Teaching your dog to wear a muzzle
Dogs need to wear muzzles for various reasons. Maybe they pick up food off the ground outside, maybe they don't like to be handled at the vet, maybe they can be aggressive towards people or other dogs in various situations, and sometimes owners just want to give their dog some extra space from others, and muzzles can help with that. Muzzles unfortunately have a negative stigma with a lot of people, but the truth is that they're important tools that can help keep your dog and everyone else safe.
This is the part where I remind you that if your dog is displaying worrisome behavior including aggression or fearfulness, I recommend that you seek the services of a professional behavior consultant, who will be able to support you through your dog's training which may include teaching them to wear a muzzle!
Now a muzzle is one of those tools that most dogs won't tolerate very well if you just put it on them. I'm going to outline one method that I use to desensitize a dog to wearing a muzzle, while building a strong positive response to the tool. We'll follow the journey of Uno, the Shiba Inu mix. All these videos are from my actual day training sessions with Uno and he's learning each step for the first time as you view it in the video. These are edited down from 5-6 minute videos in some cases, but generally I tried to show the beginning of each session so you can see how he responds to each increase in criteria. You'll notice a lot of repetition, and very small changes in criteria built on previous successes. Uno is using a Baskerville Ultra muzzle, which is my favorite for working with my clients. It's a basket muzzle, so he can open his mouth and breathe safely, and the spacing is such that I can feed him through the bars of the muzzle. You can find them on Amazon, and they have a sizing guideline. Jafco also makes a lovely muzzle, and you can get it with a treat hole. My favorite custom, light weight muzzles are made by Bumas.
The first step is to simply have your dog comfortable putting their nose in the muzzle, which I do by using it as a sort of bowl by cupping the bottom with my hand, while putting treats inside for Uno to eat. This is only if your dog doesn't have a previous negative experience with muzzles, or isn't inherently afraid of novel objects. If your dog is uncomfortable just seeing the muzzle at any distance, you need to do some foundation work before you can get to this part.
The next step, only once Uno is very comfortable with putting his nose in the muzzle, is to start feeding those treats from the outside of the muzzle. Different dogs will proceed at different speeds. Uno got this part pretty quickly, but if it takes your dog several sessions to move from the first step to the second step, that's OK! The most important component of this training is that we move at your dog's speed. If you push too quickly and make things more difficult than your dog is ready for, you run the risk of your dog making negative associations and taking your training back several steps while you work through your dog's concerns.
At this point I've switched to a squeeze bottle filled with a mixture of whipped cream cheese and liverwurst, as I find them easier to use in this context, but you can use regular treats in much the same way. I'm still focused on making the association for Uno that super yummy things come from the muzzle when his nose is inside it.
Now we're working towards tiny little pauses between treats while he's wearing the muzzle with him keeping his face in the muzzle during the pauses. This is the foundation for the rest of our muzzle work - slowly increasing the duration of those pauses. When he does pull his face out, the bottle goes away, but he's not forced to put his face back in. He does on his own (because he's had a long and strong reinforcement history of it at this point) and the treating continues. It's super important that your dog can always pull his face out at this point, and that there's no negative consequence for doing so.
Here you can see the pauses between the streams of food getting longer, and I also tossed him treats away to reset him so he can practice targeting the muzzle with his face, which starts the food stream again.
Now we start to put the strap over his ears, very loosely. You can also see that I'm feeding him with fewer pauses - when you make one component more difficult (adding the strap), it's important to make other components less difficult (how long he has to wait between treats).
Some more practice with just putting the strap on, this time with treats at the front of the muzzle instead of the bottle - it's a bit easier to handle this way!
Now that Uno's had some experience feeling the full weight of the muzzle on his face without support from me, we're working on increasing the pauses between treats again.
Uno has graduated to significantly longer pauses between treats, so we're going to try moving around with the muzzle on! This is a big step, and one at which many dogs will start to paw at the muzzle. It's important to take your time getting here and treat your dog frequently enough that they don't worry too much about the muzzle. If Uno were to start pawing at it, I would call him to get his attention and get him back on the bottle. If he had a hard time with that, I would take a step back and ask him to move around less, and increase how often I give him treats.
After Uno's comfortable moving around with the muzzle on, we progress to asking him to do other behaviors he already knows, in this case it's a hand target. I would not recommend trying to teach him something new at this point, stick with behavior your dog likes to do already.
Once Uno was comfortable moving around his apartment and doing various behaviors with his muzzle on, we were able to pretty seamlessly get him wearing it outside on his walks. In this video you can see him walking nicely with his mom, wearing his muzzle like a pro.
Getting a Puppy in NYC
I work mostly with adolescent and adult dogs, most of whom are fearful and/or aggressive to some degree. A few times a year I get new puppy clients, and they're like a birthday surprise for me, and oh so refreshing! All my adult dog experience underlines the importance of early socialization, but also, where puppies come from.
Most of the dogs I work with come from either pet stores or are adopted from rescue groups or shelters. I often meet people who tell me they know they shouldn't have acquired their puppy the way they did, but they couldn't help it, and they want to do the best they can now that they're in love and a family. And I fully support that - once your puppy is home it's time to get to work! But if you haven't brought puppy home yet, let's make sure you get the best possible dog for your home and lifestyle.
First off, pet stores should be a blanket no way. I know why people get dogs from pet stores, oftentimes rescues turn you away for seemingly no reason, and breeders have long wait lists, so you go into a pet store "just to look" and that one really cute little fluffy thing just captures your heart. Maybe you go home and can't stop thinking about her, go back the next day, she's still there, and you just *have* to take her home. I hear that same story all the time. But remember that no responsible breeder you actually want to buy a puppy from will ship out their extremely young and sensitive puppies out at 8-10 weeks old for unknown pet store employees to sell to the general public. It just doesn't happen. These breeders are breeding for money - not the betterment of the breed. I don't care how many papers or photos the pet store employee shows you - your puppy is most likely from a puppy mill. These breeders are not breeding for temperament and solid health. They're mostly likely not running extensive health tests on both parents, trialing or working their dogs, or breeding only the best representations of their breed. I'm sure there are shades of terrible and some may be better than others, but it's not a gamble I would ever encourage. With all this said - I think it's also very important to remember that many wonderful dogs come out of pet stores. Many well loved family pets who live long, wonderful lives are purchased at pet stores. But many die young from health issues, suffer with chronic behavior and health issues. At the end of the day, let's stack the deck in your favor.
