Chix-a-Lot Friday: I used to love to bake (or, how we worked through my anxieties)

Mama busted me out of the slammer when I was just a young chap — so young that I don’t even remember what my life was like before that. She had never had a dog before and didn’t know much about dog behavior or care. So she did what any enthusiastic, 24-year-old new dog owner with a flexible schedule would do — she brought me with her everywhere. It was heavenly. Back then we worked at Casa Marianella, an emergency shelter for newly-arrived immigrants. When she went on shift, I went on shift. We would do the laundry, cook dinner, intake new residents, help out with immigration forms and vet doctor’s visits. Once or twice a week mama would stay the night, and I would stay with her. When we weren’t working, we were having fun. We went on lots of walks together, visited friends’ houses, and even went to outdoor restaurants and bars. I almost never had to be alone, and it was wonderful.

Eventually mama and dad finished grad school and got jobs, and I started to spend a whole lot more time alone. That’s when I decided to teach myself how to bake.  Only I don’t know how to operate an oven (mama says “thank goodness!”), so I would just grab the dish towels off their hanging places and put them on the ground, pull the aluminium foil off the shelf and unroll it, and then I’d take the bag of flour off the baker’s rack (sometimes the sugar too) and I’d open it up and start baking. And by baking, I mean running wildly around the house with the flour bag, letting it fly all over the place. Sometimes I would stop and make a little drool puddle, dip my paws into it, and then knead the flour that I had sprinkled around, trying to make dumplings.

I loved trying, but I never became a very good baker.

It was about that time that mama called dog trainer Lee Mannix. It turned out that all that fun we’d had — being together 24/7 for our first couple of years — wasn’t really all that good for me. Lee said I never learned to be alone. I never learned how to just settle down. He said it was a confidence issue. He told mama that in my little brain, her leaving was the end of the world because all of the fun went away, and her returning was a great big party. I guess she was right. When she left, I would worry and fret and find activities to keep myself busy, but it was really hard for me to just chill out and sleep. When she would get back, I would get super-duper excited and so would she, and we’d have ourselves a little party. Every time she came and went, the cycle reinforced itself. I would get more worried when she left and more excited when she got back.

According to Lee, there were a few mistakes that mama made in our first few glory years:

  • Not crate training me. It seems that dogs like me do well with crate training because a crate can feel like a safe little den that both keeps a dog out of trouble and reduces anxiety. Most dogs can stop using their crate over time, but a crate is a great transitional tool for many dogs who just don’t know what to do with themselves when their people are gone and get that overwhelming urge to bake.
  • Not teaching me to be alone from the start. By taking me everywhere, mama wasn’t setting me up for success for the day that she had to go and get the kind of job where I couldn’t come with her. She should have practiced leaving me alone from the very first day she brought me home, for varying lengths of time.
  • Making a big deal about comings and goings. Mama and dad would fuss over me before they would leave, which is how I learned that them leaving was a Really Big Deal. They’d also get super excited when they came home, so that became an RBD too.
  • Letting me rule the roost. I still think Lee was wrong on this one, but apparently letting me sleep wherever I want, eat whenever I feel like it, and climb all over everybody all the time was only contributing to my anxiety, rather than helping it. And we all thought that they were just being nice to me.

Before we sought help, my worrying just got worse and worse. Mama says her “favorite” baking project I ever did while she wasn’t home was when I decided to try baking with the dirt from the tomato plant pots. Mama and dad planted a container garden one spring, and when it got too cold outside they would bring the containers inside. Well wouldn’t you know, the dirt in those pots, mixed with compost and some fish emulsion, was JUST what my baking recipes had been needing. So I helped myself to some of that dirt, don’t mind if I do. Here is a picture that dad took when he got home, because mama was away on a busy-ness trip and he wanted to make sure she saw how embarrassed I was. Thanks a lot, dad.

So we started training. We went to a lesson once every two weeks, and practiced every day for half an hour in the morning and half an hour in the evening. We did lots of drills where I just had to sit and be good and mama would feed me hot dogs. At least, it seemed that way. Mama says we were doing exercises to slowly get me used to her leaving and coming back, but it was so easy that it didn’t even feel like exercise. It just felt like she was feeding me hot dogs. Lee said that was how we knew we were going slow enough, whatever that means.

Over time, I got better. Here are a few of the general things that we did (in addition to desensitization) to help me be a cool cat dog.

