Separation Anxiety in Rescue Dogs
This issue’s training tip is brought to us by Karen Sollars of Lafayette, IN, who adopted her first mixed-breed dog in July 2000. Sadie, a Spaniel/Beagle mix, suffered from separation anxiety. She sought help at Purdue University Animal Behavior Clinic and among the recommendations was to involve Sadie in something to burn off energy and build confidence. Sadie & Karen took their first agility class in September 2000. While working through Sadie's problems, Karen took the Purdue DOGS! Course, learning about positive reinforcement training and behavior modification. Sadie retired from agility shortly after AKC opened competition for mixes, but Annie, Karen's second rescue "Speagle" mix, has achieved both a MACH and a PACH and was a finalist in the 2016 AKC National Agility Championship. Karen gives us some great advice on dealing with dogs suffering from symptoms of separation anxiety.
While not all re-homed dogs develop separation anxiety (SA), there are a large percentage of rescued dogs that are treated for it.
However, abandonment is not the only reason for SA to develop. Age and health changes; changes in home life including death, divorce, schedules; poor socialization; and other dramatic life events may bring about SA. There also is information to suggest that dogs, just as people, may have a pre-disposition towards the problem.
SA can be mild, such as the dog crying for the entire time he is left alone, to severe cases where dogs have jumped through glass windows and eaten their way out of doors or walls. Many behaviors exhibited by SA dogs can be just normal behaviors of a bored, under stimulated dog, such as chewing on furniture or carpeting and/or tearing up things when left alone, so destruction alone is not proof of SA.
Here are some steps you can take when you adopt a rescue dog to help minimize the possibility of SA developing.
1. As with bringing any new dog into the household, it is advised that you arrange to have a couple of days where you can control your home schedule. It is important that you leave the dog; however, it is best if it isn't for the first eight to 10 hours. Introduce them to being alone gradually. Help them learn that you will return!
2. While it is extremely hard not to feel sorry for a rescue, they need to learn to "stand on their own four feet." Let them "earn" their place in their new world. Nothing In Life Is Free (NILIF) protocol, developed by Dr. Victoria Voith, is very clear to follow, though definitely not easy on the kind hearted. However, it is a great way to train the dog to be a good family member, and it will help them learn that you have everything under control, which often gives a shy dog more confidence, as well as helping the dog to build confidence that he can be successful. Don't smother the dog with love and attention when they are stressed, which could inadvertently reward the behavior. Instead, provide positive interaction, having the dog perform a simple behavior for a treat or a quick tummy rub.
3. Begin crate training, but be aware that dogs that suffer from SA often cannot tolerate confinement. Make it a very positive experience. Put treats in the crate when the dog isn't watching and let him "discover" what a wonderful place the crate is. SA dogs have destroyed wire crates in attempt to escape, so it may not be a tool you can use immediately.
4. A behaviorist will recommend adequate off property exercise for almost all behavior issues, and SA is no exception. While letting your dog run in your fenced back yard will burn energy, off property exercise is stimulating and helps your dog build confidence. Plan on a minimum of two 30-minute off property exercises a day.
4. Enroll in an obedience class that uses only positive training methods. Structure is important for dogs, especially dogs with SA. Plus the socialization will help to build confidence. Then work with your dog two to three times a day in short sessions. After a basic obedience class, you can explore agility, rally or other sports/specialty classes that will continue to build that confidence in your dog.
5. Downplay departures and returns. Don't make a big fuss over your dog when you leave or return. This just increases his anxiety.
6. Don't allow your new dog to sleep with you. It is important the dog learns that it can live without being glued to you. (You can change this down the road after it is clear that your dog has adjusted to his new life without over attachment.)
7. Never use punishment, and be predictable. Dogs thrive on being able to predict consequences.
If you suspect that the dog is developing or has SA, set up a video camera and record what happens when you are gone for a short time. Review this with an animal behaviorist, who can prescribe medication that will help your dog, along with behavior modification. As opposed to boredom behavior, the SA dog will desperately try to escape to go with you, often defecate, and always exhibits panic. As with all behavior issues, always consult your veterinarian to rule out any medical issues.