Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Testing Solutions for our Weimaraner's Separation Anxiety

In our goals and resolutions post for 2012, we talked about continuing to work consistently and patiently with easing our weimaraner, Basil, out of his separation anxiety so that we may be able to leave him in our home alone for short periods of time every so often. Find the full background info on our dog's case of separation anxiety in this post and this post from over the past year. Today, we wanted to give an update on our overall progress with tackling this hurdle.

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):


So all of this background info was to lead up to sharing what we've been doing and how it's going!

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.

31 comments:

  1. That was really really sweet. I love pet cams of what they do all day or while you are gone. That howl from Basil was really sweet.

    A friend of ours has a Cocker Spaniel who will lay on his bed and howl in misery waiting for his owner to get back.

    I think Basil has really come along, he only seems to have mild anxiety which he works out with the pacing/laps and he is even able to relax.

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  2. I truly think it is a crate issue. We have had lots of dogs (cats too) and have never used a crate. We also allow the pets on the furniture! The latest is my husband's spoiled Golden Retriever! But when I get new leather furniture that will change! Perhaps just covering the couch when you leave will help (when the cats away....)

    Sometimes we can over analyze things...It reminds me of when I babysat in the nursery at church, etc...the kids would cry & cry when their parents would try to leave. We would insist the parents leave & the kids would quit crying after a few minutes, and have a good time. Basil will settle down, too.

    Perhaps Basil would like a chew bone, although the kong seems to be a hit! Kong is king!!

    My advice..lose the crate! You can also consider a cat buddy! :)

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  3. Awww, poor buddy! We use Kong as well but I just found a new treat puzzle toy last week that has been really keeping our dog Reuben entertained. It's called Tug-A-Jug. The bottom unscrews to allow you to put little bite sized treats in that only come out if it's played around with :)

    My studio is in the house so Reuben doesn't have to be alone very often...and if I go anywhere I usually take him in the car....pretty sure that means I'm whipped. Oh well.

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  4. Jennifer - yes you are right, that howl just broke our hearts because we weren't expecting it at all - we kind of covered our mouths and laughed silently. We are terrible. Thank goodness it was the only one he did that night before getting into his own groove.

    Lisa - we think it was definitely a crate issue. We definitely also over analyzed this, and are finally getting back to basics now. And yes, Kong is king - hahaha!

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  5. haha sneaky dogs! i don't feel like i have enough confidence in my dogs *not* to leave them in the crate or outside while i'm gone. :) I'm glad he doesn't chew! his little clicking toenails hahaha and did you see how he "moped" toward the door? :D

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    1. We felt the same *exact* way about feeling nervous to leave him outside the crate. Basil is also a destructive dog with chewing and was even more destructive in the crate - we couldn't leave towels or blankets in there with him cause he would literally tear them to shreds and ingest them. It's a miracle to us that this solution is working!

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    2. Have you ever heard of the Thunder Shirt??? They are made for dogs to help with anxiety and are designed after a product made for people. You should check them out, they have alot of info on their site.

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    3. Michelle - yes! We have heard of the thunder shirt but have not actually tried it. This may be something we could add when he is alone (so long as he can't reach it to rip it off, haha).

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  6. Honestly I didn't read this whole thing, but I did read that you were thinking about another dog. Our beagle used to have issues being left alone and being a dual military family it was unavoidable. He would get destructive outside a crate and he would shake and whine and tear up the floor in the crate, he even managed to tear out two metal bars to stick his head through!!!! Then we found a wheaten on the side of the road and she ended up sneaking into our hearts and staying. After we got her it was like magic, our beagle had no problems at all. The companionship really calmed him and they are in love. :D

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    1. Sarah - yes, we have considered getting another dog and hopefully this will be something we can bring to fruition soon. I hope it will only add to the efforts we are making to cure Basil's separation anxiety. Thanks so much for sharing your story and what worked for your beagle!

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  7. My border-aussie, Riley, had pretty bad separation anxiety. She had the exact reaction to her crate...drooling, scratching, basically freaking her freak until she was let out. My partner & I live in an apartment with other dog people (many of whom are vet grad students), so we were able enlist their help to monitor if Riley was freaking out when we left. She was. So, after trying to use kongs as distractions & to use babygates to block the door (where she was scratching & starting to tear up the floor a little) and loads of other behavior modification tactics suggested, we decided to utilize our vet's suggestion of utilizing medication. Our vet understood & shared our apprehension to using prescription medications for separation anxiety. She suggested trying 5mg of melatonin once per day to start & twice per day, if we know we'll be gone for an extended period (or if it's 4th of July firework season). We liked that it was simply an herbal supplement. Needless to say, it has been a godsend. We can now leave Riley (and her pug 'brother,' Gabe) on their own with no problems. We just got back from a weekend trip & our neighbor puppy-sat for us. There were no problems.

