a few words about separation anxiety. and photos, too.

is that a little snout i spy?

Well it looks like we typed too soon about how mellow little Mr. Bunny-Ears is. Turns out our little pocket pittie has a bit of separation anxiety. Don’t get us wrong– it seems minor at this point– but it is something we will need to work on.

The first few days he was with us, he didn’t pay much mind to our comings and goings, but the other day it was like a switch flipped. All of a sudden little Gonzo was whining, crying, and scratching frantically at the floor in his room when I closed his door on my way out in the morning. It’s no wonder, really, considering that the little dearling was abandoned by his people at the animal shelter in November.

The next day, I discovered that the issue seems to be worst when he can hear us still in the house, but he is closed in his room. We do a lot of rotating of Gonzo Bunny-Ears and Chick so that each dog gets his own special time with the Humans Who Dole Out Treats, and Mr. Ears is not happy with the half of the arrangement where he is in his room with his toys, alone. He whines and scratches, and finally just lays with his face smooshed up against the door. Pardon the blur in this photo, I snapped it from outside on our deck through the window and mesh screen:

sad little Mr. Ears...

We did some serious training with our own loverboy Chick when he was younger on separation anxiety. It seems that when I first adopted him, I made the fatal mistake of taking him with me everywhere, so he was almost never alone. Together, we did my shifts at the wonderful little emergency shelter for immigrants in Austin where I worked at the time, ran my errands (back then Home Depot and REI both allowed dogs inside), and went swimming. Apparently constant togetherness is the best way to give a dog a separation anxiety issue. We learned this the hard way, but we overcame with glory.

Through intensive training which transitioned to a crazy routine of stuffed and frozen kongs upon leaving, we eliminated Chick’s separation issue.  It is more challenging with Gonzo because he is a little bit less food-motivated than Chick, so if I hand him a yummy snack/puzzle and head for the door, he follows me rather than diving into his culinary challenge. Thankfully his coping mechanisms are not too destructive (he does not hurt himself or destroy things), but still.

We plan to dig out our old notes from Chick’s behaviorist, but in the meantime, this anxious-faced little nugget wants to know: anybody have suggestions for how to get back on the right track?

help me be worry-free!For more info on adopting Gonzo Bunny-Ears, click here or email us at DCpetographer [at] gmail [dot] com.

24 responses

  1. You are on the right track with patience, your notes from your old behaviorist. Definitely check in with a new one given different personalities.

    Have you considered training to a code words. Whenever we left the room or house, we would tell Quizz either, ‘Be right back’ or ‘Guard the house’. Both meant we had to go out, but we would return. ‘Be right back’ would be for about the house letting him know he could relax and didn’t have to follow. A good stay-type exercise. ‘Guard the house’, for when we had to run errands or go to work. Yes he may wait by the door or in his kennel, but he is relaxed and happy to see us when we returned.

    I don’t know if that helps. His serious face is just to precious.

  2. Just a thought. I know you crate and that helps, so maybe also want to look into the anxiety wrap or thunder shirt–they are compression tools that seem to work in many anxious or traumatized dogs. Not sure which is better, I have heard more about the former.

  3. Not fun. Separation anxiety can be rough to get through. I haven’t had to deal with it much (thank goodness) but when we got Nemo we were really conscious of it. He’s super people focused too, so we were concerned that his tendency to follow us EVERYWHERE could lead to sep. anx. quickly in the beginning.

    You’ve probably heard this stuff already (but I’ll toss it out there), but one tip is to keep your comings and goings as low key and calm as possible. When you come back don’t immediately start playing and petting. Just matter of fact, you’re home but everything is still normal. Are you crate training Mr. Bunny-Ears? (haha, love that nick name) Some dogs have less sep. anx. when they’re crated (b/c it’s safe, it’s routine, etc.) so that might be something to try too (although some dogs have it worse with crating too, it’s trial and error sometimes).

    Exercise can also really help. If he’s worn out he’s less likely to miss you! You can also do things like leaving the radio or TV on to make him feel less “alone.” The code words are good too (we always say “bye-bye” and “Molly, you’re in charge” before we leave). For us, it’s all about creating a good routine so that the dogs are used to it and know what to expect (that we’ll come back!).

