you can spray her collar or the neck strap of the Thunder Shirt (take these things off of Penny to spray them and wait 10 minutes to put them back on her as the spray uses alcohol as its medium which has a very strong, unpleasant smell. Once the alcohol wears off, what's left if the dog appeasing pheromone - a synthetic version of the pheromone that nursing mothers produce. It's naturally calming to dogs. But, like anything else - if it's solely paired with unpleasant, scary things, then we can effectively "poison" the innate comfort of the tool. So make sure that you practice with it when you're around as well.
We can also use music that's designed to comfort dogs (same rules - play it during cuddle time and at bedtime or background just when you're home with her). They've done studies that demonstrate that certain rhythms, tones and pitches actually lower the blood pressure and respiration of dogs. There are a number you can choose from.
Note - I'd avoid the noise/phobia CDs, but there are a few options at the above link. I've used >b>Through a Dog's Ear</b> with success.
All of the above tools may be helpful. They may not do much to soothe Penny. But they can't hurt her, so if you're so inclined, they are worth the try.
Now, I think that your dog may benefit a lot from an antidepressant called Clomicalm. This is the first FDA approved antidepressant for Separation Anxiety. It takes 4-6 weeks to build up to a therapeutic dose in her system, and it may need to be titered up or down (adjust the dose) with the aid of the vet to get the dosing correct so that she's getting the help from it, but not being over dosed. This is a prescription medication and requires a vet to prescribe and fill. Once she's been on the drug for a month, you cannot simply stop it cold-turkey. Rather you would need to wean her off the meds just as a human would do if they were going off an antidepressant.
The purpose of this drug is to bring her overall anxiety level down sufficiently that behavior modification can take place. It's not meant to be the fix all by itself. It's meant to work with the behavior modification (much like talk therapy works with these drugs for humans). Ideally, after 6-10 months you'll be able to wean her off the meds - assuming that she has successfully learned new coping skills and is showing great improvement. Some people find that the dog needs to stay on it, or just feel so much more secure with the meds on board that they choose to keep their pet on it more long term (just as we see with humans using similar drugs). But it is meant to be a temporary aid to make retraining easier.
Because her level of destruction is so significant, it may also be necessary to give her a tranquilizer such as Xanax for particularly scary events - like if you have to leave for hours and she's not yet able to cope with that. But, I'd be careful and make sure you are present for the duration of a dose from beginning to the end so that you can see what the effect is on her. She may just nap the whole time (4-6 hours). Or she may be awake and able to do anything you'd like, but totally chill about it. Again, ideally this is temporary during the retraining period.
Remember, she has no control over this behavior response. It's a chemical reaction in her brain (with 10 years of practice making those neural connections related to fear and panic) and it will take time to modify this behavior. Any tool that can help should be used. If you were an in-person client, I would insist that the vet prescribe the Clomicalm immediately and I'd wait 4 weeks to even try to begin any behavior modification protocol - give the drugs time to ramp up in the system to a level that they can be useful.
During that 4-week window, she should never be alone. You didn't indicate how she is with other humans if you're not around. If she's OK so long as some human is present, then take advantage of your social network and family if they're near by. Offer to buy pizza and a bottle of wine, or simply offer cash to have someone babysit Penny if you need to go out for a few hours. Look into doggie daycare and see if she's comfortable in a place away from him with other dogs and humans to distract her (with you not present) as this may provide you some much needed time off to do even basic things like buy groceries. If you need to have people stay at your house rather than drop Penny off at their house, that's a totally reasonable option. If she's OK so long as there's a human present, she may actually feel better out of her normal environment at a friend's house - so long as they are present the entire time.
Once the meds are up to a therapeutic dose, you can begin a proper behavior modification protocol. I've written a blog that walks through a basic protocol. You can see it here:
Samson Suffers Separation Anxiety
The last section walks through the basic practice of departure rituals.
You can also provide her with acceptable things to chew on such as Antlers, Bully Sticks, Marrow Bones and Kongs stuffed with yummy goodness* - and then frozen so they last longer.
Loading a Kong
There are also a couple of useful books that may help you to work out a behavior modification protocol.
I'll Be Home Soon: How to Prevent and Treat Separation Anxiety
, by Patricia McConnell, Ph.D.
And Don't Leave Me! Step-by-Step Help for Your Dog's Separation Anxiety
, by Nicole Wilde
And if you feel stuck in how to proceed after reading these and my separation anxiety blog (linked above) then seeking out some local professional help from a force-free trainer who has experience with separation anxiety would be helpful. If there is a vet behaviorist in your area, they would be able to oversee the prescription medication as well as the behavior modification protocol. You can search for a vet behaviorist at this website: http://www.dacvb.org/resources/find/
If there isn't one near you, you may be able to get a phone consultation. Or you may try Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine. They provide remote behvioral assistance for those who don't live in their area.
I do hope this proves helpful. Please feel free to followup if I can be of any further assistance. Also, I'd love to get an update on Penny once you decide on and implement a plan of action.
Jody, CPDT-KA, APDT
Los Angeles Behaviorist