  • I started staying in a dog-proofed room while my people were away. I don’t chew on furniture or pillows or anything, so for me that just meant a room with no trash cans, baking supplies, smelly socks, or anything else that I could occupy myself with.
  • I started eating all of my food out of kongs, gatorade bottles, and other food-dispensing devices. This meant no more bowls, ever. Instead of having two meals at regular mealtimes, I would get little snacks throughout the day. Lee said that this would help me exercise my brain so that it would be too tired for baking experiments while mama and dad were away.
  • I started always getting an activity to do when they left. Usually, mama would fix a big batch of frozen kongs stuffed with dry food, wet food, peanut butter, yogurt, bananas, and chopped up veggies at the beginning of the week. Those were my favorite snacks, and I would get one every morning when the people would leave. I didn’t think this would happen, but it turned going-to-work time into an “oh goodie!” time instead of an “oh no!” time.
  • They stopped loving me when they came home. When they got home, I would get super wound up and bounce around, jump, sniff, wiggle, and act as cute as I could, but they just plain stopped loving me. Once I calmed down and went back to my dog bed, they would come over and love me like they always had. I didn’t like this whole idea one bit, but I guess it did teach me that their coming home was No Big Deal.
  • Exercise, exercise, exercise. We went on at least two 30 minute walks per day, and at least one or two shorter ones. Going out in the yard and very short walks was not enough to keep me tired and relaxed, so we started going on adventures. At least once a week, we had to go to a new place. We learned that new places were more exciting and more exhausting, and helped me be more flexible. I have always had a good downward dog, so I think they must mean emotionally flexible, not physically flexible.

Now don’t get me wrong — I am still a very sensitive boy and I get nervous quite easily. Whenever something out of the ordinary is happening, I get a furrowed brow and a very concerned look on my face. Mama seems to think it’s cute, and always complements me on how expressive I am. But mama and dad have learned how to manage my anxiety, and I have learned how to cope pretty well. Now when it’s time for them to go to work, I eagerly wait for my yummy treat and trot happily into my room to eat it before having a nice long nap. If you ever come over to the house I will still squeal with excitement and jump and bounce like a tightly wound spring, but I will settle down much faster.

And I let mama and dad do all the baking. The fosters and I just help.

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50 responses

  1. Hey Sir Chick, this is definitely my favorite blog to date…you really have a way with words! I can totally picture you trying to bake, and I can’t imiagine what it must have been like for your mom and dad to come home to your baking results. Yo’re so lucky that your mom and dad found a good trainer to help you the way thaey did ♥

  2. Isn’t that the hardest thing in the world, ignoring them when you come home until they calm down? We are just as excited as they are! It does work and thankfully they start to calm down really fast, which means we all get some love a little sooner. :-)

  3. Chick, you are so darn cute. Can’t believe you ever got yourself into so much trouble …. I mean “baking”. Great post with lots of very good information. Tell mama that you deserve a yummy treat….maybe 2 or 3!!

  4. Love this post! It includes almost all the things I tell other furry friends families to help them with their “baking addiction” too!

  5. Your blog, along with books & doggie meds, helped us battle severe separation anxiety. We were helpless and feeling hopeless when we would come home to a giant mess and an anxious/trembling dog, but as we researched and I found your blog, a little light shed on the situation.

    10 months later, we have a happy dog. He still gets into trouble, but when he does … it’s our fault for not walking him long enough in the morning or stimulating him enough, but he’s still happy (even when he’s killing winter hats)!

    Just wanted to say thanks. Having an entry like this will be so helpful to new dog owners. If anything, it will give them hope that the situation they are in will get better. So thank you!

  6. We are dealing with some anxiety issue with our foster, Miss Kaylee. When she first came to us, she would cry for about five minutes in the crate, then settle down and go to sleep. Well the situation has slowly degrated into absolutle refusal to even enter the room her crate is in on her own, and howling bloody murder when she’s inside for upwards of an hour, and off and on all night long. She’s also on a restricted diet (no food/treats other than her prescribed dry dog food) so yummy Kongs (bribes) are out of the question. We feel stuck!! Any ideas?

    • Hmm, that is tough. You can’t even do home roasted chicken or duck or something? May be worth a call to the vet to check. Is she food motivated normally? or, shaping thru clicker training may help, if you can find a good motivater.

      typed by my trained monkey. please excuse tybos.

