Helping a Dog Get Over His Fear of the Kennel and Separation Anxiety

By: David Codr

Published Date: July 23, 2015

Reverend 1

Reverend is a five year old Shih-tzu / Poodle mix who has a bad case of separation anxiety and views being placed in his kennel as a punishment.

Dogs with separation anxiety panic when they become stressed without having their humans around. This usually happens to dogs with lower self-esteem who don’t have as much structure as they need. That was certainly the case with Reverend. His guardians has unknowingly placed the dog in a leadership position by not having any rules or limits. Making matters worse, they petted him on demand which only reinforced his belief that he was in charge. In fact, his guardians catered to the dog in such a way that I would have been surpassed if it hadn’t developed a case of separation anxiety.

To help Reverend get over his fear of the kennel and separation anxiety, I knew we needed to change the leader follower dynamic in the home. I suggested some rules to incorporate as well as how to disagree or correct the dog when it broke them. I also suggested that they start only petting Reverend for doing things they wanted him to do. By promptly providing attention and affection when the dog engages in desired actions or behaviors, we can help the dog start to engage in them more often.

Reverend’s guardians had purchased a new wire kennel prior to the session. I wanted to see how he felt about the kennel so I tossed a high value treat into the kennel. I was surprised to see him go inside with little hesitation. As soon as his lips touched the treat, I started repeating the command word of “kennel.” By consistently repeating this command word when the dog was in the kennel getting its treat, we can condition it to go inside on command.

Unfortunately the treats stopped working for me as his guardians had failed to remove his food the day of the session. They assumed since he hardly ate the dry dog food they leave out 24/7 that it wasn’t a factor. While its possible that the dog isn’t as motivated by food as other things, not removing it makes a difference.

I had one of his guardians take over and start repeating the command word when she tossed in each treat. The more practice the dog has going inside the kennel and getting a treat or other positive reinforcement, the more comfortable she will be in it. This process is called desensitizing.

Once it was clear that Reverend had a positive association with the kennel, I planned on using an exercise that conditions a dog to stay calm and relaxed inside the kennel. I accomplish this by tossing in a high value treat and letting the dog go to get it. Once the dog is fully inside the kennel, I quietly step into the open gate blocking the dog from exiting.

Reverend was surprised to see I was blocking his exit, but stayed calm and in place so I took one step backwards. As soon as I did this, the dog started to move forward so I stepped forward myself so I was blocking his exit again. Once he was still, I took another step back and waited again. This time the dog stayed still so I took another step back.

After a minute or so, the dog sat down. As soon as he did I took a big step backwards, then paused again. Reverend stayed in a sit, turned his head, then looked back at me. As soon as he looked up at me, I took another step backwards. I waited for him to look away then at my face again before taking another step backwards. A minute later, he laid down on his own. As soon as he did, I took a knee and called him to come out.

I planned on walking his guardian through the exercise after repeating it multiple times myself but because they failed to remove his food, he started to loose interest. I decided to have one of his guardians conduct the exercise next instead and it didn’t turn out well. The dog didn’t walk fully inside the kennel so when she moved to block him, he felt it and started backing out of the kennel. She caught him between her legs, but once she was holding him he stated to panic. I didn’t want to loose the positive perception of the kennel we built up with the treats before so I had her let him go.

I did’t want to continue as the treat effectiveness was quickly diminishing, so I went over instructions with his guardians so they can practice this exercise on their own. It will be important for his guardians to run through it every day so that the dog can practice staying calm inside the kennel. Once the dog starts laying down right away, I suggested that they increase the amount of time they ask it to stay inside. First one minute, then two and continuing until the dog is staying inside the kennel for 20 minutes.

By practicing being inside the kennel with the guardians there, the dog won’t be in a panic. In time, this practice will lead to confidence and continuity. The dog will no longer associate being in the kennel with the guardians leaving.

Because security is a leadership job in a pack of dogs, I wanted to show the guardians how to take over that part of the house hold duties. Reverend had gotten it in his head that he was in charge of new arrivals; running in front of everyone to get to the door first.

When a dog is literally in front of a human, its because it assumes its in a leadership position or has more authority than the human. Changing this perception will be a crucial part of the rehabilitation process. I had my apprentice Tara go outside and play the part of a guest knocking at the door.

After showing Reverend’s guardians how to claim the area around the door and move the dog away, I walked one of them through the exercise with equal success.

Another way to help the dog practice being a follower is on the walk. Reverend’s guardians had been letting him walk in froth of them. Because this puts the dog in a leadership position, I wanted to show his guardians how they can get him to walk at a heel.

