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Question and Answer of the Month from Dr. Clark

K9Shrink
Dr. Gail Clark, "the K9 Shrink" canine behavioral psychologist, teaches and employs only proven psychological principles and positive learning methods for training dogs without fear or force, thus facilitating the devoted, loving companionship every dog owner desires. Dr. Clark's unique methods are effective, sensible, straightforward, and easy to learn and apply in any busy lifestyle. In this blog, Dr. Clark answers frequently asked questions.

Separation Anxiety

Home Alone:
Dogs with Separation Anxiety


By: Gail I. Clark, Ph.D.

Does your dog destroy the house when you leave him alone? Have you received complaints about your dog barking when you are not home? Does your dog appear to be agitated or nervous when you prepare to leave the house? If you answered yes to any of these questions, your dog may be experiencing separation anxiety. Although there are several explanations, for why dogs bark, chew, pace and dig, such as boredom, many dogs perform these behaviors because they are nervous and anxious about being alone. Dogs do not perform these behaviors because they are mad at us for leaving them. Chewing, barking, and pacing are a natural outlet for either boredom or nervousness. Don’t we chew our nails, pace, and talk a lot when we are nervous? While our nail chewing may not be of a big concern to most people, a dog that is experiencing separation anxiety can shred a house in a matter of a couple of hours, drive neighbors crazy, and make their owners a nervous wreck! When a dog is experiencing separation anxiety as opposed to boredom, there are distinct signs of physical nervousness such as panting, drooling, and general agitation.

What is Separation anxiety?
Separation anxiety is nervousness that is related to being left alone, or being separated from a specific person or animal. For example, if your dog is nervous even when there is another person or animal present, your dog is experiencing anxiety because you left him. Most dogs do not exhibit separation anxiety when other people or animals are around and become anxious only when they are alone.

The dog that is nervous or anxious about being left alone becomes fidgety and feels compelled to expend this excess nervous energy. The most common anxious behaviors that dogs exhibit are barking, whining, pacing, and chewing. The activity of shredding the couch spends energy and gives your dog something else to concentrate on, which results in an outlet for his anxiousness. Your dog is reinforced to perform any behavior, such as chewing, that reduces his anxiety when he is alone.

Causes of Separation Anxiety.
Dogs suffer separation anxiety because they are pack or social animals and being alone is negative to them. From the beginning, dogs are in the company of their dam and littermates. In fact, your dog may have never experienced being alone until the first time you left him to run an errand or went to work. The first experience of being alone can be quite traumatic for a dog, particularly if he has been left for several hours, and as a result he may start to voice his protest by whining, barking, or redesigning your woodwork.

Separation anxiety is almost always evident in dogs that were removed from their litter too young. A 6-week-old puppy is very immature, dependent upon his dam and litter, and has not fully developed independence and exploratory behavior. When a puppy is forcibly separated from the litter before he is developmentally ready, he may transfer his dependency to you and feel anxious when you are absent. In addition, removing a puppy from his littermates before he is developmentally prepared to explore the world creates emotional stress. Although emotional stress is not always evident until a puppy is older, it affects his emotional state and ability to cope with being left throughout his adulthood.

While dogs are prone to separation anxiety as a result of being a pack animal, your behavior can also contribute to your dog’s anxiety when he is left. For example, if you either never leave your young pup alone or do not take the time to gradually teach your puppy how to be alone, the first time he is left, he will very likely experience anxiety. Often people arrange to get puppies during summer vacations or when they will be home all day and can take the puppy everywhere with them. If there is a schedule change and the owner has to go back to work, he may feel guilty about leaving his dog, and make a fuss when he leaves, “I will be back soon, don’t worry.” The fuss and emotional departure added to his first experience with being left, imprints a negative association with his owner leaving and serves to make him anxious. When the owner who feels guilty about leaving his dog comes home, there is always an excited and emotional greeting. For the dog that pined all day long because he was left, an emotional greeting is a strong, happy experience, which also imprints on the dog, and he will learn to anticipate his owner’s arrival. As the cues in the environment signal your dog that you are coming home soon, the sun going down, or the sound of the neighborhood traffic getting busy, he becomes active, excited, and anxious for you to arrive. As your dog becomes anxious, he chews, barks or performs some other behavior to relieve his fidgetiness and anxiety. Most behaviors associated with separation anxiety occur 30 minutes after you leave as a result of your dog feeling anxious because he is alone, and 30 minutes before you arrive home due to his excitement and anticipation of you coming home.