Rescues. That's the next best thing, right? Well, not always. There's an unfortunate side effect of the widespread "no kill" movement which is the warehousing of unadoptable and marginal dogs for years. Oftentimes in tiny crates and in deplorable conditions. Many rescues also ship in dogs from out of state (even out of country) with inadequate quarantine, health checks, or behavior evaluations. Most of the time when I meet an adult dog who is terrified of being outside and find out the dog was adopted, I ask if the dog was brought in from the South and the answer is almost always "yes". This is not an adopter problem. This is a rescuer problem. One of the problems with adopting puppies is similar to a problem of buying puppies from stores - you don't know what you're getting. There's always been the argument of nature vs nurture - genetics vs experience. The truth is both are extremely important. If your puppy was found on the side of the road in Texas, we have no information about your puppy's parents. Was mom a biter? Was dad a resource guarder? We don't know. Did your puppy's parents die young from a congenital disorder that your puppy has inherited? There have also been several studies done on the effects of in utero and early life stressors on future behavior. So if your pup's mom was hungry, stressed, fighting to survive while pregnant, that flooded your puppy with stress hormones while he was in the womb, and it's been shown can affect his baseline to make for a more reactive and sensitive adult. We just don't know a lot of the time. It's a similar unknown to buying a puppy from a store, only your money may be going to an organization doing some good, as opposed to no good, although several rescues have been buying dogs at auctions (https://www.washingtonpost.com/graphics/2018/investigations/dog-auction-rescue-groups-donations/?utm_term=.2a84d66c0dd2) which is a very troublesome trend.
So what does that leave us? Breeders? Yep, if you want a puppy and you want to stack the deck in your favor. Remember though, how much work puppies are (read: they're A LOT OF WORK). If you're sure that's what you want, find a breed you feel would work well for your home and lifestyle, meet a few dogs, and research breeders. Go in with the understanding that there may be a wait, sometimes for a year or more for rare breeds. But you can meet your puppy's parents and most times, close relatives. You can inquire about health histories of that line. You can learn about temperaments and how old dogs were when they passed. You can have well researched expectations. All with the understanding that things can still go haywire and your dog can still be the black sheep, but you have a much better chance of getting exactly what you want in a dog.
The more strict your criteria is, the more I would recommend adopting or buying an adult dog at least 18 months old. You'll have a better idea of the dog's physical characteristics and temperament. Around this age most dogs are hitting social maturity so you won't have as many behavioral surprises down the road. You can adopt dogs from a local shelter or rescue group, or even reach out to breeders and see if they have dogs they are retiring or no longer using for their breeding program. You can also hire a behavior professional like me to help find the perfect dog for you.
With all of that said - I think it's important to know that Prynne was purchased at a pet store by her first owners, and I adopted Eyre from a shelter who brought him in from Ohio. So everything should be taken with a grain of salt, as always. There's no right answer, but the more information you have, the more you know what you want, the more likely you will make the right decision for yourself and your family.
Medication changes, Canine Cognitive Dysfunction, and an incredibly overdue update.
For a very long time Charlie's separation anxiety was under control. I jokingly referred to him as my "recovering SA dog" because I didn't think it ever really went away, similar to the way addiction is described. The pieces to the puzzle are always there, but we had over six years of recovery. Unfortunately, I was going to find out how right I really was.
Late last year Charlie started showing signs of Canine Cognitive Dysfunction (CCD). He would frequently seem disoriented, lost, he tripped often, and didn't seem like himself. It steadily got worse until early this year I decided I wanted to do something about it. My vet said we could try him on a drug called Selegeline which is being used in humans to combat dementia and early stage Parkinson's, as well as in dogs for CCD with great effects. The downside was that he would need to be weaned off Prozac and be "clean" for two weeks before he could start it. This would be the first time in over 6 years that he would be off anti-anxiety medication.
The initial stages of weaning went well, according to my vet's instruction, we halved his Prozac dosage for a week, then got him completely off for two weeks, and then started the Selegeline. We are currently just over one week into the Selegeline treatments. I am very happy to say that all CCD symptoms have cleared up. He's bright eyed, more active than I've seen him in years, constantly asking to play tug to a level I also haven't seen in quite a while, and full of life. But he's lost all semblance of impulse control, his counter surfing has escalated, and his separation anxiety has returned. It started with a day or two of coming home to barking, to now four days straight. He's also peed/marked in the house twice, which he hasn't done in over 6 years. He's constantly whining; has a hard time resting and relaxing. His dog reactivity has escalated and his normally low frustration threshold has plummeted even further.
More than anything, seeing him go through this, going through this with him, has shown to me how clearly his behavior "problems" are a medical issue. These are not behaviors he has control over. There's nothing to train. Let me repeat that: there's nothing to train. He's not doing anything wrong, I'm not doing anything wrong. He can't do anything any differently and I am doing all I can to make his life easier to handle. His brain is wired wrong and he needs medication to keep it working with a semblance of normalcy. I don't think I ever really understood the implications of this truth until now.
If you're struggling with your dog, I know it's difficult. I know how hard it can be. But never forget how incredibly tough it must be for them. My greatest regret is that I cannot make his brain normal. Watching him suffer through anxiety hurts so much. I took him off of Prozac because I wanted to help him, and it showed me how much help he really does need every single day.
Please don't leave medication for a last resort. Sometimes there's only so much that training and management can do. Sometimes they really need more help. And in those instances, prolonging the anxiety and discomfort does no one any good.
Now that I've been MIA for long enough for you to completely forget about this series, let's talk miscellany! Nothing like odds and ends to grab your attention and bring you back in. Everything in this post may have an effect on your dog's battle with separation anxiety, and you should try as many as possible.
It didn't help Charlie (actually made him more anxious), but these tight-fitting shirts have worked incredibly well for many dogs and I regularly recommend them for my clients (and even sell them in my store!). They work by applying constant, even pressure along the body of your dog which has a pretty amazing calming effect for most dogs (similar to a big bear hug for people). They're meant to be worn tight for the best effect, so if your dog, like Charlie, doesn't like wearing things, this may not work for you.
They work best in 20-30 minute increments with a break in between, but if your dog is very anxious and the shirt works well, you can keep the shirt on 24/7 if you need to.
Dog Appeasement Pheromone is a synthetic pheromone meant to replicate those excreted by mother dogs while nursing puppies to help calm dogs (there's even a version for cats too - it's called Feliway). They come in a plug-in version that you can attach to an outlet in your home, a spray that you can put on a bandana for walks outside or to spray a blanket or crate, and a collar that your dog can wear all the time. DAP doesn't usually have an easily visible immediate effect, but many people have shared that (in the case of using the plug-in) they notice their dogs becoming anxious and whining when the plug-in runs out, and relaxing after it is replenished. Most pet supply stores carry them.
There are so many herbal supplements, I can't even begin to list them all. Some work homeopathically, others utilize Traditional Chinese Medicine, and others are just herbs. A common herbal remedy is "Rescue Remedy" which is a combination of various flower essences. I've tried this with Charlie with no effect, but many have seen great results, so it's certainly worth a try.
There are other interesting herbal anti-anxiety supplements you can look into, including L-Theanine (active ingredient in green tea), and Melatonin. Be sure to research dosage, and drug interactions before giving these to your dog, and talk to your vet (or find a homeopathic/holistic vet near you) if you have any questions.
I cannot underline the importance of getting a full thyroid blood panel on your dog if she is anxious, fearful, or aggressive. Thyroid imbalance has many, many effects on the body, many of which are still not well understood. Dr. Dodds is the expert in the field, wrote an excellent book on the subject, and has a lab dedicated to running thyroid (and other) panels. Her lab was less expensive than my local vet's lab, so I highly, highly, highly (did I mention highly?) recommend going there first.
After finding out that Charlie was hypothyroid (low thyroid levels, and his were just barely low) and getting him on medication, he calmed down significantly, even though he'd been on anti-anxiety meds for over a year at that point. I've now been able to lower his Prozac dose quite a bit, thanks to the thyroid imbalance getting sorted out.
I realize this may seem like a no brainer for most - but it's worth mentioning. Charlie pre- and post- neuter were two different dogs - totally different dogs. I really can't emphasize this enough (doing a lot of that today - eh?), especially for males - if your dog is intact and displaying abnormal levels of anxiety and/or aggressive behavior, neutering has a good chance of minimizing those behaviors. And if your dog is displaying abnormal behavior, there's no reason to keep him intact (you don't want to pass those genetics down to any puppies).
The effect of spaying a female on her behavior is less understood than neutering on a male, so I will hesitate before recommending it only to alter behavior. That said, if she is displaying abnormal behavior, she should not be bred, and for that reason alone you should strongly consider spaying.
(Let me just take a moment and offer this PSA: there is a serious dog and cat overpopulation problem worldwide. So many pets have accidental [and poorly planned] litters, the offspring of which often end up at the shelter, and are then euthanized because there simply aren't enough homes for all the homeless dogs and cats. Yes, it is nice to have purebreds, but in my humble opinion, only responsible, well-educated, experienced, and knowledgeable breeders with the resources and know-how to breed for health and temperament in order to better the diversity, working ability, and strength of their breed, not to mention a PhD-level understanding of genetics, should have any access to intact dogs for breeding purposes. If you have an intact dog and are anything less than what I have described above, please either alter your dog, or be 100% certain that she or he will not have an accidental litter.)
If you have an intact dog without major behavior problems who you are not planning to breed, the best time to spay/neuter is around 1 1/2 - 2 years old. This gives their body time to mature fully, and growth plates to close naturally (if you adopted a dog who was altered before this time, don't worry - the major effects are generally benign) . If your dog is younger than that and experiencing behavior problems, it's time to talk to your vet, a professional trainer, and even a veterinary behaviorist.
When Charlie was younger (he's 11 now!) I had him exercising with a back pack. It helped him exercise harder (carrying weight) and gave him a job to do, which helped keep him focused. It was also quite useful on long hikes because he was able to carry some of his own stuff.
The general rule of thumb is no more than 15% of the dog's body weight (including the weight of the pack). As with most all things dog, you have to start slowly and build up your dog's strength. Every dog will be different and will have a different tolerance for weight.
My all time favorite (because I have a favorite everything) back packs are made by Ruffwear. They have pretty much anything you might need and something to suit everyone!
The next two posts will be the last of the series! Woohoo! They will be a two-part discussion of the actual training that needs to go into a separation anxiety behavior modification program. I'm hoping to crank them out sometime soon, though I don't recommend holding your breath.
Once I finish off this series (finally!) I'll probably spend some time talking about Emma-related stuff like allergies and urinary incontinence. Maybe even delve into her fear based reactivity (no more series for a while, so don't get excited about that one). I'll also try to get some training videos up, especially of the kitties.
If there's anything you'd like to see covered, feel free to suggest. Though I doubt anyone actually will. There's so much info out in the internet-osphere it's hard to add something meaningful!
After much work and preparation (as well as acute neglect of this blog and my separation anxiety series - for which I profusely apologize) I can finally announce that group classes are a go!
I partnered up with Samantha Aguilar of NYC Pet Services who very recently opened up Astoria's first day care. She has a nice foyer at the front of her store that we're going to use for group classes! The space is limiting (hello, NYC) so classes will be small - but that means clients get a LOT of teacher attention.
For now we're only offering three classes a week - puppy class, indoor manners, and outdoor manners on Saturday evenings. A mandatory orientation is held every other Sunday for newly enrolling students. As interest grows we will expand our offerings. We're also trying to keep to a modular format to make it easy and convenient for everyone.
This Sunday will be our first orientation. I'm expecting everything to go smoothly - so that I can get back to my usual routine and back to blogging!
Also - I'm lucky enough to be able to attend the Denise Fenzi seminar on using play as motivation in obedience work this Saturday and I'll try to post about my experience. Denise is an incredible trainer who I regard highly and I can barely wait for the seminar!
And finally - if you haven't yet - PLEASE buy Leslie McDevitt's Control Unleashed: Puppy Program. It is simply amazing and can help any and every dog - but is specially tailored to the prevention of reactivity in puppies (hello curriculum for puppy class!
Getting a second dog as a companion for an anxious dog is a very tricky decision that must be well thought out. Unfortunately, it's much more common for anxious behavior to spread from the resident dog to the new dog than for confidence to flow in the opposite direction. You also have to consider whether the dogs will be safe if left alone together unsupervised, and most importantly, if your dog really even wants another dog in the home.
As always, I turn to my muse, Charlie. Charlie was an only dog for the first seven years of his life (all very heavy SA years). When we moved out of my mother's apartment and in with a friend in a roommate situation, we also moved in with my roommate's dog, Frog (don't you just love the name?). Charlie and Frog have similar social skills and preferences, they're both tolerant of most dogs, but have large personal space bubbles and don't really like to play with other dogs. They are both neutered males, within a year's age of each other. In other words, they got along really well.
It was also during this time that I really started working with Charlie on his SA and we got into clicker training (yay!). Over time I noticed a pattern that Charlie tended to be calmer and coped better when Frog's owner left him home with Charlie than when Charlie was home alone.
Charlie and Frog sharing the couch in our old apartment. It was unusual to see them so close together.
Since Frog's owner would sometimes take him to work, I ended up bribing him to leave Frog at home to give Charlie (and me) peace of mind. We barely ever saw them interact, a cursory butt sniff was the pinnacle of their relationship (OK they also loved to run after the "cats" in the alley together, and Charlie would always wait for Frog to initiate - kind of cute for a generally anti-social dog), but they definitely comforted each other when home alone together by merely being in the same apartment.
When it was time for Charlie and me to move out, I was understandably worried about losing a crutch and what I felt was a modest part of our training and rehab plan at the time, so I set out to find Charlie a suitable canine companion. Because Charlie is such a generally anxious dog I needed an uber mellow, relaxed dog who wouldn't feed off his waves of anxiety. I have a substantial soft spot for Pit Bulls, so went on the hunt for our perfect dog.
I met many, many dogs in the next few months, several of whom I was mildly to moderately interested in, but none of them "fit" the way I needed them to. I wanted a dog who would ignore Charlie as much as he ignored them - he doesn't care for jumpy, playful dogs, and unfortunately most Pitties are jumpy, playful dogs! I also didn't want a very large dog (at the time), and was looking at those below 40#.
We eventually made our way to Sean Casey Animal Rescue in Brooklyn. I spoke to the adoptions manager and explained (very verbosely and with many details) exactly what I was looking for. I had Charlie and my brother with me so we could properly assess Charlie's reaction to the new dog and vice versa safely. Without blinking the manager knew who he wanted us to meet and asked for "Sandy" to be brought out.
Out walked this tiny, red, skinny, stinky, scarred up Pit Bull and my first thought (I'll admit it) was how ugly she was! She was so calm as we walked around the block. She and Charlie sniffed each other for a second and then completely ignored each other for the rest of the walk (exactly what I was looking for) but were content to walk side by side (and even fell into step!). We brought her back and saw several other dogs, none of whom felt as good as she did (they were either too interested in Charlie, too hyper for his liking, too jumpy for his liking, or were so excited about being outside, being with us, they barely noticed as they bulldozed over him in their enthusiasm, etc.). My brother and I ended up comparing them all to the little red dog, and asked to see her again at the end (can you tell where this is going?). For the second walk we sat down on a bench and she crawled and mushed all over us and wiggled her way into our hearts, all the while being very mindful of Charlie (could this be real?). I didn't adopt her that day, but after forcing myself to visit a few other shelters and meet many more dogs, that weekend we busted her outta there. The rest, as they say . . . .
What a relationship built on trust looks like.
Unfortunately, later on I found out that Emma has substantial resource guarding problems towards other animals (as well as troublesome reactivity to some people), so I can't ever leave them alone unattended (especially since I feed them from frozen Kongs) - even with proper training it's just not a risk I'm willing to take (I'm happy to report that she's been great after a lot of training and hasn't guarded in many months!). So Emma is crated any time I leave them alone, but this arrangement seems to work well for Charlie. We've also acquired two cats in the past year, and we all live in a small NYC studio apartment together, but they're a well-chosen bunch and complement each other nicely. It's been a very long time since Charlie has been left alone (all alone) and I don't know how much the other animals really help him cope at this point, but I have come home many times to him sleeping on the bed with one or both cats.
How does this apply to you? Well, first get to know your dog. If your dog has excellent doggy social skills, doesn't get into fights or engage in inappropriate play with other dogs, this may be an option for you (you never want to leave two dogs unattended if either or both practices unsafe or inappropriate play behavior because that can easily escalate into a fight). It is of the utmost importance that you seek a professional trainer or behaviorist to help you choose your new dog because if you're trying to help ease your current dog's anxiety, you need to be sure that:
1) Your dog would welcome another dog in the first place.
2) You choose the new dog very carefully - this is not the time to get carried away by looks or breed, you need a very specific personality-type specific to your current dog.
3) Your home set up and schedule can accommodate a second dog.
4) You need to want the second dog too!