I got out a Martingale collar and showed his guardians how to add the special twist to the leash to stop the dog from pulling. They had been using a harness with Reverend before, but since harnesses were made to help dogs pull sleds, its not the best tool for a dog who likes to pull

Next I had the guardian go through the process of leaving for a walk. This can be an exciting time for a dog and Reverend was no exception. I explained to his guardian that making the dog stop and wait as soon as they saw it was getting excited, we can help the dog learn that the only way to go forward is to be calm.

By keeping the dog calm and not allowing it to move in front, we can walk the dog in a way that helps to redefine the leader follower dynamic. We had to stop, correct and try again a few times, but eventually Reverend caught on.

Reverent lives on the third floor of an apartment building so I suggested that his guardians use the stairs going down as another exercise to help the dog learn to stay next to them. Usually I have the guardian stop every few steps and correct on the leash when the dog doesn’t stop with them, but Reverend was staying in a heel position by himself.

By the time we got to the ground floor, Reverend was calm and listening to his handler. I suggested that his guardian put Reverend into a sit when going in or out any door. This is a good habit to get into as it teaches the dog to remember and respond to a specific thing on a recurring basis. It also puts the dog in a more subordinate position which helps reinforce the leader follower dynamic you want.

Because we took our time, we were able to keep Reverend in the right state of mind for a walk. Because Reverend was marking a lot on walks and clearly has some leadership issues, I suggested that the guardians not allow the dog to mark when on the walk. Marking is a way for a dog to claim things or territory which is a way for a dog to assert itself. Blocking the dog from this behavior will help with the leadership transformation we want to achieve.

Because they live in an apartment, I suggested that they let the dog potty before and after the walk. By only allowing the dog to go in specifically places, his guardians can elevate their status to the dog. Another thing that will help with the new leader follower dynamic.

After the walk, we passed by the apartment of another dog. Reverend’s guardians mentioned that he had attacked a dog that used to live there (he passed away) and still growled at the guardian and remaining dog. I had the guardian ask if she was home so that I could show them how to get the dog to stop growling at her.

When they opened the door it was the husband who answered. He said his wife was out running an errand so I asked if I could use his dog instead. He looked at me with a “are you crazy? these dogs hate each other!” look on his face, but agreed to let me use his dog.

I had Reverend’s guardian take him up to his apartment so I could meet the neighbors dog without his energy or influence. The dog was a black lab female who seemed to have a nice medium energy. When we got into the apartment, I gave the neighbors dog’s leash to Tara and had her wait by the door so I could take Reverend’s leash myself.

I staged the introduction so that it was in steps allowing me to disagree with Reverend before he could really get excited. The timing of corrections in this sort of situation is everything. Correct late and the dog ignores it, too soon and you can trigger an outburst.

Reverend was initiating things with a stare so I used that as my tell, correcting the dog each time he lowered his head and started to stare. I had Tara come in a few steps at a time, pausing between each move forward. Eventually we had the dogs in the room a few feet apart.

At this point we had been working with Reverend on and off for nearly there hours, so all I wanted to do was achieve a calm room. The dogs were trying to give each other eye contact so Tara instinctively turned the dog so it was facing away from us (Good call on Tara’s part). This subtle move helped settle both dogs down.

It took a few moments, but eventually Reverend laid down on the floor on his own. A couple minutes later, the neighbors dog did the same. We repeated the entire exercise a second time and got the dogs to settle down even more.

Shortly after, the neighbor returned from her errands and her husband directed her upstairs. She came in on her own and both dogs heard it. At first they were just alert, then the neighbor dog started barking which set Reverend off a little. I corrected him and got him to settle back down as the neighbor took a seat nearby. She later told me that her heartbeat was crazy when she walked in as she expected the dogs to be in a full blown fight.

But the work we did earlier combined with Tara and my experience in working with dogs allowed us to maintain a calm room. Now the dogs aren’t going to suddenly be best friends, but in time they can learn to be cool around one another. But by repeating this exercise and changing the leader follower dynamic, these dogs will grow less and less reactive. In time they will learn that the other dog isn’t a treat and stop preemptively trying to protect itself, its family or turf.

By the end of the session, Reverend was wiped out.

Reverend 2

Reverend’s guardians will need to practice the exercises and techniques we went over and consistently enforce the new rules and boundaries to get the dog to start acting like a follower. Once Reverend no longer sees himself as responsible for the leadership of the pack, he will be able to relax and let his guardians handle it.

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