Anxiety can also develop as a result of a traumatic event such as a thunderstorm or being abandoned. A loud clap of thunder that surprises or frightens your dog as he is comfortably napping in the backyard can cause him to be afraid of being alone. The dog that has been abandoned and placed in a stressful environment such as a shelter causes him to feel anxious about change and can manifest into difficulty with being left alone in his new home.

Preventing Separation Anxiety.
Just as your behavior can contribute to separation anxiety, you can help your dog cope with being alone. Dogs need to be conditioned or desensitized to tolerate periods of solitude with short periods of separation. For instance, you may start by leaving your dog alone when you go out to get the mail. For the rest of the day that you must be separated from your dog, day care provided by a friend, family member, or a trained professional sitter is a good option for implementing a gradual program for teaching your dog to be alone for longer periods. When your dog tolerates short periods of solitude, leave him alone for the length of time that he is comfortable with, and arrange day care for the rest of the time. Each week you can gradually increase the time your dog is home alone and decrease his supervised day care time as he adjusts to the short periods of separation. When your dog is comfortable staying home alone for several hours a day, change the day care to drop in visits to your home several times a day to let your dog out for a change in routine and to check on how he is coping with being alone. As your puppy gets older or your older dog learns to tolerate being alone, gradually reduce the pet sitting visits.

When you leave your dog, do not make a fuss, and just as importantly, greet your dog without fanfare when you return home. Just before you leave, give your dog a very special treat such as a peanut butter or cheese spread in a Kong or an interactive toy that you can Google on the Internet and with nothing more than a “Bye.” The purpose of the treat is to make your leaving a rewarding experience and provide an outlet for your dog to release his anxiousness. A knucklebone with the marrow intact in the middle may keep your puppy busy for a long time as he tries to relentlessly lick out the marrow. There are many toys you can fill with goodies such as peanut butter or cheese spreads. The better the chew toy, the busier your dog will be, and his anxious behavior will be appropriately channeled. Long hours of chewing will keep your dog’s mind off of you, and tire him, making him sleep for longer periods of time. Do not give the chew toys to your dog on any other occasion then when he is left so that the novelty of the toys does not wear off.

When you get home, immediately take him out to relieve himself without a greeting. If the reunions are emotional and overly rewarding, your dog will spend the day anxiously anticipating your arrival. A loving greeting is appropriate about ten minutes after your dog comes back in from the yard or walk. If there is an interval between your arrival and your greeting, your dog will not spend the day anticipating a happy reunion. Vary your routine and schedule. Change your schedule by coming and going at different times so that you do not set a pattern that your dog can focus on and worry about. Varying your routine will enrich both of your lives.

For enriching the environment when your dog is alone, turn the radio on to soft music. Heavy metal, rock, or jazz may be a poor option for the dog that needs to relax. If you are an avid television viewer and your dog is used to the noise, you can alternate between the television and radio for familiarity.

Preventing Damage to Your Home.
The best option for providing your puppy or older anxious dog with some solitude, while keeping him and your house safe, is the crate. The crate is also the only option for preventing the destruction of your house from the dog that chews when he is left alone. Crating your dog in the house also eliminates over-stimulation or fear from outside noises and sights that may instigate non-stop barking and interrupt his sleep. If your dog is in a crate in the house, his barking is not likely to disturb your neighbors, he will be unable to dig out of the fence, and he will be safe from being teased through the fence or from fences that may blow down in a wind storm. When you institute crate training for the anxious dog, he should be introduced to the crate gradually. For the majority of dogs, the crate becomes their safe haven where they feel comfortable from any outside influences that may threaten them such as being stepped on while they are sleeping, or other dogs that may invade their territory. However, there are rare cases where some dogs cannot tolerate the crate. Consult a dog professional about helping you crate train or explore other options to safely contain your dog in the house where he cannot damage anything or himself.

Vary the time you leave your dog. Sometimes place him in his safe area 5 minutes before you leave and other times 15 minutes before your departure so he does not associate his safe area with negative emotions evoked by your leaving.

