My new dog can't be left alone.
May 20, 2007 1:47 AM   Subscribe

I just adopted a dog which apparently has separation anxiety issues (and we have cats). We had planned to initially leave him crated during the day. What can I do to help him through this transition?

My girlfriend and I went to the SPCA this afternoon and found a 1 and 1/2 year old Australian shepherd which we fell in love with (Cody). Apparently his previous owner got pregnant and couldn't devote the time to keep up with him anymore. He is a super sweet and smart dog, and seemed like a great match, since my girlfriend wants a dog to run with, and he is full of energy and eager to please.

So we played with him all day, decided to adopt him, and took him home. We introduced him to the house and then took him for a long walk to make sure he was good and tired.

He had settled in on the couch with us for a couple of hours, and around 11 PM, we decided it was time for bed. Every adoption place in the area had insisted on crate training for the first month and a half, so we bought a crate and were hoping he would take to it. We filled it with toys, and he had been in and out of it all evening without any problems.

DRAMA! As soon as I left the room, he started whining and then barking. Continuously. The SPCA had recommended that if we could put up with it to just leave him alone so we didn't reward the behavior. My girlfriend sided with this advice, so we left him for about 1/2 an hour. But we have a joint-wall tenant I was worried about keeping up all night. And I was concerned that he would develop bad associations with his crate, which is supposed to be his safe place.

I went to the room with the crate and let him out. I started training him by holding treats in the crate and saying "Go to bed". He has no fear of the crate at all. He eventually got tired, crawled inside and went to sleep. I closed the door and put a sheet over the crate. He slept soundly.

Then I made the mistake of going to the bathroom. I wasn't gone 2 minutes, and he started barking. I came back into the room, and he went right back to sleep. He's beside me in the crate now, calm as a Hindu cow.

So here's where the real issue comes into play. It appears the crate isn't a problem; he just can't be left alone. We have two cats, who sleep with us. We were told (and we agree) that the cats should have a room where they are safe that the dog can't go. We have have a one bedroom unit, and the bedroom is where the cats spend most of their time. So it would be very difficult (nay impossible) to allow the dog to sleep in the room with us, even in the crate. Plus, we had thought we could leave the dog at home during the day (we are going to walk him in the morning and evening, and hire a walker for the middle of the day), but if he can't take five minutes, I can't imagine he can handle five hours alone.

So... help? I think I'm going to camp out with him tonight, since I can't think of anything else to do, and it's gotta be stressful enough for him being in a new home. But what do we do Monday? Will he get better as he learns to trust us more? My googling says that dogs with separation anxiety problems shouldn't be crated. We can lock up the back two rooms of the house (where he is sleeping) and give him access to the backyard, but the folks at the SPCA said this could lead him to develop boundary issues trying to protect the back yard all day. That doesn't mean just barking, but high stress and possibly trying to escape. They said keeping him crated will make him feel safer and more protected. But really, it seems the problem is just that we can't leave him alone at all. We will start on training immediately, but that might not be soon enough. Anything we can do to make him feel comfortable quickly?
posted by team lowkey to Pets & Animals (15 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: I went through the exact same thing only mine is a mutt. Honestly, it just took time.

When I first got Phoebe Cates she couldn't stand to be alone even for five minutes without eating everything I own out of anxiety. So I crated her, and wouldn't scold her when she tore up the things in her crate, I just ignored her when I let her out (she was very eager to see me). Of course when she didn't eat everything, I would praise the hell out of her.

A few months went by and eventually she was fine. No more barking, no more chewing, no more crate. Luckily, I was also blessed with very understanding neighbors.

He can handle it, he just has to adjust. Perhaps some will argue that crating isn't good for anxious dogs, but with patience it worked just fine for us.
posted by Roman Graves at 2:19 AM on May 20, 2007

Best answer: Most animals respond well to routine. He will feel safe and secure when he learns that you go to bed at a certain time and get up again the next morning at a certain time and come back to him with love and hugs and preferably breakfast. Once he learns the routine and knows that when you go away you will be coming back, he will feel more secure.
Dont pander to his whining, you'll only reinforce the behavior. Even the most stubborn dog cant bark all night.

You cannot reinforce this behavior of crying for attention, else you really wont ever be able to leave him alone. Eventually he will get used to being alone and will feel secure that you are coming back.

As cruel as it sounds, he will just have to learn that he is not the centre of attention and that you are in charge not him.
If you let the dog control your life at this early stage, he will continue to do so.

I do have to agree with keeping him in the crate if he's upset though, a reasonably large dog could ruin your home if left alone all day
posted by missmagenta at 2:30 AM on May 20, 2007 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Agree with the above but the neighbours would be a worry for me too. Maybe go and have a chat with them, tell them it's temporary, that you're working on it and that you hope they'll understand.

If they are understanding, a nice bottle of wine or a bunch of flowers after a week or so might help!
posted by ceri richard at 2:55 AM on May 20, 2007

Best answer: Look carefully at your options. Is there a place the cats can go that's too high for the dog? My cat had a closet of her own - we cut a cat-sized hole in the door. A dresser top can work, or you can get a cat habitat, with comfy spaces up high. I think the cats can cope with a crated dog in the room.

If the dog will stay crated and sleep in the room with you, I'd let him for a while. During the day, he'll learn that barking is pointless, and your neighbors probably won't be as bothered as at night. You might want to let your neighbors know what's going on, so they know it won't last forever.
posted by theora55 at 3:11 AM on May 20, 2007

Best answer: The long walks are a good thing. If he can play fetch or tug of war or any sort of game that requires mental activity, definitely do that for 20 minutes or so every evening. Australian Shepherds are high energy dogs, so it'll take a lot to wear him out.

And as much as it sounds like a Gitmo technique, we used to basically use sleep deprivation on our dogs to force them to sleep at night. From the moment we come home to when we went to bed, we made sure that they were awake.

Also, enroll in an obedience class. Even though your dog it 1 1/2, you still may want to consider a puppy class. They are more geared to just getting your dog to pay attention to you rather than actually teaching it something, but it's important for him to trust you before you can get him to do anything else.

As for the crate, he needs to be acclimated to it. This will be very difficult if one of you can't stay home for awhile. First, keep his water bowl in the back of the crate and feed him his meals in the crate. Leave random good items in the back of the crate so when he gets in there he finds a surprise. Anytime he walks into the crate voluntarily, give him massive amounts of praise and treats. For the treats, feed him half his normal amount of kibble at meals, and keep the other half in a bowl out of reach for treats. This accomplishes two things: he'll be hungry, so he'll be more attentive to you when you have food, and you won't be stuffing him full of milk bones on top of his normal diet. Treats really need to be raining down from heaven everytime he does something good involving the crate.

For the separation anxiety, try starting small. Start going through all the motions of going to bed, put him in the crate (with praise and treats), and go into the bedroom and shut the door. Wait 30 seconds, come out and be as happy to see him as you possibly can. Let him out of the crate, play with him, praise, more treats, etc. Then do it again. and again. and again. Then switch to a minute. and again. and again. etc. Oh, do NOT come out if he is barking. If he starts barking, wait it out until he's stopped for a good 30 seconds, and throttle back the time that you waited. As missmagenta said, when you reinforce the crying for attention, it is very, very difficult to break that association.

The point of the exercise is that the dog needs to know that you are always coming back. There's a threshold where he can't tell the difference between a few hours and 8 hours, so you just need to get him to that threshold. The more you do it, the better. The only problem with this approach is that in the beginning, every night you leave him in the crate and he freaks out, he loses progress, so it's three steps forward, two steps back.

I also agree with theora55 about arranging your rooms to give the cats escape routes. Baby gates are excellent for this. Oh, also, is there any reason you can't just drag the whole crate into the bedroom? Also, is there anyway at all either of you could get permission to take your dog to work, at least for a few weeks. That'll help develop the relationship of trust, and you won't lose progress every day that you leave him at home and he freaks out. If that's not possible, if you and your GF could switch off days and go home for lunch and take him for a walk, it'd definitely help. Finally, when you come home when he's been home alone, do not walk in the door until he stops barking. In any situation, do not reward him for barking. If he barks, he loses all attention. Turn around, don't look at him, and walk away.

And definitely talk to your neighbors. They will be much more understanding if you assure them that you are taking measures to stop it in the long run, but in the mean time, that means you have to allow the barking to happen at times.
posted by AaRdVarK at 5:50 AM on May 20, 2007 [1 favorite]

Best answer: The second night may be a different story than the first night. Don't think you're going to be stuck in a nightmare situation.

