Canine Behavior/separation anxiety
I adopted a dog, Lucy, from a shelter in February 2014. I guessed her to be almost a year old at the time and she is a Beagle/Jack Russell mix. She was spayed shortly after I adopted her. From the start, she was a very gentle, loving dog and enjoyed being very active as well as lazy days spent inside. But I could tell she had been abused: loud, stern voices scared her, she cowered when I picked up the leash, etc. She loved all kids and all other animals but was scared of most women and all men. I worked with her and now she is no longer scared of most adults and does not cower. She walks well on leash, walks beside me and doesn't pull, and she learned to obey commands given both verbally and by hand gesture. Lucy is not toy motivated, but will occasionally enjoy disemboweling a stuffed animal. She will chew on bones I buy at the pet store until they aren’t “new” anymore, and then loses interest. Lucy has never slept in my bed, is not allowed on the furniture and is control-fed.
The trouble is that she is very destructive when left home alone. She is perfectly behaved as long as I am home, but destroys everything from furniture to window treatments when I leave. And my neighbors report that she cries loudly while I am gone. I have tried every kind of conditioning to help her with being home alone, to no avail. She knows when I am getting ready to leave and started watching me intently and/or following me closely. I noticed that she wouldn’t eat breakfast if she realized I was leaving and feeding her became the first thing I do after getting up in the morning. Once, right after I got her, she had not eaten by the time I was ready to leave and I felt bad leaving her hungry all day so I left the bowl of food down for her. As soon as I got home that evening, she greeted me then ran over and devoured the still full bowl of food. My neighbor had a large, fenced yard that she offered for our use while I was at work. This was great, Lucy loved being outside all day and my apartment was not destroyed. Until winter came and I could not, in good conscious, leave her outside in the bitter cold and/or snow all day. I purchased a crate (after researching the appropriate size for her) and dealt with the destruction while crate training her, starting during a long (4 day) weekend from work. I covered it with a blanket and left the door open during the day. She seemed to enjoy having her own “room” to hang out in. She would nap, chew on a bone or stuffed animal, etc. She learned that when I said “crate”, she should go inside. At night, I closed and latched the door and she was content with this. For another week, I only latched her in at night and endured the destruction (mostly to my furniture, rugs and potted plants) from leaving her out during the day. I left the crate open during the day and could tell that she had hung out in while I was gone. In the evenings, I would latch her inside the crate and leave the house for a few minutes at a time, until I could leave her inside for a couple of hours with no problems. Once I started latching her in during the workday, she began destroying the crate. Eventually, she chewed through a couple of the wire “bars” and managed to squeeze herself out of a tiny gap she created near the floor of the crate, injuring her nose in the process. She moved the crate through the room, gathering rugs into the crate and destroying them. Thinking that lack of exercise was to blame, I tried to endure the extreme cold for longer periods of time but with temperatures well below zero first thing in the morning, this was often not an option. Eventually, she made the door of the crate unusable so I got rid of it.
Once the weather improved, we resumed our normal active lifestyle, which includes LONG walks and miles of mountain hiking. She rarely tires no matter how long or far we go! But even walk over 4 miles in just over an hour were not enough to curb her destruction once I left for work.
Earlier this year we moved out of state and I could not find a house with a fenced (or fence-able) yard, so ended up renting an apartment. We also moved much further south so even if I HAD found a yard for her, the heat would prohibit leaving her outside all day while I worked. So, now in a new place (she did not seem stressed at moving), while I was looking for work I had extra time to spend on the graduation method of leaving her for gradually increasing lengths of time. I was eventually able to successfully leave her for 6-8 hours (while I turned in application, went to interviews, explored the city, ran errands….anything to fill the time so she could get used to me being gone). I varied this time between 4 and 8 hours over the next couple of weeks so the time was not always the same. She did very well. For a little while. After a few weeks, she reverted to her destructive behavior and destroyed the wall-to-wall carpet that was brand new when we moved in (mostly in front of the front door, but also where it changed to hard flooring at the kitchen and bathroom entrances). I have tried gathering keys and such an hour or more before actually leaving. Closer to departure I tell her to “go to bed” (a command I already used at bedtime), then get ready to leave while ignoring her for a little while before I do leave, making no big deal out of it. On return, she is ignored unless/until she is calm. I have tried all different kinds of toys (which she mostly ignores) and rotate them for variety. I have tried a wireless invisible fence system, which worked for a couple weeks and then she just started destroying the area of the apartment she was confined to. Nothing is working and because of work, I no longer have the hours every day to spend conditioning her. I also cannot afford to have someone come by during the day (which I don’t think will help, based on the few times last year that I had to travel for work and left her with a friend of mine that she LOVES for a few days. It has to be ME), or take her to doggy daycare. I tried Benadryl once on my day off to see if it relaxed her and not only did it not help, it made her puke.