For the dog that is not crated, enrich his environment. Find special toys that keep his attention and expend energy. For one of my clients, we introduced his dog to the Puzzle Ball, which cured his Weimaraner from incessant barking when he was left alone. Using a video camera, we found that the Weimaraner spent half his day batting the ball to get the treats out, and then spent the remainder of the day sleeping to make up for the physical exercise he exerted. Another tactic I use to keep my dogs busy and entertained is the hide and seek game. Every few days, I hide special treats around the house. I barely get out the door and they are off and running to sniff out their favorite goodies that may be hiding under a cup or box on the floor. The special toys and treats should only be given to your dog when you leave and picked up when you come home.

Companionship for Your Anxious Dog.
When people perceive that their puppy is lonely, their first inclination may be to get a second animal for companionship. Another animal can provide companionship and exercise that can redirect anxiety. A dog that has played all day is a tired dog and less anxious than the dog that has pent up energy. Unfortunately, another animal can sometimes present double the problems. The second dog may have behavioral problems and compound your dog problems without alleviating the anxiousness your dog experiences when you leave. The decision to acquire another animal for your anxious dog should be well thought out. Before you acquire another animal to provide companionship for your anxious dog, borrow one. Ask a friend if you could keep their dog for a day or two while they are out of town. Now, if having another animal around for companionship does not help your dog, you will not be committed to two animals.

Exercise and Diet.
Physical exercise helps reduce anxiety. Scheduling exercise in the morning, a game of fetch or a jog in the park, can release a dog’s pent up energy and help him relax. For puppies, the amount of exercise should be limited to a level that is appropriate for your puppy’s age. Too much exercise, such as a 2 mile jog for the 5 month old puppy may be detrimental to his growing bones and joints and is not appropriate until he is 18 months and older. Ask your veterinarian how much and which type of exercise is appropriate for your dog. Whether you are exercising a puppy or older dog, plan sessions that will be easy and comfortable for you to maintain on a permanent basis. New resolutions to run every day for 5 miles generally do not last throughout the year and if your dog becomes accustomed to the extra exercise and the schedule gets erratic, he will miss the activity and may end up more stressed than he was originally. The program I like best that I can maintain as a great workout for my dogs is obedience training.

In addition to a good exercise program, your dog’s diet also affects his energy level. Provide a diet for your dog that does not provide more calories and nutrients that he can burn. Unused calories result in energy that manifests into anxious behaviors. There are many different diets on the market to meet the level of exercise a dog receives. If your dog spends the majority of his time warming the couch, he does not need the same diet as a field dog. If you provide your dog with more calories than he uses, he will seek an outlet to release his energy and chewing the family couch may be very convenient for releasing his energy.

Obedience training and Separation Anxiety.
Obedience training has several benefits, it is low impact exercise, rewarding for both of you, and leaves a dog exhausted. A dog can frolic all day chasing a ball and never tire, but use his brain for five minutes in obedience training and he will be exhausted. Obedience training spends your dog’s energy, and rewards you with a well-behaved dog. Training, a one on one interaction provides quality time and develops a communication line between you and your dog, which fosters security and trust. Quality time can spend a lot of pent up energy and make up for missed time if you feel guilty about leaving your dog.

Drug Therapy.
As the millennium approaches, the topic of separation anxiety would be remiss without the mention of drug therapy. Extreme cases of separation anxiety have warranted the decision to introduce anti-anxiety drugs to help the dog tolerate being alone. The medical literature suggests that the best results are achieved when drugs are used along with a behavioral therapy program. There are always risks of side effects from drugs and you should never administer drugs without the advice of a veterinarian. If a program utilizing day care, obedience training, exercise, and a change of diet does not seem to help your dog cope with being left, consult a veterinarian about a combination program that uses drug therapy and behavior modification.

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Dog Parks

The Dog Park: a Dangerous Dog Party.

The vision that inspired the construction of dog parks was to provide dog owners with a safe, fenced area, for well-behaved, social dogs to run, play, and socialize together. In reality, the dog park is a dangerous dog party and a haven for the untrained, unsocialized dog to release pent up energy and wear out so that they behave better at home. Often these out of control, unsocialized fur balls of energy can be aggressive to both dogs and people. While aggressive or dangerous dogs may not be welcome in the park, most dog parks are not supervised or regulated to prohibit undesirable dogs from entering. The only supervision at the dog parks is the dog owner who may not have a lot of experience or knowledge about dog behavior and body language and are often too busy socializing with each other or talking on their cell phones to pay attention to the dogs.

Generally, there aren't capacity limits at the dog park, so a space that is often no larger than a third of a football field may have 1 to 75, loose, untrained dogs, ranging in size from Chihuahua to Great Dane, running, chasing, and body slamming each other. Turning untrained, unsocialized dogs loose in a small area to play doggie football or socialize on their own is like turning a bunch of preschool kids loose on a playground without any supervision, rules, or boundaries. The overcrowded, unsupervised dog party is the perfect environment for a huge K9 brawl.

The Dog Park Social System.
Dog parks may seem like a true fun party for your dog and a great way to socialize, but in actuality, many dogs are learning inappropriate social and play behaviors. The dog park attendants, often lacking proper social etiquette, mob and intimidate the dog at the entrance of the park. Imagine going to a big party and being the last one to arrive and everyone comes to the door, looks you up and down, from front to rear, sniffs you all over to see who you are and where you have been. If your dog or puppy doesn't become frightened at being mobbed at the entrance, he is, at the least, learning an improper socialization style. There is always a bully on the playground and when the puppy gets bowled over by the bully or during a group romp, he becomes either afraid of other dogs, or worse, the new bully on the playground, negating any socialization benefits.

Other risks.
Aside from the danger of dogs getting injured in fights at the dog park, the doggie football style games of racing around, jumping, sharp turns, short stops, and body slamming can cause serious injury and expensive repair. The close contact games also provide a great breeding ground for bacteria and the spread of disease, whereas, limiting your dog to playing with just a few of his healthy, close friends in a clean backyard greatly reduces health risks.

Other options to the Dog Park.
Don't go to dog parks unless you can choose and regulate your dog's playmates. Set up play dates in your own backyard with a friend's dog or plan to meet at the dog park during an off time so just your dogs are playing. Supervise the play and start with short sessions initially, because just like kids, dogs play hard and get dog tired and irritable. Irritability often leads to reactionary snaps that can snowball into a full-fledged dogfight if the play gets too rough, even among the best of friends. Intervene before the play gets out of control. If a third dog shows up to play, introduce them one at a time and make sure all of the personalities are compatible. Ideally, all of the dog owners have good control over their dogs in case the dogs need to be stopped or called back if the play gets out of hand.

Dog park parties, where your dog gets to run and rump with his own kind are a great idea and can be safe and a lot of fun when you exercise caution by supervising the games and friends that play with your dog

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Barking

Question: I received a complaint from animal control because my Papillion barks at squirrels in my backyard non-stop. I called a dog trainer who sold me a small dog electronic bark collar. I set the collar on the lowest level, but my Papillion still acts depressed and scared. What should I do?

Answer: Electronic bark collars use strong aversive shock every time the dog barks. Shock collars are harsh short cuts or quick fixes that can do more damage than good when used without proper basic training and on dogs that don’t have the temperament to take the harsh correction. Your Papillion’s depression, or his inactivity you have interpreted as depression, stems from fear. He doesn’t understand that his barking set off the shock so he is lying low or quiet to prevent getting another shock. When dogs are hurt or afraid, they freeze or become inactive, and may even roll up in a ball. As time passes, your dog will test the waters by gradually getting more active, and if he doesn’t get shocked again, he will eventually return to his natural energetic self. Unfortunately, that includes barking at squirrels again.

Training without Fear.
In the meantime, positive training can teach your dog to stop barking at squirrels. A knowledgeable animal trainer can show you how to teach your dog to obey your commands, such as “quiet,” through positive methods and without severe collars that choke, pinch or shock. A dog, like a young child, doesn’t understand what is acceptable behavior until you teach him the rules. When a two year old child grabs something that doesn’t belong to him, you don’t shock his hand, you teach the child social etiquette and to ask politely. When you want a dog to stop barking, teach him a “quiet” command, or a command to “come” that draws him from the center of the squirrel condo. There are many gentle and effective training options an experienced, knowledgeable animal trainer and behaviorist can offer to change misbehavior without resorting to aversive shock or force methods that create fear.

Once your dog has been taught how to behave when you give a command, he also needs to learn consequences for disobeying your commands. Consequences discourage undesired behavior and start with the lowest level of discomfort, like squirts of water or bursts of citronella from spray bark collars which are very effective at discouraging barking and do not instill fear in the animal. Experienced animal trainers have a bag of tricks to offer for the best solution to your dog’s barking or behavior problem.