5) You get a dog of the proper age to most benefit your dog.
This is also not a good idea for dogs who are extremely anxious when left alone, currently not eating, damaging themselves, or destroying furniture, etc. This is a step to consider when you've already done a good deal of the work and your dog is experiencing much more "normal" levels of anxiety. It's simply not fair to either dog otherwise and I hope you take this warning seriously. This would never have worked for Charlie had we tried it five years ago and may have resulted in Emma developing anxiety.
If you feel, however, that you and your dog may be ready for an addition but if you're not sure how a second dog would fit into your home, or if you're ready for such a commitment, fostering a dog in need of a home is always an excellent idea. Contact your local shelter or rescue and see what type of programs they have. Some will even pay for all food expenses, and most pay for medical expenses. There are short term fostering options of just a few days and longer term fostering that can last months and even years. One plus side of many is that you're saving two dogs - the one in your home, and the space you opened up at the shelter for the next dog to come in. If you end up falling in love with a foster, you can always join the ever expanding pool of "foster failures" who go on to permanently adopt their not-so-temporary friends.
Be mindful though, that dogs coming from the shelter may be stressed out, which may affect your resident anxious dog and turn into a bubble of even more serious anxiety, so you please be sure to dull the edge of your resident dog's SA before trying this out (again, please seek the help of an expert!).
And if your dog likes cats a lot, maybe a cat friend is more her style!
Separation Anxiety: Medication
Medication is generally a very touchy subject; it certainly was for me when it was first recommended to me. But before I get into all the inner turmoil I dealt with and how I went back and forth for weeks before finally deciding to give it a try, I really have to emphasize that I am not a veterinarian and everything I write here is strictly regarding my experience with Charlie. If you're battling SA with your own dog and think medication can help, I strongly recommend you seek help from a veterinary behaviorist with experience prescribing for SA dogs, and if one is not available, developing a strong relationship with your regular vet is crucial.
It was five years ago and Charlie was six years old. He was at his worst, SA-wise. We had just recently moved into an apartment after living in a private home for his entire life (where we let him bark all day when no one was home - there was no one to complain and we didn't take it seriously back then - in all fairness I was a teenager and although he was my best friend I had no idea what to do about his behavior) and he wasn't coping well. He was urinating on all the moving boxes and black plastic bags; he was barking continuously from the moment I left until I came home, resulting in a collapsed trachea and breathing problems that still crop up to this day; he would often lose his voice; he scratched up all the doors and windows, basically plug in your average over-the-top anxious dog behavior and he was doing it.
We sort of coped with it haphazardly for some time, I don't really remember what we were doing about it, though I did, at one point, call a dog trainer to come help us. Unfortunately I was a CM fan back then and she was recommended from his site - turns out she didn't really help us much (for whatever reason she felt teaching him how to walk on a leash and giving him leash corrections was going to fix his SA. All it did was exacerbate his already delicate throat and lead to an increase in his hacking and coughing). We continued to receive complaints from the Department of Environmental Protection and were cited for his barking more than once.
Then one day in 2008 it got really serious.
Charlie, circa 2006, right around the time we moved and his separation anxiety sky rocketed.
One of my neighbors (and I have a good hunch who it was) left us a folded piece of paper (OK this is a little graphic, so if you're sensitive, please skip to the next paragraph - I'm getting worked up just thinking about it) with a drawing of Charlie "burning in Hell" and showing how they were going to kill him (they had him hanging from a noose). Of course after that I kind of freaked out and knew that we needed to do something, immediately. On top of the note, my mom was also threatening to give him away and we were all going through a lot of personal problems. It got so bad that I shipped him off to live with my father in New Jersey for a few weeks - it was the hardest thing I've ever done. That didn't last long, since my dad didn't know what to do with his problem anymore than we did.
I'll admit that I tried a Citronella anti-bark collar. It didn't work. For whatever reason I could never get it to sit right on him, so it ended up spraying the side of his face, or missing his face altogether and I would just come home to an extra-uber-anxious dog who smelled like citrus. To be perfectly honest, I'm sure that even if I did get it to work correctly it would never be enough to dampen the level of anxiety he used to experience back then, really it just made him worse. I tried for months and months a variety of other things that any person recommended, including putting a nylon muzzle on him during the day. Besides being incredibly stupid and dangerous (if he needed to vomit he would have died, if he got too hot, he would have died, and a bunch of other "ifs" that could have ended in his death bother me deeply to this day) it just made his anxiety worse. We used it as a crutch for longer than I'd like to admit to, since it pacified our neighbors and stopped the death threats and calls to the police, but it always made me uneasy and he hated it more than I want to remember. Note: nylon muzzles should only be used for short periods under direct supervision for things like veterinarian visits, grooming appointments, and other short-term handling experiences. If you need to muzzle your dog for aggression-related behavior, you must get a properly fitted basket muzzle that will allow your dog to safely pant, drink, and even take treats. My favorite basket muzzle is the Baskerville Ultra Muzzle. Please learn from my mistakes and don't put your dog at risk! I really lucked out but could easily have come home to a dead dog. Despite all the damage I did to him back then (and from what you can see, there was quite a lot), I am somewhat proud to say that although I considered buying an anti-bark electronic collar, I never did, and I hope that you never have to consider it.
My first truly constructive step was to wake up two hours early every day and take him running in the hopes that it would exhaust him (if you read my previous post, you'll know that it did help quite a bit, and even got me in shape too!). I also started asking him to wait to be fed before I left in the mornings (was still using a bowl at that time) and would release him just before I left (thankfully he was always willing to eat, which isn't always the case with SA dogs). It was around this time that I met the person who introduced me to clicker training and I attended the 2009 Clicker Expo in Rhode Island. Finding this "new" way of training was really a godsend for Charlie and me. We both took to it like naturals and have never looked back. After the Expo I was hooked (and left all barbaric training behind), joined an online forum for clicker training, and wrote about my Charlie woes. Someone on the list brought up the fact that I should seriously consider getting him on some type of medication. My first response was to recoil in disgust, stating all these "facts" I knew about modern medication and all about how it would make him sleepy and lethargic and how I would never do that to my dog (yes, folks, hypocrisy at its finest). Prozac for dogs was a joke! Only really unbalanced people even considered it!