She loves being in the car and I have even tested her on several days where the temperature was mild enough that it was safe to leave her in the car while I worked. I left the windows partially down and a bowl of fresh water for her. There is no destruction at all if she is in the car, even for hours. However, again, during winter and summer this is not a viable option. I am at my wits end and this is my last ditch effort to avoid giving her up. I cannot take the stress or cost of her tearing up rental property. Following the advice on your profile, I have tried to include as much detail as I can think of that will make the situation as clear as possible. I have done so much research, tried method after method and really don’t want to give her up, but after a year and a half, I just don’t know what else to do.
Thank you for your question, and thank you for the great detail. It helps to paint a clear picture of what's happening with your pup.
It sounds like you've been making some major efforts to help Lucy feel comfortable when she's alone - and you've had some successes and some fall-backs.
It also sounds like what you're dealing with is Separation Anxiety (you said that it's really a need for you specifically to be around, and that not just any human company will do). Unfortunately, with Separation Anxiety, no amount of exercise is going to help. This is not an issue of getting her tired before you leave. Separation Anxiety is a very real panic disorder and when a dog panics - just like when a human panics - there are a number of physiological responses that take place in the body. These include increased heart rate, increased blood pressure, increased respiration, pupil dilation, increased salivation. Some people/dogs will have sudden needs to urinate, defecate or even vomit. If you were to video your dog (which I highly recommend you do so that you can have a better, more accurate assessment of what she's doing and when, you might see panting, pacing and drooling along with vocalizing, digging, scratching, ripping (with mouth).
What you're seeing is evidence of escape efforts. But there's a whole lot more going on than just being destructive.
The good news is that most dogs with separation anxiety can be helped and show great improvement.
I highly encourage you to get the book Treating Separation Anxiety in Dogs
, by Malena DeMartini-Price.
She is the preeminent authority on separation anxiety in the US and has treated nothing but SA cases for more than 13 years. She's excellent and her book, while technically written for the professional to help clients, is still pretty accessible to the pet owner who wants to try some of the techniques on their own.
You can also reach out to her directly as she sees all of her clients remotely, so it doesn't matter if you live physically near to her or not.
SA is a process that needs to be worked through and there are some things you can try as part of the management process to help Lucy feel safer so she can learn better coping skills. It may be something as easy as introducing her to a Thunder Shirt
(anxiety wrap) which might help her feel safer.
The key with a Thunder Shirt is that she must wear it at times that are not scary as well so that it doesn't just become a cue that you're about to leave. Also - and this is important - the effect of the shirt wears off after a while because the brain habituates to the sensation of the shirt. It's not meant to left on 24/7. The ideal set-up is to have her wear it for 1-2 hours, then take it off for a few hours, then put it back on. However, if you're gone to work, obviously it will stay on for the entire work day. It won't harm her to wear it for those 8 hours, but understand the effect probably wore off after the first 2 so you'll want to take it off about 10-20 minutes after you get home (again, putting some time between your arrival and its removal so she doesn't make an association that your return is directly related to the shirt being on or off.
I have a protocol I use with most of my clients that anecdotally seems to have a pretty good effect on overall sense of confidence.
My protocol (in a nutshell) - you may have to modify given your work schedule:
Lucy wears the Thunder Shirt for 30-90 minutes, twice per day, during neutral and happy activities such as eating, playing, snuggling, resting. She does this for 3 weeks. During this time, she also wears it for super stressful things to try to help her feel better.
Put the shirt on 5-15 minutes before stressful activities (to the best of your ability to plan) and keep it on until 5-20 minutes after the stressful activity has stopped.