Neither of my dogs wanted to be crated the first night. I ended up letting each of them sleep in the bed with me that night. (Dogs were gotten at different times.) The second night they both slept in their crates. One complained for about an hour and then finally went to sleep. The second whined for about 30 minutes and then went to sleep.

The second dog (I just got him at the beginning of April) still gets a bit of separation anxiety when I leave but he chills out within a couple minutes.

It's going to take some time for everyone (you, girlfriend, cats, and dog) to adjust to the situation. It will all work out.

Also, you might reconsider putting the crate in the bedroom. My dogs are fine being crated in the same room with cats being up on my bed. (Cats have general run of the house all the time and the dogs are mainly in my bedroom and computer room.) If the cats are bothered by the dog then they can leave the room.
posted by fluffy battle kitten at 6:57 AM on May 20, 2007

Best answer: I suspect he just needs to learn more about his new home, the routines, and if he can trust you. It may not be full-blown separation anxiety, just figuring out a new situation. Give it some time. My dog was utterly miserable crated (even when not left alone) but was completely fine left alone in the apartment itself. You'll figure it out, but it'll take at least a few weeks - until then, keep doing what you're doing with exercise & acclimating him to your life. Good luck.
posted by judith at 8:09 AM on May 20, 2007

Best answer: Another thing to consider is not using the crate as a place of punishment. The point of a crate is to literally make it a dog's second home where he feels happy to go. It's like his own place to sleep which nobody else uses. However, by negative reinforcement, he'll start to resist going in there thinking it's punishment.
posted by jmd82 at 8:24 AM on May 20, 2007

Best answer: Try getting a long, hollow bone and filling it with peanut butter. If your dog is food-motivated, he will spend hours trying to get that last bit of peanut butter out of the bone. It stops the barking and whining and keeps him occupied.
posted by kamikazegopher at 9:28 AM on May 20, 2007 [1 favorite]

Best answer: My greyhound adoption group makes a distinction between a dog who wants to be with its owners, which is natural, and separation anxiety, which is pathological. Think of the difference between being sad and being clinically depressed.

Everything you described is natural dog-in-a-new-home behavior. I agree with everyone above that it will take time. When we brought our dog home I was literally sobbing the first night, at 3am, saying I had ruined our lives, because she would not stop whining. In a few days it subsided.

I worked from home the first few days and then half-days after that for a week. We got a dog-walker so she wouldn't be left alone for eight hours. No problems at all.

I would consider separation anxiety to be an issue if you start to see this kind of in-crate behavior:

- Excessive drooling
- Chewing on the bars (usually this will result in bleeding, which will be visible)
- Soiling or wetting the crate bedding
- Completely torn apart bedding or crate toys

The one change I would suggest is that if you're going to crate, you need the dog to be in the crate when you're home, close to where you hang out. Feed the dog in the crate. He only comes out for water and an occasional break. Otherwise, the crate will be associated with being left alone.
posted by nev at 9:31 AM on May 20, 2007 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: I stayed in the crate room with him most of the night. The first few times I left the room he freaked out, but less each time. At around 3:30 AM I went to bed, and he didn't fuss at all. Slept through the rest of the night. My girlfriend woke him up this morning and took him for a long run. Afterwards, I pretended like I was going to work, and crated him. He was crying all over again. I went through a few rounds of locking him up and leaving, heaping praise when he didn't cry, and giving him treats in the crate. I settled in at the computer here next to the crate, and after a few minutes, he crawled inside and laid down. I closed the door and gave him a couple teats. He's napping now, but still starts to whine if I leave the room more than a minute.

I was worried that this might have been the pathological kind of separation anxiety, but it sounds like it's a normal adjustment. Thanks for all the reassurance. I think I will try to work from home for a few days to help him adjust. And I'll think about moving the crate into the bedroom. We'll see how it goes tonight. I'd love to just wait him out, but I think it's too much to ask of the shared-wall neighbor. But our cats are pretty anxious as well, so I'd really rather keep their territory separate for a while. Maybe I'll bunk in the crate room for a few nights until he gets settled. I don't want to kowtow to his demands too much, but I think we'll be more successful training him to sleep alone after he trusts us more.

