We rescued our new puppy, Juno, from a little place called Marlborough, New Zealand. She was 11 weeks old, and the rest of her littermates were already adopted into their new homes by the time we picked her up.
Juno is a tiny fox terrier cross, and we don’t know much, if anything, about her parent’s history. What I can tell you, is that my best guess is that neither were bred by responsible or reputable breeders.
Sometimes as new puppy caregivers we do everything right, and personality and genetics prevail. In a very short amount of time, we realized, Juno has separation anxiety (SA). More specifically, isolation distress (read about the differences here).
How can you tell is a puppy is just frustrated or bored that you have left them home alone, or if they have true separation anxiety?
Your puppy might have true separation anxiety if…
- Their distress happens as soon as you leave, not after becoming restless and bored or after waking from a nap.
- They will not eat from food-dispensing toys (such as a stuffed Kong) unless you are there with them.
- They do not settle after a few minutes, but instead the distress escalates. This might be crying, digging, pacing, urinating/defecating, shaking, drooling, or even self harming. Sometimes this panic might result in broken nails and broken teeth (along with broken hearts).
Here is the play-by-play of how Juno’s separation anxiety became a thing of the past!
This week we did everything we should be doing, especially with a shy, nervous, new-to-us puppy. We brought her to puppy socialization class, allowed her to explore her environment at her own pace, pairing anything scary with her favourite treats.
We played sound desensitization tracks for habituation to fireworks, barking dogs and city sounds. All of this worked with great success! She is becoming more independent and confident every day.
Diagnosing Her Separation Anxiety
We started to introduce the kennel on day one, though we chose to let her sleep in our bed at night. She happily went into her “house” on cue. We started training this behaviour with the clicker. Every time she went into it on her own free will, I would click and reward her.
Once she understood that “house” meant to enter her kennel, we began to reward her for staying in the kennel:
- As the door closed.
- Then latched.
- Then closed, latched, and with a slight pause.
- I eventually could leave her there for a few seconds, then longer. But as soon as I was out of sight, panic ensued.
I then experimented with leaving her out–free in the living room area with the door closed off to the rest of the house–and spying on her through the window.
The majority of SA dogs do better when they are not confined, and I wanted to test if this might be the case for Juno.
She went to the door immediately. It started off as whining, then digging and scratching at the door, which turned increasingly frantic. By the time I returned (which wasn’t all that long), her nails were bruised and she was trembling with fear and soaked in saliva. This even happened when I tried to leave her alone to shower.
The Change of Plan:
- New Kennel. I decided to purchase a new kennel and place it in a favourite location, beside the couch. This would give us a fresh start. Again, a kennel isn’t ideal for many dogs with SA, but as a young puppy, I was hoping this might work for her. It can be a great management tool to prevent her from getting into trouble when I am not there to supervise her as she learns the household rules. I chose to get a new kennel because I wanted to ensure she started out with a place that she didn’t already hate. Training her with a kennel she was already scared of would take much longer!
- Adaptil. The next immediate thing I did was to purchase some Adaptil from her vet. Adaptil is a synthetic appeasing pheromone that simulates calming pheromones given off by mom. Talk to your vet about other nutraceutical and pharmaceutical options for your dog.
- Back to Square One. I started all over again with the kennel. “House” = click and treat. “House” + door closing = click and treat. I also spread her favourite treats in there throughout the day, fed her meals in it, and offered her other fun, interactive activities while in her kennel. I wanted to make sure that she had positive feelings about her kennel.
Progress had been successful, though painfully slow. Though I mainly work from home (or at least I have the option to), I did have some meetings to attend on campus the following week. I would need to be gone for about 2-3 hours for two days.
Management: Keeping Juno from Panicking
I, fortunately, have some dog-loving friends who could stay with Juno from time to time. And my husband returns from work at 2:30pm, so we could coordinate our schedules.
But because I moved here from the other side of Earth (New Zealand from Canada), I don’t know a lot of people here yet, and I have no family close by. So this could be challenging in the future.
