Updated: Oct 25, 2021
By Anne Benenson Guest contributor
Did you know that some of the most common reasons that dogs are euthanized is because the newly adopted puppy or adult dog shows signs of separation anxiety, fear biting or aggression towards other animals or children? Many times destructive behaviors or biting is exhibited without a seemingly obvious trigger. A responsible dog owner will try to figure out the triggers and remove them. But what if you are unable to discover and correct the triggers of the undesirable behaviors? Often times new or even experienced dog owners give up too soon on finding a solution or they don’t seek professional guidance when it comes to many curable disorders. It is for those people whom I am writing this article. It is my wish to give hope and encouragement that it is possible to rewire undesirable behaviors and create positive responses instead. To those who adopt a new puppy, a rescue dog, a senior with behavioral problems or one with special needs- there are usually workable solutions to most of their issues.
Don’t hesitate to reach out for professional assistance from a behaviorist such as Dr. Nicholas Dodman or one of his associates. Dr. Dodman is Professor Emeritus at Tufts University and is the Chief Executive Officer of the Center for Canine Behavior Studies. Dr. Nicholas Dodman was kind enough in conjunction with my own regular veterinarian to guide me through a very rough odyssey with my current re-homed Airedale. I have had seven Airedales and 3 other dogs of different breeds. I would consider myself an experienced dog owner and very familiar with this particular breed. My experience includes adoption of puppies from reputable breeders as well as rescued dogs of various breeds, sizes and ages. I accompanied my very first dog to obedience class when I was still a young child in elementary school. In essence I have seen many different examples over the years of biting, excessive compulsive behaviors, timidity, anxiety and even seizures due to health complications. I would first like to give you a little background of the puppy I adopted in November of 2019 just before the Coronavirus Pandemic began.
Spright came to me as an eleven-month old puppy. She was a sweet, loving, sixty-three lb. Airedale full of mischief and energy. Having had six Airedales prior to her adoption I was very familiar with the temperament, intelligence and energy of the breed. She was outgoing, clever, great with children and other dogs. I arranged play-dates with dogs of different breeds, exposed her to bikes, cars, horses, young children and anything she might encounter in our daily life together to ensure that she would react appropriately.
I crate trained her which took many months of coaxing. Because of her intelligence and ability to open sliding latches and to turn round brass door knobs with her teeth in order to pull open a solid wood door it posed a challenge for me to contain her. Some days I would come home from work and her crate latches would be securely fastened but she would be outside of her heavy wire crate. My work schedule is such that I can come home to check on her every couple of hours if necessary - which I did in the beginning. She never spent 8 hours in her crate, was well exercised and had plenty of attention from me. Why, you ask was it necessary to crate her? Because my darling sweet puppy suffered from the most severe case of separation anxiety that I had ever witnessed. She has reduced my front door, which is a solid wood door from the 1940’s, into barely more than splinters from her gnawing in her determination to follow me. It is the door through which she sees me exit. Yes, I did experiment exiting from other doors, but to no avail. Spright ripped out all the carpet nearest the front door down to the hardwood floor. She tore off all the wall paper surrounding the front door in an effort to tear down the wall to follow me. It was heartbreaking, the lengths she went through to keep track of my whereabouts. One might at first wonder if this was just wanton destructive behavior. It is my belief that it was not. She didn’t go to any of the other doors, nor did she damage anything else. She didn’t tear up my shoes or counter surf in the kitchen, all of to which she had access. Her only goal was to follow me through the door that she last saw me exit the house. Whatever it took to follow me, she was committed to doing it. When I first brought her home, I arranged to be at home with her for the first four days to get her settled. I let her roam freely in the house when I was home and she was fine. The subtle first clue that she exhibited which I thought might be a problem became evident almost immediately that indeed there was a problem. My new dog followed me everywhere in the house including the bathroom. I could not even close the bathroom door. I think she was convinced if I took a shower without her standing guard next to the bathtub, I would be sucked down the drain and lost to her forever. The first day that I left her in her crate, she wasn’t happy about going in, but she went in. When I arrived home shortly thereafter, she was NOT in her crate and the crate door was still closed and latched. It was more than a little perplexing. This occurred quite a few times until I caught her in the act of squeezing out through the top between the front door and roof of her crate. She is a big girl so I was amazed that she was able to force her way through such a tight space without becoming stuck in the wire frame. I zip tied all the way around the entire frame of the crate which only slowed her escape artistry slightly. She chewed most of the zip ties even though they were facing out. Next, I purchased heavy bull snaps to lock the sliding latches in place. That worked, but at what cost to the dog’s peace of mind? I often came home to find Spright panting heavily, her eyes dilated with panic and her metal pan in the crate filled with a combination of mucus and saliva and her bowl of water completely consumed. My poor puppy was suffering unimaginable fear and anxiety. Basically, I was the fourth person in her first eleven months of life to care for her. This made it understandable that the uncertainty in her life had undermined her peace of mind. I often went to sleep at night with fear and sadness in the pit of my stomach over concern about what my poor puppy was feeling and how to quell her anxiety.
