Today’s topic is one that has always been close to my heart, for reasons that I hope will soon become obvious. This is the story of Duncan – my family’s very first dog. My first agility partner, snuggle buddy, and all-around best friend. I could fill a novel with all the things he taught me, and I will always be grateful that he was my canine “first love.”
His story is painful to tell in some ways, because I see so many things that we could have done differently. I wish we had recognized his problem much sooner than we did, so that we could have helped him more effectively. I think we could have made the early years of his life much better and happier, if we had everything to do over again. This is hard. It still haunts me, sometimes.
The truth is, we were good dog owners. We loved our dog, and did the very best we could. We cared. We simply didn’t know that anything was wrong.
Duncan came to us as an 8-week-old puppy, from a well-regarded Sheltie breeder in the neighboring state of Ohio. I remember very vividly the day that my family went to pick him up – as a 16-year-old with a new weekend job at a nearby vet clinic, I was scheduled to work and couldn’t get off, so was sadly unable to go along. I set new records for speed driving home that afternoon to meet our new baby, as thrilled and eager as a six-year-old on Christmas morning.
Like all first-time puppy owners, we were excited. We had read lots of books on puppies – the bookshelf in our living room overflowed with our determination to be well-informed and responsible. We knew that he needed lots of things to chew on, toys to play with, and a crate to keep him safe while we were gone. And fortunately, he wouldn’t need to be alone much at all – my stepfather had recently retired, and would be home all day to work on housetraining, play with the pup, and take long afternoon naps on the couch.
Things were wonderful for the first few months. Duncan was smart, playful, and affectionate – the perfect companion. He loved to learn, and I took him to puppy classes faithfully every week. He quickly learned to sit, down, and stay; his instructors remarked on how lovely and easy to train he was. In the evenings, we played fetch in the yard with his favorite tennis ball (almost too big for his tiny mouth!) or snuggled in front of the TV.
All in all, an idyllic situation for a new puppy.
Inevitably, of course, there were times when all of us were gone and he was left at home alone. Family dinners, evenings out at the movies, etc. Only a few hours at a time, and not too often.
We noticed right away that Duncan was always barking when we left the house, but people said this was normal. All part of crate training – and of course, it was very important to never let him out or pay attention to him while he was crying. We assumed that he probably calmed down shortly after we left, and spent his “alone time” either sleeping or playing with the single squeaky toy that we left in his crate to keep him busy.
And if he was also barking when we came home, that was normal too – wasn’t it? After all, he surely heard the car pull up in the driveway, and of course he was excited to see us.
Over time, though, there were clues that perhaps something wasn’t quite right.
We began to notice some bending and warping of the bars on his wire crate, especially near the door. Duncan also began to destroy any blankets or pads left in the crate for him to sleep on. Well-meaning friends told us that this, too, was normal with puppies – they like to tear things up. Concerned that he would swallow pieces of the stuffing or fabric, we removed his bedding and purchased a larger, sturdier crate with thicker bars. This appeared to resolve the problem, and life went on.
When Duncan had been with us for about a year, an unexpected death in the family changed all of our lives overnight. Suddenly, instead of being left alone only for short periods here and there, he was crated for eight hours straight – all day, every day. There were no more lunchtime games of fetch, car rides to the post office, or lazy afternoon cuddles on the couch. He spent his days alone in a quiet house, from the time my mother left for work in the morning until my brother and I got home from school.
It was around this time, not surprisingly, that things began to escalate.
One day, during his weekly grooming routine, we noticed a badly fractured front tooth. We went to the vet straight away, and booked him in for a dental procedure and extraction – we were good dog owners, and wanted to make sure that he was taken care of. We all asked each other what could possibly have happened, but came up with no ideas.
Then – around the time I left for college, our whip-smart, eager to please, impeccably housetrained dog began to have accidents in his crate. Occasionally, maybe once or twice a month, my mother would come home to find him standing in a mess of dark, tarry, semi-solid stool – with long Sheltie hair to deal with, this required a full bath for Duncan and a hosing-off of his crate outside in the driveway, every time it happened.
Back to the vet we went, but a battery of fecal tests and lab work revealed no medical problems at all. We were frustrated, but resigned ourselves to the occasional clean-up as part of owning a dog.
Apart from these occasional mysterious happenings, Duncan was the best companion we could ever have asked for. He was very social, and extremely bonded to us – wherever we were in the house, he was there too. He would lay on the bathroom floor just outside the tub when I took a shower, and followed my mother faithfully around the kitchen every night while she made dinner. When we settled in to watch TV in the evenings, he curled up in his favorite spot at the end of the couch – I had to move my feet to the side to make room for him.
