CASE STUDY ONE
Breed: Miniature Schnauzer
Sex: Spayed Female
Age: 4 years
Becomes destructive and barks when left home alone.
Poppy’s owner phoned us on the day they arrived home to discover that she had ripped up the linoleum floor of the laundry she had been confined in while they were out. The owners were understandably upset, as the estimate to repair the damage to the laundry was around $3,000!
Poppy was being left alone on week days for around 5 hours a day and over the previous year when Poppy was left alone she was causing some minor damage by chewing the carpet and furniture. In an effort to minimise damage to the house, on this particular day Poppy was confined to the laundry. She had never been confined to such a small area before.
During our initial session we were able to see for ourselves the damage to the laundry floor. A large patch of linoleum had been ripped up near the door, strongly suggesting that Poppy had panicked and was trying to dig her way out. Poppy was being verbally reprimanded when her owners came home and discovered that something had been chewed.
Setting aside the laundry incident, and taking into account Poppy’s previous history of only minor chewing while left alone, we weren’t convinced that this was full blown separation anxiety. However, because the damage in the laundry indicated that Poppy had panicked at being confined we advised her owners not to leave her in this space again. We chose the kitchen/living room as the area to leave Poppy when her owners left. We tackled the ‘home alone’ issues in several parts:
Things to do when left alone: Poppy needed something to do other than fret while she was home alone. We gave her owners a list of things to set up for her to occupy her time – such as leaving breakfast and yummy treats in stuffed kongs and treat balls.
Amp up physical and mental stimulation: We encouraged Poppy’s owners to increase her physical and mental exercise.
Getting used to being alone: We wanted Poppy to get used to spending short amounts of time alone even when her family were at home. We got her owners to practice for short periods of time several times a day.
Ignore any destruction: To reduce Poppy’s anxiety towards being left alone we asked her owners to ignore any chewing incidents that they discovered on arriving home as this would only add to her fretting if she learnt that her owners coming home predicted a reprimand.
Thankfully Poppy has not caused any more destruction to her family’s house! With some very simple exercises and desensitisation the family managed to teach Poppy that their departure was a good thing. The family’s departure has now come to signal breakfast and treat time for Poppy and she is relaxed and happy when the family leave.
CASE STUDY TWO
Breed: A large Boxer cross
Sex: Spayed Female
Age: 2 years
Quick to become aroused in new situations/environments, boisterous, general lack of manners and focus on owners.
When Jackie’s owner first called us the relationship between dog and family had almost completely broken down. Jackie was described to us as disobedient, uncontrollable and overall a very difficult dog to live with. She had been to a basic puppy class when she was young but since then had very little training.
Jackie was no longer allowed inside the house because of her extreme excitement and boisterousness. Walks had become very infrequent due to her over arousal at anything new that they came across – dogs, cats, people – and from the owner’s lack of physical strength to control Jackie while out on a walk. Jackie’s owners had started to use physical punishment to control her and had been growled at on several occasions when they had attempted to hold her down on the ground.
During our initial session we observed how Jackie and her family interacted. As she was let into the living room to greet us - with great exuberance - it became apparent that the more excited Jackie became, the more tense her owners became. Dog and family were feeding off each other’s excitement and anxiety, leading to high levels of arousal.
Despite this, we discovered that inside the house Jackie was very food motivated and quick to perform basic behaviours such as sit/down. Once outside however she very quickly lost all focus and interest in food. Things were just too exciting for her in the real world where she lacked the experience and skills to cope with new environments.
Calming Signals: We talked at length about the need to remain calm around Jackie. We discussed calming signals and how her owners could use them to communicate to Jackie to calm down.
Food: We advised that Jackie’s food bowl be taken away and that a portion of her daily ration of kibble be dispensed in return for performing basic obedience exercises and general calm behaviour. The remaining food was to be given in kongs, or scattered on the lawn.
Activities for Mental and Physical stimulation: Jackie needed an outlet for all her energy! We gave the family a list of games and tricks to learn to try and use some of this up. We also recommended interactive toys for problem solving and lots of games in the backyard with her toys.
Training with Positive Reinforcement: The family practiced daily basic obedience with Jackie, including self control exercises. She picked these up quickly and it showed the family that with some positive reinforcement Jackie was a quick and willing student. This also gave them a way to control her without physical confrontation.
Time inside with the family: We encouraged the family to allow Jackie to spend time inside with them. We set up specific exercises where they would bring Jackie into the living room on lead and sit down on the couch. The aim here was to have Jackie decide for herself that lying down quietly was the behaviour we wanted. No commands were given to her and food rewards were delivered for calm behaviour.
Getting used to the Real World: As soon as Jackie stepped outside the front door she lost all focus and stopped taking food treats. Additionally, we noticed the family became very tense. To address this we got the family to use a clicker to mark any behaviour they liked instead of using their voices which were contributing to Jackie’s heightened arousal. We set up a similar exercise to the one in the living room where the family took Jackie just outside the front door and calmly waited for a behaviour they could reward. As she relaxed we took the exercise further down the driveway until she was able to follow basic commands at the end of the driveway.
Jackie has come a long way from being a dog that was shut out in the backyard. She is now spending most of her time inside with her family and they are enjoying having her round. She still possesses a massive amount of energy but the family are able to get her attention and focus more quickly to get her under control without resorting to a physical struggle.