In the meantime, while you're working on the SA part, it is crucial that you do not leave her unattended as every time she's set up to panic, it will undermine the progress you're making. If we put our heads together, I'm sure we can come up with temporary options such as doggy daycare (I know it's expensive, but it would only be temporary while you're working through the process, not forever), or a retired neighbor who might like to have company during the day, or a college student who needs a place to do some homework, who might be missing their own dog who is at home.... And it doesn't have to be the same person all day/every day. Your support team can take shifts. It can be challenging to find the help initially, but you'd be surprised how helpful people can be once you share the extreme panic that Lucy experiences and your efforts to help her feel better.
Other things you can try to help manage the panic while you're working on it include
Through a Dog's Ear
- this is a CD of classical music picked specifically because the tones, pitches and melody structure has been shown through proper research to lower the blood pressure and heart rate of dogs. Again, I'd play it while you're home as well as when you get ready to leave. I used to use this CD to put my dogs to sleep at night. it's lovely and will lull you to sleep too. So, having it be night-time cuddle/sleep music and then also turned on in the morning about half of one-to-two songs before you leave (vary that so the music doesn't cue her to when you're going to leave), and leave it on a loop if possible so it keeps playing for a while. There are several CDs in this group, so you could even vary which CD plays each day, or figure out which one seems to calm her the best.
is a synthetic version of the same pheromone that mama dogs produce when they're nursing. It's said to be quite comforting to dogs. It's rather hit-or-miss if it actually appears to help dogs. Some people swear by it while others see no improvement at all. It falls under the category of "can't hurt, might help". I would get the spray so that you can spray her bedding or the carpet near the doorway that she's trying to escape through. You want to spray about 10-15 minutes before you leave so that the rubbing alcohol can wear off as that's a pretty potent smell. But the pheromone should linger for several hours.
There's also a plug-in diffuser available. Though the instructions tell you to plug it in and leave it, I think the dog would habituate to the pheromone like she would to the Thunder Shirt, and that would get expensive. So I would plug it in about 5-15 minutes before you leave and unplug it shortly after you get home. Plug it in near where Lucy is likely to rest or right near the door she's trying to escape.
But my strongest recommendation is Malena's book and possibly reaching out to her or someone local to you if you prefer in-person assistance to help you through the process. It can be tedious and frustrating and having a professional in your corner to support you is a very helpful thing - keep you on track and cheer you on when you're feeling frustrated.
Finally, if necessary, many dogs with a severe SA, benefit greatly from the assistance of medication that eases the panic enough that we can then teach them better coping skills. Medication is not the "fix". it's a tool to be used to help while we fix the panic. And ideally, it is meant to be used temporarily (usually 4-6 months) and then you wean the dog off it - once we're seeing quality improvements in her behavior. It's important to use medication under the guidance of a veterinarian who is familiar with psych meds as it takes 3-5 weeks to ramp up to a therapeutic dose, it might require adjusting the dose up or down a bit to find the right dose for Lucy - or it might mean switching to a different medication if the first try isn't working the way we want (this is true for humans using such medications as well). And, once she's at a therapeutic dose, it cannot be stopped cold-turkey. It absolutely MUST be weaned down or you could cause some pretty serious behavior problems. These meds are great and do a great job with panic disorders and there are several out there now - both long term as I'm describing (Clomicalm, Prozac, Zoloft, etc), or short-term fast acting meds for severe panic moments (Xanax, Valium). These are prescription medications and require your vet or a veterinary behaviorist to be participating in the process as they will need to prescribe and monitor the use of the meds for you and Lucy.
I know it may sound daunting right now. And while I have an understanding of the process, I'm not the expert that Malena is. She has something like a 90% or greater success rate with her clients. Her methods are really sound, and not like climbing a mountain (which I'm sure right now it feels like you're trying to do). Look through her book. Reach out to your vet or a veterinary behaviorist in your area. Your vet may know a vet behaviorist they can refer you to, or you can look at the link below. Or reach out to Malena. It is possible to help Lucy feel more comfortable when alone. You've already demonstrated you were able to help her find some improvement, and you have found some work-arounds that work at certain times of the year (your car or a neighbor's yard). I know it's hard when you've just moved and don't have the same support system you had at your old place. But people are kind and you'd be surprised how willing many people are to help.
I wish you the very best of luck (and patience). Please feel free to followup if I can be of any further assistance.
Worcester, MA Behavior Specialist
MAPP 2016 candidate
Tufts Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine