Canine Behavior/Escape artist
Hi Jody :)
I have a 10 year female fixed Shih Tzu named Cookie (no health issues; no medications). Recently, I changed jobs. We now live in two different cities (1hr apart) and commute home on weekends.
In order to get her to 'settle' into our new routine, I've done the following: extra walks, not washing her bedding or toys etc...I also have used babygates in the past as a safe form of access control. She was always tolerant of the babygates (no chewing/no resistance/whimpers etc)... Since our move and change in routine, I have noticed Cookie is MUCH MORE aggressively finding creative ways to get out of the barricaded areas, such as biting the gate, climbing over it (unbelieveable, but, yes: climbs/jumps), salivates and whimpers. When I put her in her crate, her body language is one of fear and anxiety.
I have been consistent for two months 'orientating' her to the change in routine. She is ONLY anxious when I put her in the babygated areas (in both of our homes). I am truly hoping you can offer some insight/new solutions for us to try: I honestly dont want to purchase a big cage for her, as it will only make the problem worst.
Tina & Little Cookie : )
Thank you for your question. I'm sorry your pup is having a difficult time acclimating to the major change in lifestyle. Often older dogs will have a lower tolerance for the stresses of relocation, which is what it seems you are seeing here. Whimpering and salivating are signs of severe stress or anxiety. You also said that if you put her in an actual crate, she shows body language which you associate with fear and anxiety.
So, my first question is this: do you only confine her when you are leaving the house? Or do you confine her at other times, for example if you need to take a shower or if you have guests over or for any other reason? If you only confine her just before you leave, and you are gone for several hours, you may be seeing signs of separation anxiety or separation distress. This may seem odd since she has always been fine when you left before. But, there are two differences this time. First, there is a change of venue - you are bouncing back and forth between two homes and so it's possible that neither one feels fully "home" to her, and thus not fully safe. Second, she's 10 years old now. She's a senior citizen (even for a little dog), and coping with major life stresses like this are often just more difficult for an older dog.
You've done a great job being cognizant that your pup might feel some stress and you've gone out of your way to try to help her feel safe and comfortable in both locations. I commend you for that. You are paying attention to her emotional state and doing your best to meet her needs.
So what can we do to help her over this hurdle? Well, first there are the homeopathic options. Have you ever tried a ThunderShirt? Many dogs find great comfort in the soothing, gentle and consistent 'hug' that a ThunderShirt provides. Research has demonstrated that using a ThunderShirt during an acutely stressful event can reduce stress related behaviors. In fact, one study looked specifically at dogs who were formally diagnosed with either generalized anxiety or separation anxiety who were left unattended in a new space for 15 minutes. This study (conducted in part by Temple Grandin) showed that the majority of dogs wearing the ThunderShirt properly showed a significant reduction in several stress related behaviors (as compared to a group wearing the shirt very loosely and another group not wearing a shirt at all). Not only were several behaviors reduced when wearing the shirt, but there was a drop in heart rate as well (a physiologic indicator of stress). I am actually about to embark on a formal research study looking at the effect of the ThunderShirt on chronic stress, as opposed to acute situations. There is a good chance that wearing the shirt for longer periods of time, and regularly (daily) can help reduce overall stress and improve the dog's ability to cope.
Now, it's important to keep in mind that the shirt appears to be about 85% effective, which means that roughly 15 out of every 100 dogs who uses the shirt will see no effect or will hate it. But, it's totally worth a try to see if it helps your dog.
Introduce the shirt first by letting her sniff it and eat treats off of it. When she seems comfortable, lay it across her back and connect the neck strap (treat), connect the inner chest flap, and then the outer chest flap (treat), play a game, have cuddle time, feed a meal, do some training or any other thing she really likes. After about 10 minutes take it off. Then, have her wear the shirt twice per day for 1-2 hours, with several hours between each wearing for 3 weeks. If your schedule doesn't allow for this, you can do 30-minute sessions before work and then 1-2 hours when you get home.
It will not harm her to leave it on for several hours (e.g. put it on 10-20 minutes before you leave for work and take it off when you get home). As long as she's not trying to rip it off herself, the only potential issue is that the snuggle effect may wear off due to habituation. But, after it's been off for a few hours, the effect will begin again the next time you put it on.
Take note of her body language when you put it on. She should essentially be her 'normal' self. You should either see no obvious effect, or she should be relaxed/calmer but still fully engaged. If she stops engaging - if she "shuts down" and is just sitting or standing perfectly still, either staring at you pleadingly or avoiding eye contact, if she's squinting her eyes and looks suddenly (immediately) super sleepy, if she's hesitant to move when you call her, if her tail and/or head is low - then the shirt is not a good idea for her. This reaction is called "shutting down" and indicates extreme emotional discomfort. If you're unsure, take the shirt off. Does she have an I-survived-the-shirt frenzy, like she probably does after a bath? If she is overly excited when the shirt comes off and overly still while the shirt is on, then do not use this shirt on her. But, if she is fairly normal with the shirt on and fairly normal when you first take it off, then it's totally worth trying it out to see if it makes a difference.
Secondly, I would try playing music that has been determined to lower the heart rate and blood pressure of dogs listening to it. The CD collection called Through A Dog's Ear has several CDs which you can purchase. Be sure to play the CD when you're home as well so that the music doesn't become a cue that you're about to leave the house. When my youngest was a puppy, I would play the CD at bedtime and we'd all fall asleep to it (it will totally put you to sleep, super soothing). And then I'd turn it on anywhere between half a track and 2.5 tracks before I had to leave, making sure it would play on a loop. By playing it while I was at home - during cuddle times - it helps reinforce the comfort factor and avoid it just becoming a cue that I was getting ready to leave. It helped my pup when he still had to be confined due to age/potty training and his older "siblings" were free in the house.
I have the very first CD on the above list.
Another option you might try is a calming pheromone diffuser. I would get a plug-in version that can be plugged in right near where the pup will be (or the spray and spray her bedding (or wherever she hangs out most when you're gone). The pheromone should be introduced about 10 minutes before you leave the house. Adaptil or Comfort Zone are a synthetic version of the pheromone that nursing mothers produce and is supposed to have a calming/soothing effect on dogs of all ages. This is one of those hit-or-miss things. Some people absolutely swear by it, while others see no change in anxious behaviors. It is on the expensive side. So, I would try this separately from other options since it requires to buy more when you run out.
I would start with one thing and try it for a week. Then add a second thing and see if that makes a difference. If you see a difference when two things are being used, if you want to determine if its' the combination or just the newly added thing, after a week of clearly seeing a benefit, you can remove the first thing and see if the effect remains or regresses. Example: ThunderShirt for a week, not much change, add in music - big change. After a week of clear improvement, take away the ThunderShirt and keep using the music. Does the effect remain or is there an increase in anxiety again? This will help you determine if it's the combination of the shirt and music, or if it's just the music (added second) and you don't really need the shirt. Ditto with the pheromone option. And you may find she needs all three. It can be a bit of a game to play to see what may help.
Comfort Zone spray
Both products also come in plug-in diffusers and a collar which can be worn.
Finally, I would also speak with your vet. It is possible that she may need some medication to help her through these toughest times. It may be an as-needed thing, or a regular daily medication to help ease her anxiety while you help her develop better coping skills for this change in lifestyle. Meds are not really meant to be lifelong, rather they are meant to be used in conjunction with a behavior modification program to help ease the anxiety enough that new learning can occur. Then, once the learning is in place, we can wean the dogs off the meds. This is a discussion to have with your vet about what type of med (if any) is really appropriate. Sometimes we use a fast-acting, short lived med like Xanax as needed until the general anxiety med can build up to a therapeutic dose in the system (3-4 weeks).
On a slightly different approach, I'm wondering, is it really necessary to block her access to anything? What happens if you allow her to have full access to the house? Simply giving her the freedom to choose where to be, may be enough to eliminate all of her stress related behavior. If it's absolutely necessary to keep her out of a particular space, it might be better to block her access to that one space, rather than confine her to a smaller space. In other words, instead of confining her in the kitchen because she's not allowed in your office space, it might be better to just close the door or put a baby gate at your office and let her have the rest of the house to choose from. You may find that you just picked the wrong space. She may feel far more comfortable being able to doze on the couch or your bed while you're gone because it smells like you and helps her feel safer. Simply allowing her the autonomy to choose where she rests may be the key to helping her.
Lastly, at 10 years of age, it is possible she's beginning to develop some age-related cognitive dysfunction. It's essentially doggie dementia. This is a diagnosis of ruling out other things and will require a thorough discussion with your vet of all her other symptoms besides the stress you describe to me here. This includes changes in sleep/wake cycles, forgetfulness, changes in levels of engagement, seeming to get frightened by things that didn't used to scare her, possibly failing to recognize someone she knows, standing at the wrong edge of the door while waiting for it to open, seeming confused, potty accidents when the dog was well potty trained for years, and several other things. You may see some or many of these symptoms in a dog developing cognitive dysfunction. There are meds that work very well for some dogs if that is the diagnosis. Again, this is a diagnosis made by ruling out several other medical conditions that have similar symptoms, so it's important to bring your vet into this process so they can help you determine if this is just emotional due to the change in lifestyle, or if there might be a medical cause, in which case you have something specific to treat.
I wish you the best of luck. Please feel free to followup if I can be of further assistance.
Jody, CPDT-KA, APDT
Masters candidate, Animals and Public Policy (Animal Behavior)
Tufts Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine