Life with a separation anxiety dog
I absolutely love dogs. Always have. I used to sit with my grandfather's boxers and read them stories and share my treats with them. They loved me and I loved them. Since then I have nearly always had at least one dog.
Ok, this blog isn't necessarily 'science', but it is educational and a good reminder of how life can throw you a curve ball.
For the past eight years I have been dog-less. I was back and forth between countries and postdoc positions. It was no 'great' life for me let alone a dog. When I got a tenure-track job last year I put myself (and my partner) on a breeder's waiting list.
This, let's call it a condition, is common enough. Basically, your little pal develops the equivalent of a doggie phobia/neurosis around being left alone. In severe cases, the dog may exhibit signs of distress even if you stepped into another room and shut the door for a second. Sometimes they don't even want to let you out of their sight even though you only moved a few steps.
Classic symptoms include following you around, excessive panting, excessive salivation, vomiting, howling, chewing, trying to escape. The list is extensive.
It's just a puppy tantrum
We did not get Echo 'too young'. She came at the pretty standard age of 8 weeks from a breeder that socialized and cared for her. Some resources suggest that getting a pup too young can lead to the problem. They also suggest that adopted dogs, boarded dogs and changes in schedule can all have or lead to the problem.
Let me stress, this is not a 'puppy tantrum' that she needs to 'cry out'. I've seen plenty of puppy tantrums. They are relatively short outbursts of frustration, not hours-long-scream-like-a-banshee-being-slowly-tortured-to-death episodes.
Echo being her weird, cute little self
Ok, what was Echo's behaviour like
When we picked Echo up, she already knew us. We had been to visit several times. We brought her home and spent the weekend with her. We introduced her to a fabric crate initially. We used treats, we left the door open, we talked in soothing tones, we got in there with her. Didn't matter. She SCREAMED. She was petrified. She shook, salivated, urinated and SCREAMED.
We tried this strategy of slow introductions with us at home over and over again. She chewed her way out of the crate. The screaming, urination, drooling etc. continued. We had neighbours come and stare at our windows because they probably thought we were trying to kill her.
Echo doesn't seem to be an extreme case of separation anxiety. She doesn't display the behaviour around the house if we change rooms - she isn't a constant shadow. She doesn't exhibit the behaviour in the car if she is left alone.
I had never experienced this problem before. All my previous dogs took to the crate after a gradual introduction and were ok being left alone.
There is no miracle cure
I have been reading a ton of breeder forums, papers and websites about separation anxiety in dogs. Unfortunately, there is no quick fix. It takes time and consistency. Even then, it may improve but it might never be gone.
We bought a metal collapsible crate. We tried it in several locations - bedroom, lounge, hidden away. We tried having it open and covered. We gave up on having 'beds' in there because she just kept peeing on them all the time. We have tried treats, music, Rescue Remedy, items of clothing, ignoring her, false departures, long walks... it's quite a long list! We did consider that it might just be the crate. After experimenting with leaving her loose or in other areas we can safely say it is not just a 'crate issue'. (Alas, we don't have a fenced yard at the moment to try that).
The biggest problem with separation anxiety (from my perspective) is finding that fine line between a little bit of stress but not letting her become so stressed that any progress is completely removed. It's like a desensitization programme - slow and steady.
Echo enjoying a swim
What has worked
Echo is almost 8 months old. In the six months we have had her, we have worked hard on this problem. Some of the strategies that seem to have made a difference include:
Spending a weekend introducing her to the new crate using this guide, then doing the same exercises over a week
Feeding her in the crate - this is helping give her a routine. Now, she voluntarily runs into her crate and sits for her meals. She is shut in for 30-60 mins each time.
Running through the Karen Overall Relaxation Protocol numerous times. You can download several of the protocols here.
Installing Dog Monitor on our computers and phones so we can observe her behaviour. This helps us pin point how long of an absence is long enough. It also helps us know how badly she is upsetting the neighbours!
Start small and build up. For weeks I would make Echo go in her crate while I pretended to leave and then came straight back. I did this multiple times a day. Eventually, I started building up the time. Five minutes for a week, ten minutes, etc.
Large chew toys and 'special treats' when she is in the crate. This is designed to give the crate and her alone time some value.
Progress has been made
Echo has made great progress. She is not perfect, but she has made progress. The last eight times we have left her alone indicate that Echo is quiet and relaxed for 60% of the absence. At the moment we typically leave her for 1-1.5 hours. This is a MASSIVE improvement over 0% calm.
Unfortunately, I can't say that she is consistently perfect for 40 mins out of 60. It completely depends on the day. Somedays she is quiet for a whole hour absence. Other days it could be as little as 22 mins in an hour. Again, big difference from 0 minutes though! (Let me have my small triumphs, ok).
Echo no longer vomits or urinates. Her excessive salivation has dropped a lot. She no longer screams like we are killing her. She no longer chews the bars. Her behaviour has shifted to moments of calm with moments of howling - you know, the long 'why did you leave me?' howl of anguish.
Where to from here
Obviously, we still have our work cut out for us. A visit from a professional dog trainer has given us some additional tools to try. Hopefully they work. In the mean time, it seems to be a case of just doing all these things over and over.
Echo helping with fieldwork
Why keep her?
I'm sure some people think this. It is a huge challenge and not one that you expect when you think about getting that new puppy home. There have been many times when I wish I could just explain to her that it really isn't a big deal and we always come back for you. Echo's issue has been a huge source of frustration as it limits how long you can go out for. Work, errands, social life... they all get impacted. But, it does seem to be her only issue.
We haven't had any sacrificial shoes. She knows she is not allowed on the furniture. She is good with people and genuinely likes other dogs. In every other respect, Echo is a fun-loving pup. As large as she is, she is still a puppy. I know plenty of other people living with pets that require intensive medical treatment, or the ones that routinely destroy phones/furniture/etc., and even the ones that can't stand other animals or people. We keep her because in six short months she has become part of our life. I hope that we can continue to work with her, and convince her, that being alone isn't so bad. Fingers crossed!!
Echo is an American Akita. Her breed has become well-known because of stories like Hachiko and Helen Keller's instant love for the Japanese version of the breed. (Technically, the two are recognized as separate breeds by kennel clubs). They are large, aloof, intelligent, independent, loyal, dominant and determined. As people say, they are not necessarily the best breed for first time dog owners. If you gain the respect of an Akita though, you have a friend for the entirety of their life.
Echo loves running after balls, playing tug and playing with other dogs. You can tell when Echo is really happy because she will do one of her famous somersaults!