(I should probably add here that I'd tried all the OTC remedies that everyone suggested - everything from Benadryl to flower essences and nothing worked - I think the Benadryl actually made him more anxious. In my experience he'd always been very resistant to drugs and even needed higher doses of anesthesia for surgery, but I attribute that to his anxiety as well. It was just another factor that made me feel drugs weren't the answer.)
But she was patient, and blunt with me and pointed out (which I still very clearly remember) that if he were diabetic, I would get him insulin, right? Well, of course, I said, he'd need it. Well, then, she countered, he may actually have imbalances in his brain that make it impossible for him to relax, he needs the medication to help him think clearly - to be able to dull the edge of his anxiety just enough so he can learn how to be calm without it. Oh, I thought. I didn't even consider that. She went on to explain that modern medication, especially the types and doses used for anxiety, often don't have side effects, and if they do, there are many options to try out. She also explained how the medication worked in the brain (which I've all but forgotten) but pointed out that most of these medications (at least the ones I should be interested in) took weeks to take effect and weren't used for immediate sedation.
I sort of gathered my pride and went to see my veterinarian about this. Charlie had always been very unhappy about the vet's office, so she was well aware that he had anxiety issues (understatement of the year?). I brought up medication and she was on board with my plan.
We started him on a low dose of Clomicalm. My vet said that she had had good success with this drug and preferred it to Prozac for starting out, and we increased it after a few weeks. I didn't keep a log at the time, but I think it took six weeks or so for me to notice any significant changes in his behavior. (By this time Charlie and I were also no longer living with my mother and were sharing an apartment with a dog-savvy friend. He was much happier in the new place, although the move was stressful, as could be expected.) And then he just kept getting better and better. It certainly helped that I was gaining skills as a trainer quite rapidly (and he learned most of his 100+ tricks and behaviors during this time!) and was gung-ho about our training plan, so was able to develop a behavior modification treatment for him with the help of the wonderful people on the forum. I also started working in the dog world and was able to take him to work with me almost every day where he was learning it was OK to not be right next to me every second.
Circa January 2010, a few months into his medication treatment.
Charlie is a generally anxious dog (to this day he's more anxious than your average dog and always will be) but for the first time in his life he was able to relax. His SA slowly got better, though I was a little anal about not leaving the house more than I had to (for a long time he was stuck to a routine that dictated I was only allowed to leave the house once a day - it was so ingrained in me for so long that to this day I have a really hard time leaving more than once, even though now I can!).
There were a lot of facets to his recovery, some which I have already covered in previous posts, and others which are still to come, but the medication was what allowed him room enough in his brain to think and be able to relax on his own. From my experience with him, I can confidently say that it's absolute folly to force a dog to deal with situations they're incapable of dealing with on their own, without the proper tools (of course this doesn't apply only to medication!). Certainly not all dogs need medication for every problem, but when you and your dog are really struggling, there's nothing wrong with getting support where appropriate.
I just want to add that only very recently (within the past year) I learned about canine thyroid disease and that it can have many, many manifestations in dogs that were previously unattributed to it. Dr. Dodd's wrote an excellent book on the subject and if you plan to get your dog tested (which you should!), I highly recommend you do it through her lab (they were actually less expensive than my regular vet!). Since confirming that Charlie is hypothyroid and getting him on the proper dose of thyroid medication, I have noticed that he's calmer than ever, almost dramatically so, and a good deal of his anxiety in the past ten years may have been thyroid-related. To kind of underline that, I have also been able to wean him off onto the smallest dose of anti-anxiety medication he's ever been on, it's actually half his starting dose! We also switched him to Prozac off of Clomicalm this year for a variety of reasons, the most important of which is that Prozac is generally considered to be safer and has fewer side effects. He's currently on 5 mg twice a day (which is a very low dose). I'm hoping to lower it even more to just 5 mg once a day, but of utmost importance to me is that Charlie's content, so we're taking it very slowly. (I have tried weaning him off in the past to disastrous results, which really underscores how crucial the medication is to his mental well-being.)
If you'd like more information on the various anti-anxiety medications available, this is an excellent site to check out. If you're currently battling with the separation anxiety monster, I wish you patience, love, acceptance, and the clarity of mind to make the right choices for your dog.
After a long, and much needed holiday hiatus, we're back to talk more about Separation Anxiety!
Some people swear by it, others feel it's barely more than an old wives' tale, but background noise and music therapy definitely have their place in the fight against SA. In my experience, background noise can be a huge aid, especially when used correctly. If you've followed all the suggestions in the previous posts, your anxious dog will be well exercised and busy which will help her to get through the difficult first thirty minutes or so. But what happens when she hears a noise two hours later which incites her to bark, and then leads to her old patterns with no cue to help her stop? That's where music therapy and background noise come in.
Just leaving something on all the time, like a radio or the television, can help mimic what your home sounds like when you're home. I'm one of those people who generally has something babbling in the background all the time, and I can only imagine the stark contrast it would be for Charlie if it was dead silent when I was gone during the day.
Background noise can also help muffle regular daytime noises that might set off an anxious dog. Everything from other people in your building entering and exiting, dogs barking outside, the mailman, construction workers, trucks driving by, and the dreaded doorbell, etc. can all set off an anxiety attack for your dog. Muffling these triggers with background noise can really help. Over the years I've been able to lower the level of the music I leave on for Charlie from obnoxiously loud to pleasantly static background noise. I also feel that they help him get back to "normal" if there is a trigger that causes him to bark. Instead of an empty void there's a "presence" - most important if your dog is an only dog.
