Anxiety in dogs can not only be a difficult thing for them to go through but also a challenge for the owner.
I wanted to share a story about my Dalmatian Cooper.
Cooper - author's own photo
I have had Cooper since he was born. Our family dog Charli had a litter of pups ( eleven) and Cooper was one of three 'liverspots' from the litter. Right off the bat me and the little guy were inseparable. He left my Mum's house to come and officially live with me when he was five weeks old as we were bottle feeding the pups.
He slept in my room, walked everywhere with me including to the shops when he could still fit into my jacket and moved with me from house to house as I was renting. To keep the story to the point, this went on for three years. On several occasions he did his job as an excellent guard dog and pretty much made his way into sleeping on the bed because he was always clean and had good manners.
But one day, things changed.
I went off to study and had to leave Cooper at home. I had moved home to my parents place to save some money and as normal Cooper was allowed in the house and on the bed. I found less and less time to walk him daily as the commute to my TAFE and back was almost two hours each way. I was leaving very early and coming home very late.
He suddenly could not cope with me leaving and went into a deep depression. Each time I tried to leave the house he would fly through the kitchen at the sound of me picking up my keys and would barge through anyone and anything to get out the glass door and to my car. I would literally be chasing him in circles around my car and if a door or window was open he would leap in and flatly refuse to get out. He was terrified of being left behind again. If you are not familiar with Dalmatians, they are an incredibly strong breed and trying to pull 30kg of muscle out of the back seat of a car is not easy!
Often my Dad would have to come out and help me. We had to climb in the car and drag him out together as all treats, threats and coaxing had zero effect.
Once he had been wrestled back inside, he would take himself off to my room, dive under the bed covers and not come out until I was home. I mean that in a literal sense. My Dad, who was at home during the day, would go in to see if he needed to go out to the toilet but Cooper would barely acknowledge him and stay under the covers and hold on until I walked in the door.
When I arrived home he would go berserk, jumping, whining and kissing me all over. While lots of people would love this kind of greeting I could see that he just wasn't coping and it was getting worse each week.
When I finally did get him out the house on the weekends he would be anxious. He would whine on walks. I knew I had to do something.
I consulted a animal behaviourist and she gave me some activities to do with Cooper.
I first had to work out his triggers. Things such as putting on shoes, picking up keys, saying "bye" to Mum and Dad. When I understood the triggers, I had to find a way to change his reaction by changing my own behaviour.
It meant just over a week of consistent training in 15 minutes bursts, but it worked and my little buddy learned to settle down without having a breakdown each time I left the house.
Here is the action I took:
As I was getting ready to go out going through all the "triggers" I would ignore him. No patting and reassurance. I had to hold back on doing the whole. "Its OK Cooper, Mummy will be back soon." and smothering him in cuddles. I realised that it was actually making it worse for him. When you stroke a dog in an anxious state you are actually rewarding it for being anxious rather than comforting it as you would a person. You are also reminding them you are leaving.
'Kong' toy for dogs - Image courtesy of Wikipedia
I bought a Kong© and stuffed it with peanut butter and biscuits. Even though I wasn't going anywhere I went through the motions as if I was, completely ignoring Cooper and finally, when i picked up my keys I would put down the Kong for him. Picking up the keys had to be absolutely the last thing I did to avoid confusion. This meant that there was a positive association with me leaving. It also gave him some physical and mental stimulation and redirected the anxiety into something more constructive.
Over the week I would go through this process and then leave. Only for a small amount of time to begin with, starting out with being away for ten minutes then twenty and so on so he knew I was coming back.
When I arrived home I would completely ignore the needy behaviour. He would only get attention once he had sat down and was in a calm state. He soon learned that the quicker he did this the faster the cuddles would come.I no longer greeted him in a high pitched excited voice but a calm one.
Over the course of the week I increased the time between these exercises until I could leave for the entire day. Consistency was the key.
Other than these exercises I realised it was important for him to get out of the house daily, even if it was just for ten minutes. Just the activity of getting outside the fence and sniffing a few bushes assisted in decreasing his anxiety.
You have to imagine it from their point of view. If you were never allowed to leave your bedroom and had nothing stimulating in there, couldn't get out and socialise or have different scenery from time to time you would go bonkers. The same applies to a dog.
Just because they have a big yard or a comfy bed doesn't mean that there is enough there to make them never want to get out beyond it. It can become like a prison for them. They get bored and when they are bored they can either become highly anxious dogs with behavioural issues or they become destructive e.g. digging or barking.
I did all this with Cooper over seven years ago. Occasionally he will become a bit dribbly when I start to pack a bag to go somewhere but his days of barging through doors and being dragged out of cars are over. He knows I will eventually come back for him.