    • We did clicker training with our newest foster for her crate and she had to “work” for her dinner and breakfast going into her crate. It took some time ( maybe a month?), she would eat whatever I tossed in and and then back out., she caught on quickly if she stayed in her crate, she got fed alot faster. She had been in the shelter’s kennel for over two months, with very little interaction out of it. When we got her home she would go limp and pancake on the floor, now, no problem with her crate at all. We had another foster that when we crated her, we covered her crate with a sheet and that helped alot with her crying and protesting bed time. Hope this helps :)

      • Yep, the vet’s exact orders were “nothing goes into her mouth except water, her meds and her dry food.” (So much for my brilliant Veggie Kongs). Aleks we do have an appointment with the vet later today so I will double check. I think we will try feeding her meals in there though, that’s a good idea. We do have a sheet over it too, our other dogs have seemed to like that.

    • Hi! Just thought I’d make a few suggestions. I’m an owner of three dogs currently and have had four dogs in my lifetime (one started as a foster). I have not always had much luck with crating. I tried it with my first dog and he howled all night – we ended up making a space for him in our basement while he was getting house trained for the first few weeks, and he seemed to love that. We gave him free range over time and eventually he slept in my bedroom. Do you have another “dog-proof” room that she could go in? Have you thought about keeping the crate in your room with you at night? Or, one of my dogs that I never tried crating (but wish I had in hind sight), loves when she has her bed under something (currently our piano), but I think a table, sideboard, desk or something like that could work. It helps them feel like they have a den without being confined. These things might help you get through the night. However, these things might not help if crating when you aren’t home is the goal. I sometimes think shelter dogs might feel like a crate is like being back in a cage again – I don’t know if they all take to it so well. I think the key is helping each dog feel safe and secure. Not sure if any of this will help, but good luck. :)

  7. Excellent post! We need to work on not make the coming home such a big deal for ours too. All of our rescues are crate trained and they love them, they are crated at night and during the day when we are at work. I am lucky, though, I work 10 minutes from home so I can always let them at lunch if I need to. The crating makes for a happier cats at night and the “kids” can’t get into trouble during the day. Everyone laughs at our oldest dog, she literally goes into her crate when we are putting our shoes on and just looks at us like “okay, give me my peanut butter kong”. It took some extra work for crate training for newest foster, she had been in the shelter over two months before we got her. Lots of patience, and it’s paid off, she happily now goes in especially if she thinks there is a cookie or some other treat involved.

  8. This is such a helpful post! And I was cracking up imagining Chick dragging flour all over the floor. I get it though, I love to bake too :)

  9. This post couldn’t have come at a more perfect time! We have a 10 month old rescued pit bull type dog. We are fortunate that he is crate trained and does really well with it. My personal guilt over it, however, is what gets us in trouble :) I felt bad that he had to be in his crate extra long last night because we had a holiday party after work. So, we decided to give it a shot and put up the baby gate in the guest bedroom. He proved to us that he is much more relaxed in his little home (his crate) then left free. Out of nervousness, he destroyed his dog bed, a feather bed, and broke through the baby gate to eat one of my favorite boots! He looked exactly like Chick with the pots!

  10. I can’t believe you would do that Chick! You are so well-behaved now that I can’t imagine you would ever make baking messes without cleaning up after yourself! This was a great post – several things you mentioned are things I need to brush up on with Turk…

  11. This is a great post! I have a similar photo with a demolished vcr remote, and still don’t say goodbye to my Stella, although I’ve loosened up a bit on the greetings. I think this happens with a lot of dogs and/or owners. It’s not necessarily how you start out (although having the tools helps) but how you work to overcome the challenges that will make the difference.

  12. This is just perfection. I know Scott and I can learn from this, and I’m sure Jackie won’t mind the kongs as we leave the house…

    The tomato plant photo had me shooting my cereal milk out my nose! Aw, guilty dogs are so funny and awesome.

  13. I had to wince at the sight of all that dirt. I wish I couldn’t relate so well!

    Thanks for including all of this great information. I get asked all the time for advice and when put on the spot I can be so inarticulate about these things. “Uh… Frozen kongs?” It’s quite sad. I need to put together a bunch of links that provide useful suggestions like these that I can pass along to avoid stumbling out an answer that makes no sense whatsoever. This shall be my first one!

