Note: I got a little carried away with the length of this post since it's a subject really near and dear to our hearts. We hope to provide details about our own experiences with Basil's separation anxiety and how we have continued to work towards finding the solution in the event it can help any other dog owners out there also looking for new ideas. We understand every dog and situation is different, so this method will definitely not be the trick for everyone. We can't tell you how many times we've heard stories from other dog owners about what they do with their dogs that would just never work with Basil. We hope to illustrate though, that when you keep on trying new things, you will eventually find what works best for both you and your dog.
Psssst... We took what we think is a hilarious video of leaving Basil alone in the house this weekend — so be sure to scroll down and watch if all this talk on separation anxiety goes overboard.
Basil peering out the windows of our front door
As I've mentioned before, our dog has what we thought was a severe case of separation anxiety. All the professionals we spoke to recommended crate training our dog to both ease him from anxiety and protect our home while we are gone. Over the past year and few months, we've been unable to leave him in the home alone due to the state of sheer panic and destruction Basil would revert into every time we put him in the crate. While we got to where we could get him to go into the crate voluntarily and close the door — he would immediately flip out being locked in there even if we were sitting in the same room with him. We tried several rounds of consistent training, even a 2 week period that did nothing. I hate to admit that in the past we even tried both Benadryl and low doses of Xanax at the recommendation and prescription of a specialized separation anxiety dog trainer. When we tried these separately, it was still in an effort to calm Basil enough to get him acclimated to being in a crate. None of these methods worked for us, and in many cases, only agitated the problem and anxiety in Basil. We both felt uncomfortable with giving Basil medication, especially after seeing the negative effects first hand and decided we did not want to proceed with the recommendation of next steps being puppy Prozac. Honestly, our dog is a super happy dog with no problems at all unless we tried to leave him alone in the crate — all of this training was very draining on both us and Basil. When we would let him out of the crate, he would immediately plop down on the floor in exhaustion and just wasn't the happy dog we were used to. The whole point was supposed to be him relaxing/sleeping in the crate while alone and then awake, playful and happy when we are home to spend time together. This broke our hearts, and we decided keep working with Basil and try to find alternative solutions to medication.
We've also seriously considered getting a second dog, thinking it might help with his anxiety but have been told over and over that is not the way to solve this problem. Plus, while we both agree adding another dog to our family in the future is something we'd like to do regardless of Basil's anxiety, we'd rather wait until the timing is right all around.
Instead, we resorted to taking him to doggie day care when needed or during extended stays, let him stay overnight at this specialized trainer's home. These were all solutions where Basil would not be by himself, had access to lots of exercise and loved being. As the weather got cooler again, we simply reverted back into taking him with us everywhere and if he wasn't allowed where our destination was, he'd be happy as usual to wait and sleep in the back of the car anywhere from 5 minutes to 2 1/2 hours. Yes — it's very strange that he can't stay alone in a crate for 2 hours, but is happy to stay in a car. This is one of those curious reasons we kept thinking to ourselves that there had to be another way.
We promised each-other that in this new house, we would start on a clean slate with our efforts to be able to leave Basil in the home alone. We thought that maybe some of his fears had been tied to being in the crate in the old home and that with a fresh start and a set of front doors filled with glass (not to mention an empty home as we move in) that this just may be our ticket.
Basil at the front door
He definitely LOVES being able to peer out the front door windows as he pleases. This space in the front hallway is pretty much his new favorite spot in the home...
What's also great about our new place is the fact we have pocket doors. Baby gates have never worked for us since Basil can either leap right over, destroy, or barrel them over like it was a game. These pocket doors slide out of the walls to block entire rooms off in our downstairs and span the entire floor to ceiling — this allows us to essentially block off entire portions of the house to Basil while still allowing him some freedom to roam as he pleases.
Here's a shot of him from late last month when we were first getting in the house to clean — this is when we realized we could use these doors in our favor with Basil if need be, ha! (Side note: We hope to either strip down or have these doors stripped down back to their original wood finish as you can see spots of in this picture):
Our newest tactic has been to close all of the upstairs doors so the hallway is the only area open and close off the main pocket doors downstairs between the family room and back of the house. Before closing off the main doors, we do a quick sweep of the area he'll be in to make sure we've removed any odds and ends we think he might be tempted to chew up or destroy — the rest of the things (like blankets, pillows, rugs, his bed, couches, wood furniture, etc...) we simply hold our breath, cross our fingers and hope for the best.