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    1. Susan,

      Thanks so much for sharing your story about Riley here — we love learning what works for others and are strong believers in multiple solutions for different dogs! So glad to hear you have found what works to help ease the stress and anxiety of Riley!

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  8. I have a Weimaraner named Joe and he is the love of our lives (Hubby and me). He had severe seperation anxiety as a puppy. I crate trained him and video taped him one day in the crate and heard all of his awful cries and his sobs. It killed me. From then on he has been out of the crate. He still had anxiety when I would leave him out and about in the house so I "gave" him a chair. Its an old beat down recliner with a blanket on it that smells like me and the husband. And his toys are right by it. He knows to go to that chair and just chill out and watch the door. I can now leave him for about ten hours each day while I go to work (teacher) and come home to a clean, undamaged house. Being by the window helps too! I would suggest getting him a couch he can sit on and call his.

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    1. Mrs R — Sounds like Joe and Basil might be good buds if they ever had the chance to meet. We too have found that Basil has a special couch he loves to get up and sleep on in the front room while we are away — he absolutely loves it since it's the only time we "let" him on the couch. Things have been much better lately as we've continued to try leaving him for short periods of time. Thanks so much for sharing what has worked for Joe — it sounds SO similar to Basil!

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  9. I have a three year old Weimeraner and live in Rome, Italy. Pluto behaves a lot like Basil and while he is friendly and cuddly and energetic, he either destroys anything he can find (loves ripping apart entire boxes of Kleenex AND eating banknotes) when we leave him alone, or goes into panic mode. This summer we decided to bite the bullet and send him off to a doggy pension in the countryside while we were traveling. The man who runs the pension is a friend and assured us that most dogs sent to him habitually sleep indoors, even on owner's beds, and little by little Pluto would adapt to country life and learn to sleep in a spacious area for the dogs outside. Well, needless to say, two weeks into his stay Pluto has not left the pensioners side, he literally has to take him with him wherever he goes and "has never seen a dog so attached to people" before. I am mortified to have left Pluto, such a high- maintenance pup, with a guy who was basically doing us a favor. hmmmm. Will definitely buy a Kong at least to buy me some time and try some of your suggestions when we are back in Rome at summers end. Weimeraner's are quite uncommon in Italy, so the trainer's don't really have a grasp on their bizarre behavior. Basil is a cutie though, we have allowed Pluto to share sofa space with us (I know, I know...) because he sort of gets in the middle, all paws on the floor, then backs up putting a hind leg and his rump on the sofa, then the next until he's up and we are so taken with his human like nonchalance we let him cuddle. Suckers!

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    1. Right there with you right there with you. Basil has done much better of late . Be sure to check out all of Basil's adventures and improvements here:

      http://www.17apart.com/search/label/Basil

      Thanks for stopping by and Basil says WOOF to Pluto!

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  10. We have a wonderful Weimaraner, he's 14 months and he's just an excellent dog. He does get a bit bonkers when he's left on his own and Kong is being utilised to train him to be a little more relaxed when he's alone. We've got no doubt it will work, its just a matter of patience, consistency and plenty of cuddles! A lot of walks goes a long way too!

    B.

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    1. Aww we would love to see pictures feel free to contact us through email if you would like! basil does like his KONG!

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  11. 45 MINUTES!!!! My dog clears a full frozen kong (pnutbutter, kong crema, doggie cookie bits & bits of dry food) in 20 minutes! I must know what you stuff Basil's with.

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    1. Hahaha, one trick we have learned is to FREEZE the kong before leaving the house. His daycare taught us this trick. We stuff it to the gills with peanut butter then we put it in the freezer for about 10-20 minutes. It makes it harder/longer for them to work on it when it's frozen!