    I would also make sure that he associates that room you keep him in with good things too. Play with him in there. Feed him in there. Give him treats when he goes in there on his own. You can even hide treats in there for him to find on his own when you’re not around (if you think Chick won’t steal them!). Just make sure it doesn’t become that space he goes and has to be all alone and miserable all the time.

    Good luck! It’ll take a little time but I’m sure you guys will be able to work through it 🙂

  4. I feel for you. Reggie has this problem too. I wonder if shelter dogs have higher rates of anxiety in general. Luckily Reggie didn’t have a destructive component to his anxiety. But he barked loudly enough that my neighbors were complaining!

    At any rate, what Kate says about making goings and comings as low key as possible was very important for Reggie.

    Another thing I did was to approximate leaving repeatedly to get him used to it. This takes a bit more effort. I would put my coat on, get my bag, keys, etc and “leave,” including locking the door to get him used to all sights and sounds that go along with leaving the house. Then I would come back in (very low key). At first I could only go outside for 30 seconds, but slowly we built it up the time. I used the time when I was watching tv to do this process every commercial break. He soon learned that I was coming back. Important note: my trainer said, never come back inside if you hear him whining/barking because that only reinforces the anxiety.

    If you do use the kong, you might have to use a “gold” level treat to get Gonzo interested. (Reggie is sooo food motivated so I can use kibble and he’s hooked. Now he can’t wait for me to leave 🙂 )Try to keep that one type of kong reserved only when you leave, then Gonzo will associate your leaving with that particular good thing.

    Good luck and keep us posted!

  5. Unless he has crate issues, a crate is really better than a room. It’s more den-like. Also, not making any deal/fuss about leaving or returning is crucial, as is leaving them thoughtful entertainment while they are gone.

  6. Our last foster dog, Steve, had some pretty bad separation anxiety as well. He wouldn’t last more than a minute alone in his crate before crying, howling and peeing all over the place (regardless of whether he had just been out or not). So I started putting him in his crate for no reason at all, for just a few minutes at a time, then would let him out and act like it was no big deal. The trick was to let him out again BEFORE he started crying. Other times I would just tell him “kennel” and give him a treat when he went into his crate, but I wouldn’t shut him in. I also agree about not making a fuss when you come home or let him out… Steve would bounce around like crazy so I wouldn’t even make eye contact with him until he calmed down, and then I would just greet him casually and we would go about our business. We gradually increased the time he was left alone, and it was definitely a long slow process, but we did see a lot of improvement!

  7. We used Pam Dennison’s clicker training method book with Goody. http://www.positivedogs.com/

    We used a crate and yes to what everyone else has said already – I think it helps too, if you work on being “separate” while in the same room with him. So there are times you pay attention to him and he to you, and then you don’t. Does that make sense?

  8. Poor Mr. Bunny ears. Frozen kongs was the trick we used to get Boss to settle down in his crate. We also would leave his crate open at night and pick up the rugs in the house so the only cozy place to sleep would be his crate with his snuggly blanket. Now he loves his crate and does not mind being in it at all, in fact he will put himself to bed before we call it a night.

  9. For me the hardest part is not getting as excited as they do when I come home! He’s my main buddy! How the heck am I not supposed to go crazy when I see him after I’ve been at work all day! I’m glad that with all of his problems…seperation anxiety is not one of Biggie’s problems. Sure he will bite you but at least I can leave him alone when I have to!

  10. When I first got Buster, I could NOT crate him. I was afraid he’d injure himself trying to get out. And he still cannot stand to be locked in a room by himself while we are at home. He even jumped out a 2nd story window (right thru the screen) when I had taken Truffle for a walk. Luckily he wasn’t hurt, but I know not to leave any windows open more than an inch now. He was never destructive, and we can leave him alone with the run of the house. I would always tell him “I’m going to the store/work and I’ll be back soon.” and I guess he finally figured out we would come back. But his prior owner was killed in a car crash and never came back for him, so I figure that was the reason for his fear. You might check out Chunk’s blog post today – his sister is having separation issues and he seems to be helping to calm her down. http://justaskchunk.blogspot.com/

  11. He is adorable. I know you will conquer his separation anxiety. I am sure it is just that he never knew that there were such wonderful humans out there.

