Reducing my dog's divorce-related stress
July 13, 2016 7:12 AM   Subscribe

Please help me reduce the stress/separation anxiety and improve the behavior of my 3 year old dog. More inside.

Me and my ex adopted my 3 year old dog from a shelter a few months after he was born. After divorcing about 18 months ago he has become increasingly antisocial (I can't even allow him around children, which was OK to do previously) and very territorial. He tends to get better with strangers after a few encounters, but as soon as the person turns around, he tries to bite. Also, he recently started to chew things like shoes and so on when he is alone.

I "share" him with my ex and in the brief moments the three of us are together he gets super happy, which breaks my heart, but there is not much I can do in that respect. Then he gets really sad afterwards for a bit when we part, then goes back to his happy self but it's not really the same. Because we both work from home he is never alone for more than a couple of hours at a time and gets plenty of walks, treats, playtime and attention. But clearly this is not enough and he seems to be changing for the worse. What can I do to reduce his anxiety/stress and improve his behavior? Thanks so much!
posted by heartofglass to Pets & Animals (13 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
If he's trying to bite humans and it's just getting worse, you should hire a behaviorist. If he does start biting humans, it will get really bad.
posted by lunasol at 7:16 AM on July 13, 2016 [4 favorites]

Um, picture?

Time to re-bond with him though. Take a group training class. Petsmart has classes. Your community college may offer them too. This will help re-establish your relationship with the dog.

Is the dog like this when he's with your ex?
posted by hydra77 at 7:28 AM on July 13, 2016 [5 favorites]

Your dog, and my cats, are not actually children, no matter how much we love them or treat them as such. My cats did not need to see their "dad" after we got divorced because they were never going to get older and understand what was going on, they were just going to be cats.

Your dog is just going to be a dog.

So I think that for the sake of consistency, which it appears your dog really needs, the dog needs to be your dog or his dog. And you need to get structure and reliability into the dog's life in stronger terms than it is currently, more than likely, and behaviorist, behaviorist, behaviorist.

I'm sorry, this sucks. On all levels.
posted by Medieval Maven at 7:30 AM on July 13, 2016 [27 favorites]

Is the dog like this when he's with your ex?

That's really the key question, isn't it? If your dog copes better when he's with your ex than with you, maybe you should cede custody, for the sake of the poor puppy.
posted by DirtyOldTown at 7:33 AM on July 13, 2016

Response by poster: The dog behaves like this when he is with my ex too, especially when it comes to biting. It's not necessarily biting with full-on intent, but some nipping on calves/ankles.
posted by heartofglass at 7:37 AM on July 13, 2016

What breed? This could be important (ankle nipping is common for frustrated herding dogs that are desperate to herd something, frex).
posted by waffleriot at 8:04 AM on July 13, 2016 [2 favorites]

One of you needs to let go of this dog and get a new dog of their own. It is a dog not a child. This dog may be permanently broken for either the two of you FYI, so whoever maintains this dog needs to understand that it will need special attention, time and effort beyond what went into training a puppy.
posted by Nanukthedog at 8:08 AM on July 13, 2016 [10 favorites]

Wait, your dog is essentially living in two households, like a child in a shared parenting situation? I really think at this point you need to bite the bullet and give the dog one home/one primary owner. I think the set-up you have right now is not in the best interests of the dog even though you may be thinking that it is. Dogs will generally adapt to a change in ownership over the course of a few weeks to a few months, but they are super duper routine oriented (more so than human children, even little ones, who are more biologically open to novelty) and if the dog is having to adapt to a new routine all the time it could be throwing him off.

That said, another consideration is that some dogs do appear to regress socially when they hit social maturity around age 2 and become more territorial, more standoffish with strangers or other dogs, and you see more guarding behavior and aggression.
posted by drlith at 8:13 AM on July 13, 2016 [6 favorites]

The dog needs to live in one home, and should probably go no contact with the member he doesn't live with (sorry). Put some work in on training; all dogs love getting tonnes of positive reinforcement treats. Cut back on the socialization (so the dog isn't getting lots of chances to fail to behave) while re-working on the bond between dog and primary owner (I.E. lots of time together). Lastly, lots of exercise (bonus; more time together!).

If this doesn't give reasonable improvement in 1-2 months, then definitely dog behaviourist time. Even if it works well, when you want to re-start socialization / exposure with other humans a session or two with a behavourist would probably be a great idea.
posted by nobeagle at 8:29 AM on July 13, 2016 [2 favorites]

Step one you need to stop sharing the dog. It needs one house, one owner and one routine. Nervous dogs like this need a routine that is carved in stone & unwavering.

Step two, whoever now has ownership of the dog needs to make a routine & stick to it like it is carved in stone.

Step 3. make sure the dog is getting enough physical & mental exercise. Go do dog training classes with your dog, be they at Petsmart or with a trainer in a group. Go do agility or basic obedience but go do something. This will help you & the dog bond & they are great for helping nervous dogs build confidence in both the dog & owner.

Step 4. if the nipping continues see a trainer for some one on one classes. They cost less than you think & you'll need fewer than you think as the classes will be to train you to train your dog.

Step 5 that should probably be step 1. This is a dog not a human, they don't process break ups the same way. Yes dogs feel happy & sad, but they also live in the moment. Make sure you aren't projecting your feelings onto the dog & using it as an excuse to keep seeing an ex to the detriment of the dog.
posted by wwax at 8:31 AM on July 13, 2016 [7 favorites]

Best answer: Sounds from your description like your dog is fear-aggressive. That's the part when he tries to bite from behind after an encounter where you think he's fine.

This dog needs more confidence, for a start. Of all the ways you can build confidence, an obedience class with an experienced trainer (NOT Petsmart, where you can become a "trainer" with near zero experience) is the quickest and the way where someone way more experienced than you can help to assess what's going on. Obedience trainers are almost never animal behaviorists (they are rare--I live in a metro area with over 1 million and there apparently aren't any here), but don't let that stop you. An experienced obedience trainer 1) is actually training YOU to train your dog and 2) has seen it all before and knows in general what wil work, and perhaps more importantly, what won't work.

Call your vet's office and ask for the name of the best obedience trainer(s) they can recommend. Get into the next class. Don't let your dog be around people until an experienced trainer has seen your dog and listened to you describe the reasons why you enrolled in class. Don't leave the first class without some understanding of how the first week's homework (perhaps tailored for your dog) might start to address some of these problems. Ask lots of questions!

And consider that making a dog, an animal that depends on routine, move back and forth between homes might actually be harmful. Three years old is when many dog breeds are just achieving mature adulthood. Please address this problem ASAP, or it will become the new normal
posted by ImproviseOrDie at 8:36 AM on July 13, 2016 [2 favorites]

Can you trade off where whoever has the kids doesn't have the dog? The one on one time might be necessary. I wouldn't put the dog just in one home because the kids visiting will be enough to set a dog like that off again, and a dog attacking one of the children while in your home can be used against you if you have a custody dispute.
posted by myselfasme at 11:17 AM on July 13, 2016

Is your dog a herding dog? Being upset at the dissipation of the flock and biting at ankles would both fit with that, so this might be a general anxiety issue rather than strictly a behavioral one. Anyway, n+1 on professional input.
posted by acm at 12:35 PM on July 13, 2016 [1 favorite]

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