The following blog post is from a Lu’s Lab adopter and Volunteer, our very own Samme Menke Drake. This post may help anyone experiencing separation anxiety with some tips and tricks. This is no substitute for visiting with your vet, a trainer, or a behaviorist to come up with a plan that is specific to your dog. But it is good to know that you are not alone, and that with patience and love you can overcome hurtles and provide a loving home for a rescue dog in need.
“We adopted our dog through Lu’s Labs Rescue in the fall of 2015 and had learned through our adoption coordinator that Henry (then Cooper) had spent at least the last year, and possibly longer, living out his days in a crate on the back porch of his family’s home in Georgia.
We were happy that the family had decided they could no longer care for him so that we could give him a better life. When Henry came to live with us, we were on the 9th floor of a high-rise apartment and while we were providing him plenty of space and exercise, we quickly discovered his separation anxiety.
The first week we had him, we were working from home to ensure that he was bonding with us and learning to trust us. We were crating him overnight and whenever we left. He escaped the crate a few times when we left, so we used extra zip tie closures to completely secure the crate.
The next time we were gone for roughly one hour, he had a complete panic attack. When my husband came in from his doctor appointment, Henry couldn’t even see him he was so crazed – spitting, screaming and slamming his head into the crate until he bled. After that, we stopped crating him and left him out in the open. While he mostly behaved out on his own, he constantly tried to escape the apartment, including learning to open the door. It was also clear that he had been pacing around the door as his “happy tail” wound had opened back up and left blood marks all over our walls around the entrance.
The next time we left him alone, we decided to put him in our bedroom and close the door so that he wouldn’t accidentally let himself out of our apartment. We left him for 45 minutes and when we returned we learned that he had another panic attack and dug the carpet all the way to the subfloor trying to escape.
Finally, we decided to put him in the bathroom with our laptop computer to watch him from our couch to see how he would react in the room alone (note: we didn’t even need to leave the apartment). We gave him a frozen kong treat and shut the door. Within the first 30 seconds, he abandoned his kong. Began to cry and started pacing. He then tried to open the door and began to panic. He peed on the floor and laid down in it. Then paced again. We watched him for 12 minutes as he completely lost it – exhibiting pretty much every symptom of a panic attack except drooling. (Note: the key to most of these symptoms is two-fold. 1. He clearly focused on exit points of the home. It wasn’t general destruction – it was an attempt to escape. 2. He struggled with being in enclosed spaces – even just being in a room by himself.)
Note: If your situation is far less intense, it could be a number of different things. Maybe your dog needs more exercise, more mental stimulation, is generally bored, or isn’t getting enough routine/discipline.
If your situation sounds similar, I highly recommend meeting with an experienced and licensed trainer to determine the method forward. Below is a description of what we went through and honestly, having someone to help us through it was the only way we would have been able to do it.
After this episode, we called a licensed trainer who specialized in this particular issue. After describing all of the above, she said it sounded very much like Separation Anxiety – not just a transitional issue, boredom or lack of exercise – it was much more than that.
Our trainer came to do an in-person evaluation and confirmed that this was indeed a Separation Anxiety issue, but he was also exhibiting some low-level anxiety symptoms in general (which she actually said was a positive thing because he may respond better to medication). We sought the advice of our vet and he was prescribed Fluoxetine (i.e. Prozac). We were also given other ideas – such as a pheromone collar, Rescue calming drops, thunder shirts – some we tried, and some we didn’t. We didn’t really see any improvement with those.
The method she recommended was incredibly intense and would definitely be a challenge, but she said if we put in the time and effort that he would end up being an amazing dog.
Devastated, but refusing to give up, we took on the challenge. Essentially, for six months we did not leave our dog alone (combination of daycare, babysitters and working from home made this possible).
We began with some easy training – teaching him the basics including sit, stay, down, etc. Our trainer emphasized that giving him these commands helped him to trust us and would teach him to be less impulsive. It helped him understand that we were in control and that we would take care of any of the “scary” things he might encounter when we are in the elevator, or walking outside.
Then, we taught him to “go to place,” which was essentially his bed that we would move around our apartment and practice sending him to it from various places – then slowly backing away or jumping up and down – the more focused he was and if he stayed in place, we would reward him with a treat. Then we gradually started moving out of his sight line.
Getting him to stay while we left the room was a major victory. Once we mastered that, we introduced a baby gate barrier. And again, started rewarding him for staying on his “place” for various time frames, or if we moved out of sight, etc. We aimed to spend about 30 minutes to an hour a day practicing these things.
Because Henry is very food motivated, we saw progress in him immediately – not with the Separation Anxiety because we still weren’t leaving him alone yet. After a few months, our trainer said it was time to start popping out of the apartment for less than 30 seconds a few times a day. We slowly built that time up from 30 seconds to minutes until we reached 20 minutes.
We invested in Nest cameras so that we could monitor him through the process. If he showed any signs of a panic attack coming on, we could come back in. We would go sit in the lobby and watch on our phones. After he was able to handle 20-30 minutes alone – that’s when we were able to start pushing the envelope further. Finally, we built up to a few hours and continued to see Henry improve. Our lives were back to normal.
Then we moved.
We were really concerned that the move would set him back, so before we moved in, we would take him over to our house to get a feel for it. We knew in the long-run the house (with a yard) would be better for him, but we didn’t want him relapsing. We let him warm up to the idea by leaving him alone for very short periods of time and watching him on our cameras.
We realized that the front door was a source of anxiety, so we stopped letting him near it when we left – basically putting the baby gate at the top of the stairs so he was forced to stay in the main living space with the comfort of his couch and a big window to look out of.
Aside from a few tiny bumps in the road, Henry has fully recovered from his Separation Anxiety. He is still on his medications, which we may consider weening him off eventually, but for now it’s working and he’s happy.
Overall, I definitely think the house environment is much more suited for him. Because he came from such a rural area, I think the constant interactions with people in the apartment building, as well as the construction noises and everything else he was adjusting to, exasperated his issue. He feels much more at home in our house.”
As you can see, with love, patience, and time as well as the advice and intervention of experts it is possible to get through seemingly difficult behaviors with your dogs. Remember, whenever you adopt a dog from rescue their behaviors may take a while to come out, and they are not solvable overnight. You are helping save lives when you rescue and adopt. With it comes responsibility.