About half of my 800 training appointments per year were for “problem dogs.” I’m not talking about unwanted behaviors that are easily rectified, like Bowser pulling on the leash or counter surfing. For a whole lot of referring vets in the New York area, I was the “go-to” guy when it came to dealing with aggressive dogs. To me, the unrestricted biter is the most serious problem dog.
The second most serious difficult problem I encountered was the dog that freaked out when left alone. It’s called separation anxiety, and it can be disastrous.
Once, arriving early at an appointment, I ran into the dog owner just as she was coming home, and we entered the apartment together. One look around and she dropped to her knees in tears. The place was so trashed by her Great Dane that it looked like drug dealers looked for, and couldn’t find, a hidden stash of pills. Then there was the case of the Yorkie whose separation anxiety was exacerbated by his barrier frustration. Be it a closed door, a gate, a crate door, Yorkie scratched at it until his paws bled to the point where he had difficulty walking. That resulted in a lot of not appreciated vet bills.
At the time, I thought I had a great solution to at least getting his feet to heal. Attached to a bolt in the middle of the living room ceiling was an elastic cord that ran down to the floor, which was hooked into Yorkie’s harness. Around him was his bed, water bowl, and toys. Being tied to the middle of the living room, there was no barrier to scratch against. To my chagrin, no matter how tight I secured the harness, he squeezed out, ran to the door, and scratched. One of the worst cases was a dog that chewed his own legs, self-mutilated, to the point where he was euthanized. At the time, drugs to possibly mitigate these anxieties were not readily available.
So what to do? One of the worst things you can do is have the dog at your side 24/7. And that’s basically what’s been forced upon lots of dog owners for the past seventh months, because of COVID-19. For the lucky ones who can occasionally leave Bowser alone and there seems to be no problem, as a preventative I’d still suggest that you leave Bowser home alone several times a week, even if for only 10 minutes.
It’s important to de-emotionalize coming and going. No long, sad “Miss you” goodbyes. Coming home, no dropping to your knees kissing and hugging. Just a casual pet, “Hi Bowse,” and go put on a cup of tea for yourself. When leaving, maybe throw down several treats as you say, “See ya later Bowser, go find the treats,” and walk out. Makes your leaving more of a positive thing. Even be more positive if you left two or three Special Toys. If the only time on Planet Earth that Bowser gets people food is when you leave, maybe he’ll look forward to the signs of departure, putting on your jacket, grabbing the car keys. Three hollow marrow bones, one with a piece of meat stuffed in the middle of it, one with cheese, and one with peanut butter. Place a couple of these Special Toys down in addition to the tossed treats as you say, “See ya later Bowser,” and he may be beside himself with joy trying to take it all in. It is EXTREMELY IMPORTANT that the Special Toys are removed when you get home; he only gets them when nobody’s home. Otherwise, they will lose their “specialness.”
For really severe headcases, I’ve also recommended a desensitization program. Bowser is totally aware of all the things you do before you leave. Watching you get dressed, doing your hair and putting on makeup and jewelry, picking the shoes to wear, by the time you grab the phone and car keys, he’s already a basket case. So I’ve asked people to do all the things they normally do before they leave, two or three times a day, and Not Leave, hopefully desensitizing him to the cues that ratchet up his anxiety.
Better than stone silence when you leave is something for Bowser to listen to. Research has indicated that soft classical music played on a harpsichord is quite soothing to many dogs, and country-Western music works well too.
Bottom line: Two-leggeds, even if you’re socially COVID restrained, one way or the other, get your dog used to being alone for varying lengths of time several times a week!
Have a question for the Dogcharmer? Write him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Find him on Instagram at DogTrainer Diaries.