You can certainly just leave the usual music/TV/radio that you have playing while you're home (which I often do). It may take a few attempts to find what level is appropriate for your dog and your home. Also keep in mind what you're leaving on. Something like Animal Planet may actually trigger your dog to bark/become anxious (a dog barking on the TV might trigger a response - "know thy dog" is a great mantra!), while something you dislike (like the sports channel for me) might comfort your dog (monotonous human voices). Over time I found that my dogs do well with classical music, jazz, and the like (and I don't squirm when I come home!).
There has been a revolution in canine music therapy, most notably by the creators of Through a Dog's Ear, Lisa Spector and Joshua Leeds. From their website:
"The music of Through a Dog’s Ear builds on the ground breaking psychoacoustic research of Dr. Alfred Tomatis (1920-2001). Known as the “Einstein of the ear,” Tomatis discovered the extraordinary powers of sound as a “nutrient for the nervous system.” His therapeutic discoveries redefine modern psychoacoustics — the study of the effect of music and sound on the human nervous system.
These recordings are psychoacoustically designed to support you and your dog’s compromised immune or nervous system function. When the immune or nervous system is heavily taxed, a natural reaction is to self-limit the amount of auditory or visual stimulation coming into the system. However, the “nutrients” of sound are needed the most when life energy is at a low ebb or when neurodevelopmental (including sensory) issues are present. To facilitate maximum sound intake while conserving energy output, the method of simple sound has been created."
They have a variety of CDs with different purposes, some are generally calming, others are specifically for the car, and they have recently teamed up with the lovely Victoria Stilwell of It's Me or the Dog to create The Canine Noise Phobia Series which can help not only with SA but also with helping in the prevention of noise phobias.
If you're serious about aiding your dog, you really must give these CDs a try. In my experience, when I play the CDs I feel sleepy and relaxed, so I can only imagine how it helps my dogs cope!
There has also been an overwhelming amount of anecdotal evidence when these CDs were played in shelters - the dogs were much calmer and much more adoptable. May trainers play them in their facilities and I know many people who have had great success using the CDs.
If you are going to buy the CDs, make sure to check out the special offers tab where they have wonderful introductory offers.
In the next post we'll cover medication, which is a touchy, but necessary subject, so stay tuned!
I know I promised a post on training next, but I realized that will have to be one of the last posts because I need to set you up to succeed. You need all the tools in place before you should start training, and this topic, food toys, is an integral piece to Charlie's success, and one that needs to be well established in your own home.
When I first meet them, most of my clients either free feed their dogs (leave food down all the time), or feed their dogs twice a day, out of bowls. One of my first recommendations to all of my clients is to get rid of all bowls (at which point they tend to gasp and look at me strangely) and feed their dogs only during training sessions or out of food stuffable toys like Kongs.
That's Charlie with just a few of the interactive toys I have for him.
There are so many reasons to do this, all of which I won't go into, but the ones that are relevant for us include that it takes my dogs over an hour to destuff a stuffed, frozen Kong. The same amount of food, at room temperature, in a bowl, would be gone in a matter of seconds. That's HUGE when we're talking about SA dogs, for whom the most difficult time is approximately the first 30-45 minutes that you're gone. If you can engage him during this period, there's a much better chance that he will be able to ride the time peacefully and not fall into anxious, detrimental habits. I have found this to be too true with Charlie - if he's OK for the first 20 minutes or so, he's generally OK for the rest of the time I'm gone.
A secondary bonus is that it takes energy, both physical and mental, to destuff a frozen Kong. Just like the exercise I spoke about in the previous post, this is energy your dog is spending on constructive activities, and not on destroying your home, barking, or hurting himself.
A third bonus, which I only discovered later, is that the act of licking is very calming for dogs, so if they're forced to lick food out of a Kong for an hour, they'll be much calmer than if they hadn't (similar to receiving a massage or rubbing your own temples) and just eaten the same food out of a bowl. For this reason, Kongs can become great pacifiers for other stressful experiences, like veterinarian visits, trips, etc.
But, you say, my dog is SO worried about me leaving that he never touches his food until I come home.
Well, I say, we have to teach him how.
First, like I described above, all meals need to be fed out of Kongs (not frozen at first). If you feed kibble only, you can soak it in water to make it mushy to promote licking, if you feed a mixture of kibble and wet, you can mix the two, if you feed just wet, stuff it in, and if you feed raw, you can either cut up little pieces of whatever you would feed otherwise, or buy ground raw. I do not recommend using large pieces of raw meat for SA training because whole raw pieces of meat/bone/organ should always be supervised when eaten and not left with your dog unattended. Leave those chunks for days you'll be home.
At first, just get your dog used to eating out of a thawed, easily destuffed Kong while you're home. Set him up wherever you'd like him to eat it (crate, mat, bed, tether, loose, etc.) and let him have at it. You'll find over time that he'll get better and better at emptying the Kong completely (you can discard anything he doesn't finish, or put it in the fridge for the next meal). This is also an excellent way to teach a dog to settle on a mat, in a crate, or on a tether. It's a great preventative measure to take with puppies and new dogs, and even dogs without SA would benefit from it as well.
A huge part of my training protocol with Charlie was developing a huge desire for the Kong. I did this by putting him in a sit-stay on the couch in the living room, while I hid the Kong somewhere in the house (as well as a myriad other things to keep him company, but we'll get into that later) and making him wait until I was ready to leave before releasing him. What ends up happening is that he just can't wait for me to leave so I can give his release word and he can get his prize.
Did you catch that?
I used the Kong to get Charlie to want me to leave the house. Seriously.
Fortunately for me, Charlie's always had a huge love of food, and this wasn't hard to train. For dogs who are less food motivated, or don't love their Kong as much, try to add yummy bits of something special into the mix (liver, cold cuts, cheese, sour cream, peanut butter, brautwurst, etc. all work really well - get creative!), especially at the top and bottom of the filling. For these dogs, you will have to move more slowly when teaching love of the Kong so that they have time to develop a sincere adoration for the rubbery toy with all the food.