All the while I had been experimenting with a variety of behavior modifications that I knew to have worked well in the past with other dogs. Everything from chew toys, bones and Kongs filled with peanut butter, leaving the TV on, leaving music on, having the crate face a window, exiting and returning through the front door in 10-minute intervals. All to demonstrate that I really would return to her. Nothing assuaged her sense of anxiety. I of course consulted with my regular veterinarian first and early on, trying various medications which he offered but all proved unsuccessful in alleviating Spright’s distress. In addition to this very large problem was the fact that Spright was a hard-core cat chaser. I have a very docile sweet cat that I had adopted in 2018. Fiona had been living with me peacefully for an entire year prior to Spright’s arrival. She was absolutely miserable at the addition of Spright into our home. Fiona, my sweet, loving, friendly cat spent the first year that Spright was with us in constant hiding and barely eating.
I began to wonder if I would ever be able to solve these two issues which were huge. It ate away at me all the time during the day. It was then that Barbara Curtiss of New England Airedale Rescue suggested I read one of Dr. Dodman’s books to see if I could glean a solution. I did read one of his books but unfortunately, I had tried and was already familiar with most of the behavior modifications suggested in his book. The behavior modifications proved unsuccessful in Spright’s case. The one saving grace that I had not delved into was the possibility that there was a cocktail of drugs which might assist Spright through her anxiety and out to the sunny side of her rainbow. I decided to try to reach out to Tufts University unaware that Dr. Dodman had retired from his position there. At that point I was willing to drive from Maryland up to Massachusetts to have him examine my dog. I was not willing to give up on finding a solution that would give my dog the peace of mind she deserved.
Dr. Dodman was kind enough to return my call and thus began a period of time which was over a year of phone calls and email consultations. Working in tandem with my regular veterinarian we tried several different drugs, dosages and combinations of drugs. Just as in people, not all dogs respond favorably to the same drug or groups of drugs. It is for this reason I am not going to divulge the drugs that are best suited for my particular dog. I am going to suggest to you that you reach out to Dr. Dodman and his colleagues instead.
It probably saved my dog’s life to give her these medications. She may have to stay on this cocktail of drugs forever which is fine. These particular drugs have long been used in both humans and animals without harmful side effects and the benefits are enormous to her mental health and well- being. It took about a month or two for one of the drugs to become fully effective in her system. One is a long-acting drug to keep her on an even keel, the other is a very short acting drug to reduce anxiety. The short acting anti-anxiety drug is given about ½ an hour before I leave and wears off in a few hours after ingestion. It took some adjusting to figure out the right dosage so that Spright’s energy level and enthusiasm for life remained unaltered and intact. I am dismayed that I continue to read on many dog club sites not only in the U.S. but other countries, accounts of people bringing a puppy or an adult dog home and then either euthanizing or sending the dog to a shelter because they are unable to cope with the dog’s behavior. This is how dogs end up in animal shelters through no fault of their own.
Please don’t adopt an animal if you aren’t prepared to work to find a solution, if your dog should come with or develop behavioral problems. Sometimes these afflictions are very complex and difficult to figure out without assistance. Should they occur, by all means seek professional help. If one method doesn’t work, try another because in most instances the issues can be resolved. You are not the first person to struggle with these issues with your dog.