As long as he was with us, he was happy.
We had also begun to dabble in agility by this point – and here too, he excelled. Our actual competition success rate was quite modest given that we were both beginners, but he loved it as much as I did. He was easy to teach, and never forgot anything once it was learned. We spent our weekends at classes and seminars, or on the road to various shows and trials. He was a perfect traveler also – snoozing in the backseat, or riding happily with his front paws on the center console to look out the front.
He was our family dog, but my dog in particular – and so it only made sense that when I started vet school in Columbus, he should come with me. I found a pet-friendly apartment, checked into agility classes and dog parks nearby, and made preparations for the move.
There was just one potential hang-up, if Duncan was going to become a city dog… he had to be quiet during the day while he was crated. We knew that he barked when we left, and always had. But for how long? With apartment living on the horizon, this was suddenly a very important question. And so, we did something that I very much wish we had done long before.
We videotaped him in his crate one day, while we were gone.
If you have never watched a video of a dog with severe separation anxiety, it’s difficult to imagine how it feels. We had expected some barking, and were prepared for that. But seeing the true scope and severity of the problem left us absolutely floored.
He barked, as expected. But instead of calming down within a few minutes once we were gone, he became increasingly distressed – digging frantically at the front of the crate, biting the bars, and spinning in panicked circles. He whined. He put his nose in the air and howled – a mournful, heart-wrenching sound that we had never heard him make before. And then began the cycle all over again. And again, and again, and again… for the entire two hour duration of the tape.
This is what separation anxiety looks like. I can honestly say it’s one of the worst, most distressing things that I have ever seen. To think that our much-loved dog experienced this every day of his life for so many years is still a tremendous source of guilt for me – it’s become softer around the edges over time, but it’s a hard thing to ever really make peace with.
Telling his story is difficult, even now, but I truly believe it’s important.
Of all the behavior issues I see on a regular basis, separation anxiety is perhaps the most insidious. The clues are often subtle and easy to miss; most of us know very little about what actually goes on in our homes when we aren’t there. In many cases, it takes an unexpected crisis of some kind – a serious injury, a neighbor’s complaint, or a ruined sofa – to bring the problem to light. Most owners are devastated to discover the truth about how much their dog is suffering, just as we were.
The cruel irony of separation anxiety is that the dogs most likely to be affected are often wonderful pets in every other way. They are often smart, obedient, and very closely bonded to their owners. These are the dogs who follow us though the house, do everything we ask, and stay close to our side on walks. The dogs who seem to read our minds, and know exactly what we want. We cannot imagine them having any kind of behavior problem – they are the straight-A students, the “good kids” of the dog world.
It’s a sobering thing, to be so loved. And sometimes, unfortunately, it has devastating consequences.
From a more scientific standpoint, it’s perhaps not surprising that we see this problem relatively frequently in our pets. Dogs are highly social animals, so being left alone for several hours a day – which is an unavoidable reality of life for the vast majority of dog owners – doesn’t always come naturally. This means that we may need to take proactive steps to help our dogs cope with being home alone as a normal part of their day; and just as important, we need to be aware of signs that may indicate a problem.
Some of the most common “red flags” for separation anxiety that I often see in practice include the following:
- Destructive behavior – including tearing up toys, pillows, or furniture; or digging or chewing at carpet, flooring, baseboards, or walls.
- House-training accidents that only occur when the owner isn’t home.
- Evidence of excessive salivation, such as wet fur on the chest and front paws.
- Broken teeth or toe nails, which often occur due to escape attempts – particularly if the dog is crated.
- Reports of excessive barking when the owner isn’t home.
- Distressed behavior such as panting, pacing, or whining as the owner prepares to leave; and/or excessive, wildly excited greeting behavior when returning home.
Of course, there can be other possible explanations for most of these behaviors as well – dogs may chew on things out of boredom, bark at passing people or dogs outside the window, or have accidents due to an underlying medical problem like a UTI or intestinal illness. But taken as part of the whole picture, particularly if multiple signs are present, they are highly suggestive of possible separation anxiety.
To make a definitive diagnosis, a video recording is always recommended. Just be prepared for what you might see – and ready to tackle the problem head-on once you do.
My next post will go into more depth about treatment and prevention strategies for separation anxiety, including some specific thoughts on what I have found to be most helpful for my clients. We will also discuss what we did to help Duncan all those years ago – I’m glad to say that his story ultimately takes a happier turn, although the road to get there wasn’t easy.
So if you have a dog with separation anxiety, or want to learn how you can minimize your pup’s chances of developing this issue in the first place, stay tuned! I will do my best to give you the tools you need to get started. 🙂