To do this with a dog who needs to learn to love the Kong, start when you're home and put your dog in a sit stay and place the Kong in plain sight. Wait a few seconds and then release your pup. Repeat this at every meal, gradually making it more difficult for your dog to find the Kong and making your dog wait longer for his release. If your dog doesn't know sit-stay, while you teach a stay, you can place the Kong inside a crate and make your dog wait on the outside with the door closed to build desire for the Kong.
At this point you can start introducing the second Kong. At first place it right next to the first Kong in a hard to find spot while your dog waits for his release. At every meal time slowly move it further and further away so that your dog has to go searching for it when he finishes his first Kong. This will help keep him busy for longer periods of time and turn on the hunting and seeking parts of his brain, which directly inhibit the fear and anxiety parts, which lead to destructive behavior (if you'd like more information on how helping him use his seeking instincts will help inhibit his fear, check out Temple Grandin's Animals Make Us Human where she explains in detail Dr Panksepp's "blue ribbon emotions").
Even though Emma doesn't suffer from separation anxiety or distress, she clearly enjoys eating out of her Kong and falls asleep shortly after finishing her meal. Your dog can have this important skill too!
Once you're at the point that your dog can wait for several minutes while you hide the toys, eat one, then go hunt for the second one, you'll be ready to start freezing the Kong to make it last longer. At first, just leave it in the freezer for an hour or so, to get your dog used to eating it cold. After a few trials of your dog happily eating his lovely cold Kong, you can leave it in the freezer for longer and longer durations until you can give him a fully frozen Kong and he doesn't skip a beat. Once you're at this point, the Kong will be ready for use in your training plan. Stay tuned for how to integrate it properly.
Although they're my favorite (I have more than 20 Kongs), Kongs are not the only food stuffable toy. There are so many on the market, it's nearly impossible to recommend or rate them all. There are many that cater to dogs who eat kibble, and other stuffable ones for dogs who eat gooey food like canned or raw. I recommend you buy as many as you can afford and get your dog familiar with how to use them. Each one has a different difficulty level and how long it takes your dog to empty it depends on your dog.
I also use a Nina Ottosson toy for Charlie. I would not recommend this for unattended use for all dogs because your dog can destroy the toys and swallow the wood or other pieces. This is a "know thy dog" scenario, where you should not leave your dog unattended with an interactive toy like this unless you're quite certain they won't destroy the toy or ingest the pieces once they've gotten all the food out.
Without stuffable toys, we would never have conquered the separation anxiety beast, so please be very serious when approaching this investment.
It may save you and your dog's life.
The next post will cover background noise, like the television, radio, or even specially designed music for dogs with anxiety.
Once you have diagnosed separation anxiety in your dog, taken her to a veterinarian for a thorough examination (I highly recommend running a full thyroid panel as well), and addressed any medical needs your dog has, it’s time to start a plan for your dog’s recovery.
The first step I took when I decided to tackle Charlie’s SA hands-on was to wake up an hour early every day and go jogging with him. My reasoning behind this is that a tired dog is a happy, relaxed, and sleeping dog. The more energy you can get your dog to expel when she’s with you, the less energy she will need to burn off when you’re not home.
Many people do activities with their dogs on the weekends, and for some dogs this is adequate. For dogs battling SA it may not be, and they may very well need extra exercise in the mornings before being left home alone for the entire workday.
Charlie and I live in NYC where off leash laws are very strict, and in the neighborhood we lived in at the time, there weren’t many dog-friendly locations, so we took to the streets. If your neighborhood is more dog friendly and your dog is dog social (seeks interaction with other dogs and generally likes to engage and play appropriately with most other dogs) you may want to consider a dog park, off leash hours at a public park, or other location where you can let your dog off leash and run free.
Word of caution: Most dogs are not dog-park dogs. Neither of my two dogs is, and that’s fine. It’s perfectly normal for your dog to not enjoy the dog run, so please pay careful attention to your dog’s body language and discontinue dog run visits if your dog seems uncomfortable, tense, aggressive, extra shy, bullied, or shows resource guarding. Dog parks can be dangerous places when people don’t pay attention to their dogs, so please don’t go to a dog run to socialize, always keep your attention on your dog, and be a responsible owner! It will also help tremendously if you read up on dog body language so you can better understand your own dog, as well as the dogs your dog interacts with.
If your dog is not dog social, don’t worry! There are many wonderful options available to you. You can do what Charlie and I did and jog/run, you can bike, rollerblade, skateboard, or even just go for brisk walks. If you live near a body of water, you can take your dog swimming. I also got Charlie a backpack from the Ruffwear company (ruffwear.com) to help make the runs extra tiring for him. I added weight very slowly to make sure he was comfortable and able to carry it without injuring himself. Please remember to desensitize your dog to any new equipment you may be using to exercise her. Many dogs may be leery of running next to a bicycle, skateboard, or rollerblades at first.
Consider yourself lucky if your dog likes to fetch – this opens up a whole plethora of options. You can do regular fetching of a ball, stick, or other toy; you can hook up something called a spring pole, which is like a large cat’s toy, made up of a long thin stick, a rope, and a soft toy. You put them all together and you can whip the toy around on the end of the stick for hours of fun. You can also teach your dog to catch a Frisbee, retrieve objects from the water, or even teach your dog to discriminate scents and find them in hidden locations (lots of fun to do!).
Every dog’s needs and abilities will be different. You want to tire your dog out a little, get the “edge” off, but you don’t want to overdo it, accidentally injure your dog, or even make your dog dislike going out with you. The other end of the spectrum is the dog who gets worked so much that she becomes an athlete and needs the incredibly large amounts of exercise to stay sane. This is also not something you want with a dog who’s prone to anxious behavior, so please tread carefully when planning an exercise regime, confer with your vet and a professional trainer to make sure you’re giving your dog the proper exercise – not too much and not too little.
Coming up next: How to Train the SA out of an SA dog