I know, however, I cannot leave her alone to panic, and I wanted to assure I introduce departures in a very slow, easy, systematic way so that to create a positive association with being left home alone.
Exercise: Tired Dogs are Happier Dogs
I also know that Juno has a lot more success when she is tired out (I learned that this needs to happen adequately before I shower).
Juno is so young and she has a lot of energy!
When she doesn’t have somewhere to focus that energy, it can cause the situation to escalate a lot quicker. Being tired is not a solution, but does help!
Technology: A Separation Anxiety Case’s Best Friend
I also ordered the Petzi. This is a camera and treat dispensing device that will help me to reinforce her calm behaviour during my absence down the road.
I opted for the Petzi over the Furbo or PetCube because of the price and delivery time to New Zealand. This proved to be the wrong move, but mistakes happen. You get what you pay for!
Weeks 2 to 3
The Vet Visit
This week I decided to discuss with Juno’s veterinarian about the possibility of medication to ease her distress and to aid in her behaviour modification.
Unfortunately, I was unfamiliar with the vets in the area and there are no Fear Free clinics in the country yet. So, I took my chances with picking one.
The conversation sadly didn’t go as planned, and the vet with whom I spoke with was not educated in behaviour at all.
The false information he was passing off as advice was alarming and worrisome to me. Because I am an expert in the field, I thankfully knew better than to listen to this “advice.”
And unfortunately, he was not able to clearly read her stress signals, even in the clinic.
Some myths about separation anxiety include:
- Puppies can’t get separation anxiety. Any dog at any age can get separation anxiety.
- You are the reason for, or have caused, your dog’s separation anxiety. Genetics, behavioural history, changes in the environment, stress, can all be factors. There is no evidence that YOU have done something wrong. Laying the blame on people is hurtful, not helpful.
- Getting another dog will help. In my case, the vet recommended daycare, which is not a fix for separation anxiety, and a terrible idea for a puppy who is fearful of other dogs.
- Just letting them “get over it” (cry it out). This will most definitely exacerbate a dog’s anxiety to being left alone.
- Using a crate will fix it. Using a crate may stop the destruction in your home, but will not stop the distress your dog is feeling. In fact, crates often make them panic more.
- They are mad that you left and the destruction is their way of getting back at you. The panic that your dog is feeling is what causes the destructive behaviour, not spite.
- Using a food-dispensing toy should solve the problem. A food toy is a good distraction. It may also combat boredom. But, it will not solve your dog’s separation anxiety.
Most unassuming people do not realize that behaviour is not something that many (not all) vets are educated in, and can easily get led down the wrong path. This was a reminder of that.
Veterinary behaviourists are veterinarians who have gone on to study behaviour after becoming a doctor. So they are very specialized and knowledgeable in the most up-to-date and evidence-based research on the topic.
I made an appointment elsewhere for the following week.
In the meantime, I started Juno on Zylkene. Zylkene is a natural supplement with calming properties derived from milk protein.
This was a daily morning dose, and continues as a part of our routine as it is 100% safe. Unfortunately it is not available in New Zealand, so I had to order it from over the pond, Australia.
I also purchased some Calmex. Calmex is a mixture of essential amino acids and B vitamins. Again, it is very safe, and proved to be a saving grace! It worked very well for Juno.
I was able to work up to leaving Juno in her Kennel, out of sight, for 5-10 minutes successfully. Remember, I already conditioned her to the kennel and having the door closed.
This training schedule looked something like this:
- 3 second with my back turned
- 5 seconds as I walked out half of sight and back
- 10 seconds as I walked around the room
- 5 seconds as I sat in a chair across the room
- 20 seconds as I walked around the room
Repeat x 50
- 10 seconds as I walk around the room
- 10 seconds as I open and close the door and go out of sight (x10)
- 10-30 seconds as I walk around the room
- 10 seconds as I walk out of sight
- 10-30 seconds as I open and close the door and go out of sight (x10)
Repeat x 50
Day Three to Seven
Same as day one and two, but increase the length of time, variably. We worked our way up, slowly, to 10 minutes or so. Keep in mind, this pace was always easy for Juno. Every dog is different, and some days or times of the day may also be more difficult.
