Would therapy help my dog's destructive anxiety when he's left alone?
August 13, 2005 8:13 PM   Subscribe

We love our dog, but his scratching is destructive - how can we help tame his anxiety at being left alone?

Our beagle mix puppy is almost two, so I'm running out of time to blame this on "puppyhood." With people around, he's as generally well-behaved as a two year old dog might be, but if he's left alone in a place unfamiliar to him (i.e. not our house, but say my parents' house or my in-laws'), he will whine - then scratch at the carpet around the door by which we left, and even at the door itself. It doesn't happen every time we leave him, but it happens often enough that neither my husband nor I feels safe saying "sure, we can leave him here while we go out to dinner - it's only for a few hours." The other night at my parents' he was fine; tonight, he caused hundreds of dollars worth of damage, and sadly, it's not the first time.

He's generally a stellar dog, and we feel like we've done a decent job of socializing him and introducing him to strangers so he's not afraid of them - what can we do to help calm his fear of the unfamiliar when he's left by himself (or maybe that's fear of being left by himself among unfamiliar things)? Whatever came first, fear of the unfamiliar or fear of abandonment, this behavior is driving us nuts! And it's getting expensive too...
posted by deliriouscool to Pets & Animals (14 answers total)
Take his crate to the inlaws' (or have a backup crate there) and leave him in there.
posted by By The Grace of God at 9:25 PM on August 13, 2005

Hmm, it doesn't sound like this dog's been crated, but it certainly sounds like the solution.
posted by forallmankind at 9:40 PM on August 13, 2005

I definitely agree with the crate training suggestion.

In addition, you might also check out stress control supplements like Rescue Remedy or Ultra Calm Treats, which is what we've used. They don't drug the dog, they just take the edge off their anxiety.

Does he get plenty of exercise? That will make a big difference. You can also schedule exercise before you plan to leave him alone so he'll be more inclined to just sleep. The few breed descriptions I checked says beagles have fairly high exercise needs--60 to 90 minutes of energetic exercise daily.
posted by lobakgo at 11:36 PM on August 13, 2005

I had a dog who did this. He was a great dog in every other way - I had him for 14 years - and I eventually figured out that I had to adjust my lifestyle. He was fine at home and fine in the car, but he couldn't be left alone at other peoples' houses because he would just tear them up. So, if it was at all possible (cool enough) when visiting, I kept him in the car when my hosts and I went somewhere. If it wasn't cool enough for him to spend time in the car, I didn't bring him. He stayed home with a pet sitter or went to a kennel.

Not all dogs can be crated. I've had four dogs in my adult life: two had no problems with crates and two simply could never, ever adjust to them.
posted by mygothlaundry at 11:52 PM on August 13, 2005

lobakgo's advice is spot on, I think. Rescue Remedy in particular is excellent and our dog really enjoys the game of "grab the pipette before it's whipped away" (although of course you can add a few drops to food or water instead).

If you're uncomfortable with the crate idea, try the exercise plus stress control supplements first.

But don't be put off by crating (as I was). We had to buy one for our second dog to protect her from the rough & tumble after a big operation and she loved it, couldn't wait to scamper into her den with a cuddly toy. Following advice from the vet, I put an old sweatshirt of mine in there along with the new blankets so that she had familiar smells too.

Come to think of it, we stayed at a guest house a couple of years ago and the owner insisted that dogs be crated at night. We took our crate and she loaned us a larger one. Both dogs happily slept in the crates all night, even the big fella, who'd never been in one before.

All the best of luck!
posted by ceri richard at 11:57 PM on August 13, 2005

Sadly, crate training was less-than-successful; he tolerated sleeping in it when it was in our bedroom and we were there, but generally hated being left in it alone at our house. He was frantic when crated at other people's houses - we stopped crating altogether when he chewed off a metal portion of the crate (a clip at the top that holds it together when it's folded) while at my in-laws; our vet told us she'd seen dogs with a mouthful of broken teeth from trying to escape their crates. Yikes!
posted by deliriouscool at 4:00 AM on August 14, 2005

Yikes indeed. How about trying the exercise + Bach rescue remedy idea before leaving him for a short visit at a tolerant relative/friend?