Please know that animals are struggling to understand what is expected of them when you bring them home. They don’t automatically know how to behave. You must teach them just as you would when you raise a child. When you bring a dog home with the added complexity of possible abuse, fear biting, aggression, anxiety, illness or pain it is YOUR responsibility to find a solution to the problem. It is not for the dog to try and make sense of how to heal himself. Just as a person with cancer doesn’t have the tools or energy to cure themselves. They are dependent on professionals to assist in the restoration of their health.
My Airedale would be considered a dog that was re-homed and not rescued from an abusive situation. Spright was treated with love and kindness by her former owners. However, due to unforeseen circumstances with the health of one of the owners and work issues with the other owner they felt it would be better to surrender Spright to Airedale Rescue so that she could be placed in a more suitable home.
As of today, Spright’s crate door is always left open for her to choose between being in her crate or her bed or any other room in the house. When she sees me getting ready for work, Spright just automatically puts herself in her crate.
After a year and eight months Spright and her cat, Fiona have reached a truce and a friendship. Both sleep near each other peaceably. I no longer have to worry about Spright chasing or harming the cat. That transition is a whole other story for another day and consisted of a lot of refereeing on my part to achieve success.
Please understand that even in the beginning Spright’s behavior was completely normal when I was at home with her. It was never necessary to crate her as long as she could see or hear me somewhere in the house. The transition from being crated (for approximately the first year and a half that she was with me) to being left to go freely in and out of her crate while I was gone took several months to achieve and it was done gradually.
There were many setbacks. I began by crating her and leaving the crate door open. Of course, initially when I walked out the front door Spright attempted to follow me and was upset by my departure. I experimented by leaving her uncrated while I worked in the yard. This way she could still hear me and know I was nearby. I began with 5 or 10 minutes outside the house gradually increasing the time outdoors. At first, she exhibited the same symptoms of anxiety. I won’t lie, it was very discouraging and I had many doubts that I would succeed in helping her. But I persisted.
Next, I left the house for 30 minutes using my car to leave the premises so that she could hear me actually going away. Exhibiting the anxiety behaviors began again and she chewed up more of the front door frame. I was forced to rethink a more gradual absence. I drove around the block and went right back into the house before she had a chance to work herself into a fit of anxiety. This helped because she experienced my return as being almost immediate.
When I was gone for longer periods of time, I reverted to securing her in her crate while I was gone, interspersed with those short spurts of time being outside within her earshot and then returning to the house. I’d say this transition went on for a few months. Gradually she became comfortable with roaming the house without restriction of any kind and me being absent.
The biggest difference is that she has free access to everywhere in the house, her water bowl, her toy box, a nice cushy dog bed and she remains happy and calm while I am away. I don’t lock her in her crate anymore. She is content to enter her crate at will and has ceased to chew and claw at the front door. Occasionally, as I leave the house, I might hear her flipping the brass mail slot back and forth a few times in rapid succession in protest or some complaining barks which cease as I reach my car. I am going to continue with her regime of safe medications which are inexpensive and are essential to her mental well-being. I have found using a Good-RX coupon at Costco makes the prescriptions very affordable. They accept scripts from veterinarians.
I strongly urge you to reach out to Dr. Dodman and the team of professionals at the Center for Canine Behavior Studies to assist you. I would like to express my gratitude to Dr. Dodman for all the phone calls, emails and access he provided me when I was working through these issues. I would also like to thank Barbara Curtiss and Ken Black for entrusting Spright into my care and for having enduring faith that I would succeed in helping Spright through her crisis. Spright is nearly three years old now and has been living with us for just about two years. She is a healthy, happy, well-adjusted loving dog and is a great success story. I love her to pieces and wouldn’t trade her for all the dog biscuits in the world.
-- CCBS would like to thank the New England Airedale Rescue Fund for a recent donation given in recognition of our work with Spright and many other dogs in need. Additionally, we are grateful to our guest contributor, Anne, for her kind words and dedication to Spright.