A Guest Post By Stephanie Chaumont
In my relatively short time volunteering at APA!, I’ve experienced the full gamut of emotions – from the highest highs when a pup I love gets adopted to the super low feeling I have on the occasion that a pup gets returned. This is especially hard when it’s one of our longer stay dogs.
People return dogs for a variety of reasons. Sometimes, the dog doesn’t get along with another dog in the house. Sometimes people just don’t feel prepared to take care of an animal full time. All the reasons break my heart, but one of the saddest for me is when a dog is returned for exhibiting separation anxiety. No aggression, no disagreements with dogs or kids. Just an intense fear of being left alone. I think it breaks my heart for a variety of reasons – one being that this affects a few of the sweetest dogs I know. A bigger part, though, is that this is an issue that can be remedied with training, time, and patience.
In a perfect world, every adopter of a shelter dog would wait several weeks before leaving the dog home alone. During this time, the dog builds trust and confidence in the humans and comfort in the home. I know that’s unreasonable for most people, but an adjustment period is always a positive thing. If you’re a 9 to 5’er like so many of us, adopting on a Friday and giving the dog a few days to acclimate to your home is a good idea.
Whatever your work situation, slowly warming your pup up to the crate can help with separation anxiety. The big principles here are to:
- Teach the dog that the crate is the best thing ever. Fun things (like treats and toys and praise) happen in the crate! You can do this by continually throwing treats in (and possibly only giving treats in the crate). You can also feed your dog in the crate (with the door open at first). As the dog shows comfort here, you can progress to closing the door for increasingly longer periods of time and eventually leaving the room. Before leaving the room, you could simulate leaving by putting shoes on and grabbing keys, but then putting the keys back and giving the dog treats and praise for being calm. You’re teaching them not to show anxiety during the “pre-leaving.” The rate of progress depends on the dog. Some dogs will love being in the crate; others are scared to death of this weird contraption.
- During training, don’t push the dog to the point of showing signs of anxiety, like barking, whining, scratching at the door, trying desperately to leave the crate, relieving themselves in the crate, etc. You never want to reach that point because you don’t want the dog to ever associate the crate with anything negative or stressful. That means if your dog starts out only sticking his head in the crate to get treats, then that’s where you start – don’t force the dog in the crate. You coax them into the crate by gradually tossing treats farther and farther in.
- Never reward the dog’s anxious behavior (barking, whining, scratching at the crate door, etc.). How might you be rewarding it? By letting them out of the crate while they’re exhibiting the behavior. You don’t want to teach your dog that if they bark, their human will come let them out. That’s just going to make things worse for everyone – mainly your dog, but also you and possibly your neighbors. If you’re at the point of leaving the room, but your dog starts barking, come back within sight, but ignore your dog until he or she calms down or starts to show self-soothing behaviors (yawning, shaking it out, continually licking their lips, etc.). Once the dog is self-soothing or is calm, you can open the crate door and give your pup some love. Displaying any anxious behavior (including healthy, self-soothing behaviors) just means that it’s time to slow the training progression until your dog is comfortable with this particular point.
That’s just the CliffsNotes version, but there are some great resources about counterconditioning for separation anxiety online, and APA! has an amazing resource in their behavior team, who are always willing to help you create a happy home with your adopted pup.
I have such a heart for these fearful pups, and some of the best dogs I know have been returned because they exhibited separation anxiety. If you ever adopt a dog with separation anxiety – or if you just want to keep them crated when you’re out of the house, I hope you’ll make crate introduction a very positive and stress-free activity for all involved! It can actually be a very positive and fun bonding experience if done with patience and love.