It's perhaps worth mentioning the problem to the vet on your next visit since he knows you and the dog and could well have a better solution.
posted by ceri richard at 4:53 AM on August 14, 2005

ALL dogs behave with anxiety when they don't understand their place in the pack. Your dog clearly thinks he's the boss, and panics when his charges have left the house and gone out of his sight. He doesn't understand how they could've gone, when he's stuck in the house, and furiously tries to get out his anxiety, trying to calm himself until you return.

The most important kind of training you can do is dominance training. Things like making sure PEOPLE go first through doorways and down stairs (important!) and that PEOPLE eat first (no table scraps, set meal times, don't leave the bowl for the dog all day long), don't make a production of leaving or entering (ignore your dog when you come home, wait until he seems to be disinterested in you, THEN call him over to play/get affection), don't play with toys that he brings you (play on your OWN terms, or make him drop it before you pick it up). Once he understands, he'll feel relaxed and content, fully understanding that his "alphas" (the humans) have everything under control, and he only needs to worry about showing love.

My dogs have never had so-called "separation anxiety" or any such things because they're all taught -- and it doesn't take too long, or much effort -- that people are the boss, and dogs are last on the totem pole. May sound cruel or dismissive to think that way, but dogs are pack animals, and are only comfortable when their pack structure is understand and adhered to.

Our neighbors, friends and family ALWAYS tell us how wonderful our dog is, and she spends a lot of time being watched by others, who also report back that she was a dream to have in their home, no terrorizing, no jumping on furniture, no begging, no darting out doors, and no anxiety. Trust me, dominance training, and learning his place in the pack, will do WONDERS.
posted by Merdryn at 8:16 AM on August 14, 2005

I have to strongly disagree with the dominance training suggestion. Modern animal behaviorists and trainers(Jean Donaldson, author of Culture Clash, and Ian Dunbar --to name a couple) are concluding that the dominance model is antiquated, incomplete, and at best very misleading. Even former proponents of the dominance model, like The Monks of New Skete who popularized the "alpha roll", have changed their thinking. The new addition of the Monks of New Skete's books no longer recommends the "alpha roll".

Studies are showing that communication between dogs and between wolves is much more subtle and sophisticated than first thought. In the most recent issue of Your Dog from the Tufts University's School of Veterinary Medicine, there is an article on this topic. It notes that the studies that coined the term "alpha" came from studying captive wolves in the 1940's where unrelated wolves were being forced to live together. Contemporary studies of wild wolf packs reveals different behavior. In 13 yrs. of observing a wild wolf pack, Dr L. David Mech, said "he didn't see one 'dominance contest' between parents and an upstart pup. He no longer uses the term 'alpha'."

There is also debate about whether models of wolf behavior are even relevant to dogs. The same article says, "The little bit of literature on feral dog societies suggests they are more loosely arranged (than wolf societies). They are more scavengers...They are raiding garbage cans and eating mice. They don't need to be that highly social. They don't need a leader. They just need to be smart."--Dr. Alice Moon-Finelli, PhD. animal behaviorist.

I think the idea that humans, who take years to learn the different languages of others in their very own species, could learn and accurately use the "language" of an entirely different species is pretty arrogant. Consider that we can't move our ears, we walk on two legs, we have no fur, we have no tail, and we have a much more limited sense of smell. Modern animal behaviorists think dogs are much better at understanding us(than we them) and are better at overlooking our rudeness--our simian penchant for hugging, our staring, head patting, perfume wearing, yelling, etc.