  12. The last dog I trained has see wee us separation anxiety. Here’s what worked for us: agility class. We didn’t compete or get Totally into it. But getting that dog to WILLINGLY teeter totter changed everything else . It was like it gave him self confidence or something similar?

  13. We used the same technique as jacquelincangro & Mary to deal with Felix’s separation anxiety. He used to be a train wreck when we left him alone. Scratched the moulding right off the door to his room. Cried literally the whole time we were gone (we taped it to be sure).

  14. There have been some great suggestions in the comments already, but here are my tried-and-true recommendations:

    – Rescue Remedy is a natural stress reliever for pets. Just put a few drops in the little guy’s food. Most PetSmart/Petco type places sell it, but here’s the company’s web site: http://www.rescueremedy.com/pets/

    – ComfortZone Plug-In for Dogs (http://www.drsfostersmith.com/product/prod_display.cfm?pcatid=13043) is a natural pheromone diffuser that people can’t smell but dogs can. I had a foster dog last year who — after adoption — developed serious separation anxiety issues and that’s what the family ended up using.

    Hope that helps!

  15. I am glad that at least he is not destroying anything or hurting himself. Our very first foster, Edie Marie (who I loved, loved, loved!), dug huge giant grooves into our hardwood floors and door frame trying to get out of the bedroom. Needless to say, we quickly got a crate! She did fine. Mr. Pauley on the other hand destroyed his crate, cut himself up & jumped out a window (ground floor; window only had a screen in). He just needed time to feel comfy & confident that we would be coming back for him, because he does great in his crate now 🙂

  16. My grandmas pit bull was my first fostering experience but before she was with my grandma, the 2 other dogs and the 100 people that live in her house…. she was by herself all day while I worked and I had crated her…the first day I came home to a completely destroyed crate and her bleeding back and head. Apparently she just stood and jumped straight up and down until she destroyed it. She did much better after a week or so of me coming home every day but I didn’t crate her anymore, I gave her full run of the house and she only ate one door. I knew nothing about animal behavior to speak of back then and would have actually been surprised to know that there are ways to deal with things like separation anxiety other than just expecting to come home to a house with one less door every day.

  17. Hi Aleksandra, I don’t have any tips that haven’t already been mentioned. I weaned Stella off the crate pretty fast and she seems to understand now that I’m coming back. Love your pictures as always. That photo of him snuffling under the door is wonderful and a perfect illustration too.

  18. Toni had some serious separation anxiety (among other issues) when we brought her home. She was never destructive, but more like Mr. Bunny-Ears: inconsolable. We tried a log of the suggestions already given (Black Wing Farm’s Rescue Remedy, Comfort Zone Plug-in, distracting Kongs with a high-value bonus in it somewhere, a radio, etc.). Some worked well and didn’t seem to have much effect at all – different solutions for different dogs, right? We also practiced being away for very, very short times (still going through the whole routine with the Kong and radio). Sometimes we would just go get the mail in the lobby of our building together so she was alone. Sometimes I would take myself for a walk around the black without Toni when Chris was at work. Just enough so she couldn’t hear or smell us outside of the door. One thing we did that differs from suggestions above is that we destroyed our going away routine, rather than established one. The idea was that the signals gave her time to generate anxiety before we even left, which made the leaving more horrible in her mind. So sometimes we put on our jackets and sat down in front of the TV. Other times I walked around with my purse or with my keys jingling for no reason. Same with the Kongs – big, high value Kings for a real “leave,” but sometimes there were lightly filled Kongs for no reason. We also did a lot of separating while in the condo together. We closed the bathroom door (it was the only door we had in our last condo!) while brushing our teeth or blowing our noses. We had her lie and hold while we stood behind a wall (out of sight at least) sorting mail or folding laundry, then treated generously. It can be done – now all we do is toss a small treat her way and leave! I never, ever would have predicted that day would come.

  19. Thanks for stopping by our humble little site, I can’t stop oogling over your ADORABLE dogs. The first shot on this post has completely melted my heart. It’s funny how the laws of attraction work.. Shaun and I have been seriously considering adopting or fostering a dog, and I kid you not, we’ve been getting messages (like your posts) coming from every which way. It’s definitely time! I would love to talk to you more about fostering… I think it’s an amazing option, but I have to say I’m afraid I’ll get too attached!

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