Not all Dog Trainers have Experience.
Finding the experienced, knowledgeable dog professional can be challenging. Dog training has attracted many inexperienced newcomers in these difficult economic times because there are no regulatory licensing agencies or specific educational and vocational requirements for dog trainers. Anyone can advertise as a dog trainer or behaviorist and appear credible in newspapers, telephone directories, and websites claiming amazing results in print without being challenged. There are no degrees in dog training required to hang out a shingle or open a dog school, and yet hiring a competent trainer is as critical to the wellbeing of your animal as a good teacher is to a child. If you hired an inexperienced car mechanic and he burned up your engine, you could get another engine and your car would be as good as new. If you hire and inexperienced dog trainer and your dog becomes fearful as a result of harsh tactics, the damage is not easily repaired and your dog may never be the same. Before you hire a dog trainer or behavior consultant check out referrals, experience, and credentials.

Referrals.
Referrals and endorsements are good leads for starting your search for the right dog trainer. Conducting interviews and observing their work will lead you to the professional that is the best fit for you and your dog.

Professional Experienced Trainers.
Experienced animal trainers have a general knowledge about many different breeds and the training issues associated with both sexes. An expert dog trainer or behavior consultant has trained, hands on, a variety of breeds, recognizes the canine personality and temperament differences, and understands the importance of early prevention of behavior issues. The experienced, knowledgeable trainer teaches and motivates animals to learn and never uses methods of force that instill fear in the animal. A successful animal trainer or teacher is eager to discuss their training philosophy and strengths in education, learning, and behavior. Observe how the trainer teaches people and dogs. Note the skills, behavior, and attitude of the trainer’s dogs when they are relaxed and working.

Degrees and Credentials.
There are several online dog-training interest groups and organizations that allow paid members to use the organization’s name or acronym in promotional material, for example, Jane Doe, APDT, which simply stands for Association of Pet Dog Trainers. Some organizations require that a trainer complete an online test or course before they can don the organization’s acronyms, John Doe, CPDT, or Certified Pet Dog Trainer. Letters after a professional’s name usually denotes a degree or license, however, in the case of dog trainers, the letters may only mean a paid membership in an interest group or the completion of an online test. If letters that you don’t recognize follow the name of your potential trainer, ask what the letters mean in terms of their educational background.

Don’t’ turn your dog over to a trainer or take recommendations over the phone if you aren’t totally comfortable with the trainer’s credentials, referrals, experience, method, and knowledge. Remember, anyone can call themselves a dog trainer and everyone gives dog advice, just ask your next-door neighbor!

Doesn't come when called or Stubbornness

 Why is my dog so stubborn, and ignores me when I call him?

"My dog knows what to do, he is just being stubborn" is top of the complaint list from new clients. Owners are quick to label their dogs "stubborn" if their dog refuses to follow a command or perform a task he has done before, "he knows this, he is just being stubborn." Dogs are not stubborn; they refuse to obey commands because they are fast learners who haven't had enough practice to accurately learn the task, slow learners who need more practice to learn the task, or dogs who have learned response resistance and know they don't have to respond to your commands.

  1. The fast learner who picks up the concepts quickly, and responds correctly after you show her once or twice what to do, hasn't learned the lesson, rather, she got lucky and guessed the correct response. She won't always guess correctly and is therefore labeled stubborn.
  2. The slower learner is not stubborn about coming, she needs more practice to learn the correct response because she has a low success rate for guessing correctly or chooses not to guess.
Regardless of your dog's learning style, fast or slow, after they learn the lesson and the correct response pattern is fixed in your dog's brain, she will quickly learn response resistance if you do not enforce or follow through with your commands.

Learned Resistance.
Learned response resistance develops in dogs when people don't follow through with enforcing their commands. Dogs discover very quickly they don't have to respond, because you either won't or don't know how to back up your commands. Even if stubborn were part of the equation, you simply need to be more stubborn and enforce your commands. You must follow through or enforce your commands consistently and persistently to avoid your dog learning response resistance or "stubbornness." Teaching your dog to obey your command on the first request may mean the difference between life and death for her if she accidentally gets loose and runs out in the road.

Enforcing your commands is good leadership and imperative for building a healthy and rewarding relationship.