The next tactic we use is called a Kong. A Kong is a tough rubber dog toy with a hole through the middle that you can stuff with treats (we use the size large). We fill ours with layers of treats and peanut butter. In general, they are great toys to keep dogs busy, stimulated and working to get all the treats out. Our Kong has kept Basil busy for up to 45 minutes before, it's a great solution when he's being restless or we just want to keep him awake and active. I will note though that when we used to try to put the Kong in the crate with him, he wouldn't touch it while being locked in there. He'd ignore and go into his regular high state of panic/barking/scratching/drooling until we came home and let him out. Then he would immediately go back into the crate, get the Kong toy and begin working on it. This was very frustrating for us.
Basil playing with his Kong during the day
So, when we know we are going to test him and leave the house, we fill up his Kong with extra treats in hopes that it will keep him busy for longer than normal. We've trained him to sit and wait while we place the Kong in another area of the house, then we release him from the sit and wait with an "OK" which is his signal that he can get up and try to find it. We call this game "hide & seek" and Basil loves to play it. We play it every time we give him the Kong so he won't differentiate between times we leave and when we stay. So after we get our coats and bags and are pretty much ready to walk out the door (and have his Kong prepared), we get him to sit and wait by the front door while we hide it in the other room. When we release him to go find it, we try to slip out the door with as little emotion as possible.
It is our hope that he will stay entertained with the Kong long enough not realize we've left and panic. We're sure he knows we're gone, but for us, the Kong gives him something to focus on instead of focusing on when we will return. As not to jinx anything, this process has been working for us so far. We try to leave for all different lengths of times — sometimes 10 minutes, other times up to 2.5 hours. When we now return home, Basil isn't looking out the front doors, but is usually sleeping in the family room and gets up to calmly greet us at the door. There hasn't been any damage to the house, furnishings, or Basil so far and his Kong is always cleaned out which makes us think he stayed busy and slept while we were gone.
All of the above is to explain the process in detail for what has been working for us so far. We know every dog and every situation is different, but thought sharing our own experience might help others discover tactics or solutions with their own dogs. We're still cautiously excited that this process has been working so well for us and keep waiting for the day we walk through the door to the couch ripped apart or another collar ingested.
Funnily enough, our trainer told us she was able to leave him in her house alone and the worst he ever did was get up and sleep on her couch. Basil isn't allowed on furniture in our house, but we laughed to ourselves thinking, if all Basil did in our home was get up on the couch and sleep while we are away, that would be a miracle. We kept thinking about what she said and the last couple go rounds we left Basil for over an hour, we returned to a groggy puppy walking up to the door yawning from the general area of our couch....
After feeling the warm spot on the couch, we think we have an understanding with Basil now, haha. What he doesn't know is we decided to set up a static video camera the last time we went out to dinner to see exactly what he's up to while we're away.
Stephanie, Tim's daughter, was in town for the weekend and suggested we set up the streaming video on her laptop and position it to catch as much action as possible. Tim and I thought this was brilliant. She set up the video, tested it, then we did our normal "leaving routine." Boy did we get an eyeful when we returned! Stephanie edited the 2.5 hours we were gone down to a 4 minute video for all of you to enjoy if you're curious what we saw:
Note: As you can gather from the video, Tim and I have a particularly hard time obeying the "don't make a big deal over the dog when you arrive back home" rule we learned over and over again in training — especially when he's been so successful at being alone (drinks at dinner didn't help either...). Evidently it can actually worsen some cases of anxiety in dogs. While we try to keep this in check, it's definitely a tough one for us — I think it's hilariously cute how excited Tim gets when he talks to Basil upon arriving home to an undamaged house and a sleepy dog!
While Basil appears super active in this video due to the fast forwarding and even let out the most guttural howl we've ever heard come from his mouth, this is 180 degrees different than the type of panic, anxiety, and sheer terror Basil faced being left in a crate. While I don't have any actual children of my own, I can only imagine the moment we realized we're going to be able to leave him alone in this house is comparable to the excitement parents must feel when they feel their child is almost 100% potty trained.
We're now wondering if what we thought was a severe case of separation anxiety may have really simply been a phobia to the crate, and honestly if this is case, we can't blame him. While we're not 100% sold that we have our final solution, we are proud of ourselves for hanging in there with Basil, not giving up in our own frustrations, and continuing to try new things to tackle this hurdle rather than trying the same thing over and over — then blaming the problem on him.
One thing is for sure, while crates are a wonderful solution for many dogs, our old crate is staying in the garage of the old house and will be showing up on Richmond's Craigslist in the coming weeks as we complete our move into the new home.
We'd love to hear more about the experiences you've had learning your own animals unique behaviors and what you've found to be the best solutions in your families.