I kept training sessions short and sweet, but repeated them often throughout the day. She is still young, and her attention span reflects it!
She was even eating her bully stick, lamb tripe or stuffed Kong while I was out of the room. I then started opening and closing the front door as if to simulate leaving.
Week 4 took a turn for the worse. Up to this point, we had successfully made it to 10-15 minutes by mid week. And I could even leave her to shower now without any meltdowns!
Then, it all came to a halt.
Juno began to dig furiously at the kennel bars, bite them, scream, shake and drool. I was feeling defeated, frustrated, and worried. Thankfully, I have a great network of other trainers and consultants, and we were able to put our heads together.
I often do not necessarily recommend kenneling a dog with separation anxiety as I have mentioned above. It can often exacerbate the issue and many dogs feel more stressed when confined.
I initially tried it because Juno is still a baby. She was still having occasional accidents in the house, was chewing things she shouldn’t, and was being a normal puppy! But this setup was obviously NOT working.
So, I decided to try her again having free-range of the living room/kitchen. We have a door that separates this area from the rest of the house, so it was an easy thing to do.
My Petzi had also arrived this week, and it was terrible (see my review here). So, we went out and purchased a CCTV camera, the EZVIZ. This option didn’t provide remote treat distribution, but I was at least able to watch her while I was out of the room.
Medication and Supplements
I also picked up some meds from our new vet. These were event specific meds that I could use for longer outings if and when needed.
I tried them while I was at home first, to assure that there were no adverse reactions. They actually made her quite hyper, so we canned that idea.
Instead of trying a different medication, I decided to see how this week went leaving her free-roaming instead.
Our first week back at it looked something like this:
- Morning walk.
- Shower (she was successfully letting me do so now).
- Play for 10-15 minutes or interactive puzzle toys
- Calmex and spray area with Adaptil
- Turn on TV (white noise)
- Training session (down-stays and place, mostly)
- Give her HIGH VALUE item (lamb tripe, trachea, and other disgusting things)
- Make sure there are things around for her to play with, interact with, and do when she’s awake
- Say, “Bye. I’ll be back”. Nothing more.
- Close her in her area
- Go out the front door
- Do my work on the front lawn and watch her through the camera (and eventually leave
- Come back in, have an uneventful hello. I would often have her go directly into a sit or down, reward, say “hi” with a little scratch, then go about my business.
Repeat x 5/day
Back On Track
I was, within the week, able to leave for 10-40 minutes (keep in mind, we had already SLOWLY worked up to 10 minutes before our setback). By the fifth week we were up to an hour and a half!
At the end of week 5, we even left her for an hour and went to get groceries. Mind you, she was tired from the beach that morning. But, by sticking to our formula, we were having a lot of success! By week 6, I was able to leave the property and attend meetings and do errands without hesitation. This new set up was clearly working.
Also, by week 6, I was only using the Calmex when I was actually going to leave the property and be gone over an hour. It did help to keep her more mellow. So for longer outings, this was our main line of prevention.
Changing the situation was a tweak to the program that worked like a charm!
Week 7 and Onward
We are STILL following this same plan, from morning walks to me leaving the house. And it’s working! This week, I have been extra busy on campus. I am currently working on my PhD, and I had meetings and presentations on campus every day this past week! I was successfully able to leave her for 3 hours without any problems!
I no longer practice leaving several times a day, as I feel we are passed that now. But even if I have nowhere to go, I still practice at least once per day under varying circumstances.
I am mindful, however, that if the lawn mower or gas delivery person is coming by that day, to make sure I am home. The last thing I want to do is for her to become frightened, and take any steps backward in her training.
I will continue to set her up for success, and hopefully we will continue to see it!
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Erin is currently from Alberta, Canada where she works as a canine behaviour consultant. Erin is a CDBC and CPDT-KA, working with all types of dogs with all types of training needs. She has a MSc in Anthrozoology (the study of human and non-human interactions), and is a PhD candidate in the same field. Erin will be relocating to Christchurch, New Zealand at the end of 2018.