Helping a Formerly Neglected Dog Get Over His Separation Anxiety

By: David Codr

Published Date: January 7, 2016


Zeus is a three-year-old Goldendoodle (Yes he is black, lol) who was rescued from a horrible situation by the great people at Little White Dog Rescue. His former guardians neglected him and kept him chained up 24/7 resulting in a number of behavior issues. His new guardians asked me to help with his Separation Anxiety, leash pulling, dog reactivity and barking.

Zeus’s guardian said that he was particularly excited when they let him out of his kennel after returning from work so I met her in the lobby of their apartment building so I could see it myself.

When she released him from his kennel, Zeus was excited but not overly so. The thing that caught my attention was his guardian literally asking him if he could obey one of her commands (Can you sit) rather than giving the command to him assertively.

While this was clearly unintentional, it can be indicative of the mindset that we have and how we feel about leading our dog. Dogs respond much better to a confident command and often look at soft commands as requests.

We took Zeus out for a short walk so that he could do some business after he settled down. In the course of the walk I noticed that he was pulling quite a bit on the leash and walking in front of his guardian. For dogs, whoever walks in front is literally in the leader position. As a result, dogs that walk in front of the guardians or more predisposed to react when encountering another unknown human or dog.

I suggested that Zeus’s guardians start using a Martingale collar and showed them how to apply the special twist of the leash to stop him from pulling in the future.

When we returned from the walk Zeus took a toy and lay down on his bed while his guardian and I discussed his rules and structure.

Zeus’s guardians actually had more rules and structure in place than 90% of my clients when I first start working with them.

This was a really good start for this particular dog. Whenever you have a dog who is coming from abusive situation, having rules and structure can actually help them feel more secure and confident. I suggested some additional rules and structure that his guardians can incorporate to help Zeus with his separation anxiety.

Another thing that I had noticed was one of the guardian’s almost constant petting and providing of attention towards Zeus.

Dogs that suffer from separation anxiety basically go into an almost panic when they are separated from their guardians.  Whenever you have a dog that has separation anxiety you want to make sure that you don’t provide them with any attention or affection when they are in an excited or unbalanced state of mind.

Most of the petting that the guardian was giving the dog occurred when the dog was in a fairly calm state of mind, but a good portion of it occurred after the dog demanded it by nudging or pawing at her.

When a dog is able to ask for and receive attention on demand in this way it can influence the intensity of their separation anxiety. To help the guardian start providing attention and affection in a more constructive way, I went over a practice that I like to call Petting with a purpose.

It’s going to be a challenge for Zeus’s female guardian to refrain from petting him the way that she has become accustomed to. However if she makes a concerted effort to pet him with a purpose, it will quickly become second nature for her and something she no longer thinks about. But each time that she does ask the dog to follow a command before receiving attention, she will lessen his anxiety as a relates which will have a positive impact on his separation anxiety.

One of the other concerns the guardian had was with Zeus’s behavior at the door. When guests arrived he had a habit of getting very excited, often jumping up on them.

One of Zeus’s guardians was scheduled to arrive for the session after it started due to a work conflict. We called and asked him to play the part of an arriving guest rather than simply using his key to enter the apartment so that I could show them how to claim the area around the door.

By claiming the space around the door first and communicating to the dog that it is to stay behind the human, we can help it understand we don’t need its help when answering the door. Additionally the distance form the door itself can help dog control itself.

After demonstrating the technique myself, I handed my camera to one of his guardians and then headed out to play the part of an arriving guest so that they could practice this new door answering ritual.

I suggested that Zeus’s guardians call or text each other when they are on their way home so that they can practice this exercise themselves. Usually it only takes 6 to 12 repetitions before the dog starts to adopt a calmer behavior at the door.

Now that both guardians had arrived, I turned my attention to Zeus’s behavior and perception of his kennel. While he was OK going into the kennel when he knew his guardians were not planning to leave, he tended to run and hide when they planned on departing.

I showed his guardians a simple exercise that they can practice that will help the dog not only look at his kennel in a more positive light, but practice being calm and content when inside of it.

It will be important that the guardians practice this kennel exercise a few times a day while gradually increasing the amount of time they ask the dog to stay inside the kennel with the door wide open. By gradually increasing this length of time and having the dog practice being inside the kennel while humans are home, they can change his perception of being in the kennel into a positive one.

Next I went over some nonverbal communication cues that their guardians can adopt whenever the dog fails to listen to them or breaks any of the rules.

Because I extrapolated these escalating consequences from common dog communication and behavior, most dogs pick up on them right away. That was certainly the case for Zeus.

It will take his guardians a week or so before they start utilizing these escalating consequences without thinking. The nice thing about these consequences is they typically collapse. At first you need to go through all of the consequences because the dog is going to probe and test to see what he can get away with.

But by consistently applying these consequences in order, eventually his guardian’s will need to apply fewer of them. Eventually a simple hiss sound will be all that is needed to stop the dog from almost any unwanted action or behavior.

Despite the fact that he had lived in an abusive and neglected situation for a long time, Zeus showed a surprisingly normal personality.

It’s not unusual for dogs that come from a neglectful or abusive home to form a very strong attachment to their new guardians. I surmise that in their attempts to make sure that he felt completely loved, safe and protected – that they inadvertently reinforced a few unbalanced behaviors in the dog. This is a pretty common mistake that humans make when they’re adopting a dog from an abused background.

While humans mean well by showering a dog with love and affection, it’s important to consider what state of mind the dog is in when we provide this affection. Whenever you pet a dog or give it affection, you’re essentially agreeing with whatever it happens to be doing at the time. While it’s natural for a human to try to soothe or placate another human that is in distress, it actually can have the inverse effect when applied to unbalanced dogs.

So keep in mind that if the dog you are petting is an anxious, fearful or in an otherwise unbalanced state, that state is what you actually end up reinforcing.

By petting Zeus with a purpose, using the new nonverbal communication cues / consequences and no longer reinforcing any unbalanced behaviors, his guardians will be able to help the dog feel more confident in himself. This will result in less clinginess and higher overall self esteem. In time, this increased confidence combined with mastering the exercises we introduced in the session should reduce Zeus’s nuisance barking and eliminate the Separation Anxiety.

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This post was written by: David Codr