  14. I do love this post so much! (Training tips, bad dog photos, advice…) I remember you saying how you had to retrain Chick and it’s great to hear all these details. Mr. B had a hard time with this too, but now they love their kongs so much…Miss M even micromanages and stares at me making sure she gets a kong if I”m leaving (she loves to see us go!).

  15. Wow, Mr. Chick! You were a trouble maker??

    We’re so excited to start feeding Izzy out of her Kong, Fire Hydrant and now a Squirrel Dude! I’m not sure she’ll be able to eat in her crate, but at least we’ll be stimulating her little mind. Izzy has major trouble settling when we get home from work though. She comes tearing out of the crate like a bull, especially if I get home first. We make her sit and wait until we ask her to come out, but once she’s out, she’s all over the place. We’ll have to work on ignoring her until she chills out. Maybe she’ll start eating as soon as we get home!

    And best of all, the reason we can change up our feeding is that miss Mia is getting adopted tomorrow!! Foster record for us. 13 days!

  16. This post brought back all kinds of memories from the first weeks with our dog. The problems with destruction largely stemmed not from separation anxiety, but from our naiveté – we left a 3 months old puppy in our apartment without restraining him. Now, he has his own room with a bed, water bowl and no valuables to chew on.

    Luckily, he doesn’t get all worked up about us leaving. Today, a few minutes before we left for work, I put in some peanut butter in his Kong and set it on the kitchen counter. After that, I left to get my jacket and a few other things. When I came back, our dog was still sitting on the kitchen floor looking at the Kong. It felt like he was no longer interested in us and was waiting for us to leave, so he could get started with his Kong : )

  17. The timing of this post can only be explained by the divine. I am going through the same exact thing with my 1 year old dog. When I got him at 8 weeks he was just so cute I couldn’t even think of leaving him alone. And putting him in the crate? How mean … I cringe at my ignorance now. He hates being in the crate so much that he has rubbed his nose raw trying to get out.
    Your suggestions are wonderful. It’s nice to know that I am not the only dog owner that made those mistakes.

    • Hi Emily, We don’t use actual puzzles. We use a combo of kongs, gatorade bottles, and other food-dispensing devices (the treat stik, the wobbler, the tug-a-jug, etc). For some photos and a little more info on these, go to the search box in the blog and type “gatorade” and you should come up with one or two posts about our various games. We also love dog popsicles in the summertime! Aleks

  18. How fortunate that you got to work with the great Lee Mannix before he passed! I’ve heard amazing things about him.
    I had to learn a lot when I got Reggie too. I know I made so many “mistakes” because I didn’t know any better. I’m glad that he was patient with me. :)
    He also had trouble when I left him during the day – he wasn’t destructive, but he would bark and bark. Not good in an apartment building. My neighbors would call me at work. I’d read (I think from Patricia McConnell) to give him a specific treat only when I’m leaving. He would get that treat at no other time. Over time when he saw the kong come out he knew I was leaving but he was so looking forward to the treat, he wasn’t worried. Now acts like, hurry up and get out so I can get my kong.

  19. i pretty much mark all your posts as “favorites.” i’m probably gonna print them all out and make them a “how-to/go-to” booklet for myself when i am able to start fostering dogs.

  20. Ha! You just described my first special doggie relationship. I took him everywhere with me (I just loved him so much I couldn’t part with him) and even went so far as to drop him off at a babysitter if I couldn’t take him along! This did wonders on the poor guy in terms of his anxiety. Even at age 8 he couldn’t tolerate being left alone, and crate training was an absolute nightmare for us. If crated, I would come home to a bloody faced boy who had bashed his face into the crate trying to escape, and his escapes were often quite successful. I have done things so much differently, well, better, with my second love. I think she actually enjoys her alone time :)

    Chick, you are so ridiculously cute next to those tomato pots. I have this same exact photo somewhere in the archives. I’m so proud of you and your mama and dad for doing such a wonderful job training you so you can be the amazing foster brother you are today!!!!

  21. I read this post at work on Fri and was cracking up reading about Chick’s baking skills. When I got home that night, I made a cake for a holiday party on Sat. I was gone most of the day Sat at various parties. When I finally got home that night, I found that Jacob had been “baking”:. He dragged a 5 lb bag of flour out into the dining room. He bit into it but fortunately didn’t find it all that tasty. I cracked up since I had just read the blog. I have since removed all baking supplies from his immediate reach, lol.

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