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  12. We have a 2.5 yr weimaraner.We rescued her at 1 yr old.We also have a 12 yr old pointer & 2 cats.The 2 dogs are very close our weim Lola is always cuddled up to our other girl.I have a routine I follow every day before leaving for work.Lucky for my girls I am home mornings & they are only home alone approx 2-3 hours daily before my husband is home.Our Lola has separation issues for sure.If anything is off from our normal routine I expect she will tear something a part.Two spots in my home are her targets the back door & our dining room window.She franticlly tries to get out to be with us.She has chewed our trim around the door almost off & shredded two sets of dining room curtains.--But if the day goes as planned no change in routine she is fine.My morning is as follows Get up 8am 1 hour walk with both dogs,11.30am another 20-30 min. walk-1.30pm all ready for work sit down play guitar & sing [my dogs love music they moan it so relaxes them] -so funny --dogs resting on sofa. 2 pm get up walk to kitchen place on one of her dog beds --kong filled with peanut butter & food ball[that as she rolls it food drops out]She is a pro at that now-- I place about 1 cup of her food inside this.These are prepared ahead.I place them down & walk right to the door & leave not saying a word.When I arrive home both girls are super excited but I have found Lola is not so wild if I don't speak to he right away.Hard to resist though.Strange enough this works during the day but for us to go out in an evening almost inpossible so we take them with us ,leave them in the car where she is happy orsometimes with a friend.Not sure how to fix this so we are now looking for a pet sitter so we can once in a while do something together in an evening.Other then this she is a fantastic girl smart,beautiful & so full of love

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    1. Wow you have a busy day! So worth the trouble! Thanks for stopping by!

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  13. We rescued an 3 year old weim to hang out with our chocolate lab (who was just getting lazy) about 5 years ago. At first he was a nightmare because he wanted to be with us all the time then would run out the door and down the street daily. I was afraid he would get hit by a car. He would destroy very random things in our house and even jumped out our second story window and escaped. Our last attempt was getting an Invisible Fence installed. We have a one acre lot it cost about $1500 (with two collars). Trainer came out and helped us train him. It has been a godsend. Now he stays outside all day while we are at work and comes in when we get home. He has a doggie door into the basement if it rains, but usually chooses to sit in the rain. He loves to sun on the driveway, bark at walkers and watch for our cars to come home. In 5 years he has never gotten out of the yard. The downfall to this is he loves to be in the car so he has learned how to open the car doors, jump inside and close the doors behind him. He will sit in the car all night for hours with no anxiety issue. When we finally notice he’s missing, we will open the car door and instead of him being frantic he is sleeping and now mad we are making him get out. But him getting in the car is much better than his old habit of sitting on top of the car. We recently tried the thunder shirt-no luck. We do leave him in the house alone (if it’s hot, wet or snowy) he usually doesn’t get into anything if we throw away all the garbage, lock bedroom doors, lock food pantry and leave no food out. We are just having problems now because we recently had a baby and it’s a huge hassle to remember all those things every time we leave. But on the good side, he gets along great with the kids and new baby.

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    1. Ha, we can picture your weim perfectly — especially the car part. We used to take Basil EVERYWHERE with us in the car. It was the only place he felt safe enough to let us leave him and return without going berserk.

      Thank you so much for sharing your story with us, it means so much!

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    2. Hhha that's amazing!! I'm totally not surprised he opens the car door!

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  14. he is sooo sweet!! i just got a weim who destroys everything he touches when left alone, he´s a liitle puppy of about 2 months, do you have any recomendations?

    Greetings from mexico!!

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    1. Aw, they are the best! We signed up for some puppy training courses that really helped us in the first year of having Basil — it took about 2 years before he really began to mellow out!

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  15. We have a 18-month old Weim. She is the sweetest dog ever, but has had issues with separation. When we first got her, my boyfriend is a nurse was working 3-11, so leaving her wasn't an issue. When he moved to daylight shift the problems began... Our lovely neighbors reported us to the HOA because she cried all day. The HOA said to either medicate her or they were calling the police for animal cruelty. After trying everything... we gave up and allow her to roam the house. No more complaints from the HOA. We have lost a couch.... but we couldn't love her more than we do...

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    1. Yes, sometimes you just give in and all is good!

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  16. First off, I just have to thank you for such a thorough and thoughtful post of your Basil. It's so comforting to have these stories as refuge- and even better, that he's doing so well. We have a 1 year old Weim who is sweet as can be, but does little "DIY" projects on our crown moulding by the door when we're gone :/ Most mostly I'm thankful for your post due to my neighbor's Weim. He goes absolutely insane when his owner is out and we've all rallied to help him. Daycare and other options are definitely helping, and now regular hikes and runs at the dog beach :) In any case- my dog accepts the crate, but my neighbor's certainly does not. It's so true- they are ALL different and owners should be as diligent as you to find a solution :) Many thanks again!

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    1. Thanks Esa for your comment! Basil says "woof" to your weim!

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