Thanks for all the tips. We have enrolled in an obedience class, I'm going to install a cat door for the bedroom, and that peanut-butter in a bone trick sounds right up his alley. Best answers all around!
posted by team lowkey at 11:51 AM on May 20, 2007

Best answer: I guess it's easy to get a best answer in here!

I went through the same thing with my pup. She used to sit on the couch and cry at the top of her lungs for hours & it was horrible. Yeah, time definitely helps. So does training in general. What really worked for my dog was a peanut butter routine, believe it or not. When I leave, I make my dog lie down on the couch. I fill a kong with peanut butter and she's allowed to have it when I leave. For all other treats, she would save them and wouldn't touch them until I got back but with peanut butter she can't resist. So now she's got it in her head that unless I'm leaving to go somewhere she won't get peanut butter AND THE GIRL LOVES PEANUT BUTTER. So now? My dog can't WAIT until I leave. If she could speak, she'd tell me I need to leave more often.

Another thing is to not greet your dog enthusiastically when you get home because it will make the separation anxiety worse. Ignore them, enter your house and make yourself comfortable first without making eye contact with them, and even then, do not greet them unless they are calm. My dog has learned that when I come home, she won't get any affection unless she's lying on the couch being mellow. Before that, she used to run around jumping on me and spinning in circles, this is much better.
posted by miss lynnster at 2:29 PM on May 20, 2007

Response by poster: Sorry, miss lynnster, you missed the cut off. Oh what the hell, it's good advice. Thanks!
posted by team lowkey at 6:31 PM on May 20, 2007

agree with miss lynnster - you can't make going into or coming out of the crate a big deal. no excited greetings or anything else to get him riled up. the crate has to be completely 'neutral.' Put him in the crate calm when you are calm and let him out the same way. I had a friend with a crazy dog who actually had a ceasar milan-type dog-behaviorist come to their house, and this was a main point he made. good luck!
posted by enaira at 9:23 PM on May 20, 2007

Just for comparison, if you want to see how I've dealt with what I certainly consider the patho. separation anxiety + barrier frustration issues... In the crate, she would excessively drool, bite the bars, soil the flooring, visibly shaking, hyperventilating, etc. She'd be soaking wet after 30mins to 1hr absence, we never did figure out what all the wetness was (drool/pee/sweat/all?). I asked for help/suggestions from the group I adopted her from and her vet. They were not helpful at all, mostly dismissing what was going on as normal adjustment. I got so tired of explaining that when I said "freaks out", I meant freaks out. I didn't mean whining, I didn't mean scratching, or barking. They were all full of such unhelpful advice such as - smack the side of the crate when she starts. We eventually gave up on the idea of crate and I found her issues when left to freely roam the house easier to handle.

To work on the clinginess, I taught her to sit/stay/wait... "be right back" ... back. At first, I could only separate for maybe 10-20 seconds and worked my way up to 15 minutes very slowly. I mean VERY SLOWLY. She's quite the neurotic little doggie. I did get her accustomed to the create with the door open only, as a bed.

I find that she's significantly mellowed with age. The clinginess and the general anxiety. We still have trouble with the occasional submissive peeing especially right after we get home (we ignore her upon entry) and when she greets strangers. For her, if there's no window next to the doorway, it's a HUGE problem. She will scratch the wall down if she can't see that I'm not home. I think she may always be this way, because that barrier frustration is the one thing that remains strong. If she locks herself in a bedroom accidentally, the pained yelping and scratching are her calls for help. As she starts to drool and hyperpant, we let her out. This all starts within 5 minutes.

So, I've abandoned the idea of using a crate again. I know that as she's gotten older, she's handled other crates (groomer) much better. Baby/Petgates are simply another barrier to be destroyed. I tried medication, it helped with anti-clingy training mentioned above. The windows from floor to ceiling next to front door did the trick. She doesn't bark constantly while we're gone, but if someone's walking down the street she barks. I give her a greenie each day when I leave and only then. She's come to expect that and as I pick up my keys, she will go to the greenie cabinet.

It took about a month to make things tolerable and figure out what wouldn't work. We came home to messes regularly, cleaned, re-evaluated what wasn't working, etc. You'll figure it out with time.
posted by ick at 9:48 PM on May 20, 2007 [1 favorite]

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