Dogwise.com has an excellent selection of books that would be a good place to start. I'm not connected to them in any way. I've just found them to be a good source.
posted by lobakgo at 1:22 PM on August 14, 2005

I'd also like to add a vote against this "dominance training." Lobakgo has mentioned some excellent resources that you should look into. Merdryn's response is not a definitive Best Answer to this question, and I hope you don't view it as such.
posted by MrZero at 5:47 PM on August 14, 2005

Our dog has been to professional obedience classes, and one of the first things we asked about was dominance theory. Well did we get an earful.

Training and understanding of dogs has come along way since dominance theory, and professionals currently rank it as next to useless. Dogs are not wolves. Eating first, never losing at tug-of-war, etc, etc, etc. Bunk.

We've ignored DT and instead concentrated on anxiety reduction (having appropriate things to chew, ensuring that we don't always leave for extended periods but may pop in now and again to show that it isn't always an 8+ hour absence, radio or metronome on for sound (metronome simulates mother's heartbeat), no great emotion from you as soon as you come home -- be casual with him when you arrive so it isn't such a big buildup and release -- and exercise him on a regular basis!) to great success. When we have problems, it's because we're falling down in one of the areas I mentioned above, not because we didn't show him who's boss.
posted by dreamsign at 8:59 PM on August 14, 2005

Biscotti, if she sees this, would also be against the DT, and she gives some of the best pet-and-dog related advice around here. The DT is not a best answer; perhaps it worked for you and your dog, but I haven't found that to be useful for other people. Biscotti has has given oodles of great advice here, and she has repeated that the DT info is outdated and there are far better ways of managing anxiety, training and dogs. I also used to think crating was cruel, but you may come to see that it is not only preferable for most dogs, but it gives them their own space and comfort zone, and they generally love retreating to that space. Exercise, crating, love, attention, chew toys, training; those are all proven training and anxiety reducers for dogs. The Dominance Training is just a way for owners to feel like they're in control, but not have a clue about what makes their dog tick. Again, you may have had a lucky dog, but it's not the answer for most/all dogs.
posted by fionab at 11:23 PM on August 14, 2005

Thank you all for this great feedback and the excellent resources. I'll definitely read up on both sides of the dominance training issue so I understand it thoroughly. We've been to obedience classes and been very good about reinforcing good behaviors rather than punishing bad ones. As I mentioned, we've tried crating, with mixed results. As far as leaving appropriate items around for chewing, let me just say that I feel like that's been training for me rather than the dog (must. always. put. shoes. away.). Generally, he's a great dog, and we feel like pretty responsible owners.

We are stymied, however, at how to train for a situation that will be different every time and at which we won't be present. I think more reading is in order (and more training, of course), and we'll probably try Rescue Remedy in the short term. Thanks so much; wish us luck!
posted by deliriouscool at 12:54 PM on August 15, 2005

Dominance training might not be based on a complete understanding of wolf behavior, though why you'd focus exclusively on wolves to try to understand dog behavior and ignore all the breeding that's been done to produce domesticated dogs, I'm not sure. But to call dominance training useless is ridiculous. It's demonstrably effective in many situations.

In one of the training seminars I went to, there was a dog who spent the whole time in her owner's lap. This was a BIG DOG. When the Q&A started, that owner's first question was, "how can I get my dog to stop climbing in my lap"? Clearly, this owner and dog had dominance issues -- the owner had no idea how to assert herself, so the dog did whatever it wanted. It was bad for the dog, too -- the poor thing had inch-long toenails because they couldn't get her to sit still to cut them.

So, there's an example where an assertion of dominance by the human is what was required, and that's exactly what my trainer told them.

The people who say that dominance training is the be-all and end-all are probably, as fionab suggests, power-tripping and maybe bordering on abuse. But it's a tool; a certain amount of it is absolutely necessary (as in the case above), and the right level can help with a lot of behavioral issues.

I'm not suggesting that dominance training will necessarily help you out of this jam -- we've got similar problems with our dog, though not as bad, and he mostly knows his place in the pack -- but to dismiss it out of hand is to ignore a useful tool.
posted by gurple at 1:50 PM on August 15, 2005

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