Separation Anxiety and Toby
Life with Toby & Separation Anxiety
by Suzanne Winter
During lockdown many of us dog owners have had the pleasure of sharing even more time with our precious pooches and they, in turn, have got very accustomed to having us around for much if not all of the time too.
This made me consider how they, and we for that matter, will adjust once a return to some sort of ‘normal’ resumes and we have to leave our dogs on their own for varying periods of time.
A significant number of people have acquired dogs during lockdown and the KC has commented about the likelihood of many of these dogs ending up in rescue post Covid as consideration was never given to the dog’s long term needs once lockdown relaxes and work places reopen.
In the spirit of this concern I thought I would share my experiences of life with a dog called Toby.
My hubby and I are fortunate to have four dogs in our lives at the moment, one of whom is my darling Basil, my precious little ETT.
They live in harmony and contentment but my life with dogs has not always been so…
Many years ago I was fortunate enough to change my lifestyle and start to work part time instead of as a full time head of department in a large comprehensive school. This career had prevented me from getting a dog so I had instead opened my home and heart to a couple of rescue cats Elsa and Sidney. Part time working, joyously, at last gave me the opportunity to get a much longed for dog.
Up to then my only experience of dog ownership was as a child when our family had always had at least 2 dogs; Jack Russell Terriers and Springer Spaniels. We led a semi-rural life then and the dogs were out and about with the family and there was always someone around and our dogs just coexisted alongside us. I never recall our parents training them or reprimanding them, they were just there. We played with them, dressed them up in silly outfits and at night often smuggled them upstairs to share our beds in that draughty old house.
Fast forward once more and a few days after giving up full time working I hurried down to the local RSPCA shelter to see the dogs that needed new homes. I sadly and slowly made my way around the twenty plus kennels, each inhabited by a rather forlorn looking dog, some of which cowered at the back, while a few rushed to welcome me and leaned themselves towards me, pressing their bodies up against the cold metal bars, craving attention and a gentle word.
How was I to choose just one to take home with me?
I’m ashamed to say I’d done little research at all only deciding that a small or medium sized dog, tolerant of cats would suit us and our small terraced house with equally small but secure garden best. There was my dilemma, as apart from a large grumpy German Shepherd all the other dogs at the rehoming centre were medium sized!
Looking around again I stopped once more at a kennel that housed a slightly odd looking, medium sized, short haired black dog with a white flash on his chest. The card attached to the door of his kennel informed me that he was called ‘Oliver’ and that he was three years old. The label also told me that he’d been in that kennel for nearly 6 months!
As I called his name, he tentatively approached me with a slow wag of his short stumpy tail. He sniffed my hand through the bars and looked up at me enquiringly. He had such wise hazel eyes, my heart melted.
Speaking to the kennel staff it turned out he was the longest resident there (another good reason I felt to adopt him) and that he was a Staffy cross which I confess meant very little to me at the time. After a brief meet and greet and a cat test, which he passed with flying colours, I applied to adopt him.
Home check passed I collected him a few days later and took him to his new forever home. He proved to be the most wonderful boy and he settled in as if he’d always been there, constantly reminding me of his eternal gratitude for a warm bed, good food and love. Ollie as we called him was the perfect lad; quiet, house trained, a good traveller, fab on the lead, soon learning excellent recall he was also super friendly with other dogs and even my cats adored him. How lucky we were when taking that leap of faith and deciding to adopt him? This is a question I have often asked of myself.
Everybody loved Ollie, my family, my friends, my students and even the members of the Male Voice Choir I conducted when I occasionally took him to rehearsals where he would lie in silence at my feet like a mascot while I frantically waved my arms around like a whirling dervish in front of 45 burley men!
Fast forward 8 months and I decided to volunteer as a home checker for the RSPCA and went down to the shelter to do the required one day course to qualify. Being a tad early, I had a wander around the kennels speaking to each dog as I went. Magnetically I was drawn towards a little JRT cross Beagle called Toby. He reminded me of a dog we’d had as a child and he had the biggest smile on his face, a proper character!
The RSPCA staff informed me that a lady had brought him into the shelter only the day before, handed over his lead saying ‘Take this dog or I’ll just dump him!’ She’d walked out refusing to give her name or address. Poor Toby! Well, what was I to do? Of course I reserved him pending him being neutered and a few days later collected him and took him home.
Ollie gladly welcomed Toby into the house and Toby seemed fine but at meal time, I discovered that Toby was food possessive to the point of aggression when, at the sight of food, he attacked Ollie.
The first lesson: Feed dogs separately and don’t leave food down if uneaten. A simple concept but as a novice it hadn’t occurred to me. As a child my father’s only instruction to us kids was, ‘If you get between a dog and its food and you get bitten that’s your fault because you’re an idiot!’ What we didn’t see was food aggression between the dogs, they had their own pecking order which worked without the need for a growl or snarl and without human intervention. They shared food bowls and ate side by side.
Anyway, in my defence, I had had the foresight to take a week off my part time work to help settle the 2 dogs in together and apart from the food issue all went well. They both got along beautifully and taking them on walks was a pleasure. Living in a built up area in a city I needed to load them into the car and drive out of town to the woods and fields popular with other dog walkers. Toby behaved impeccably and all seemed fine but things were about to take a turn for the worse.
I’d noticed during the first few days that Toby preferred to be with me all the time wherever I was in the house but thought little of it. Hindsight being what it is I should have recognized this as a potential problem and not just a cute attachment.
A few days later, I needed to pop out to the local shop for bread and milk as you do, so blithely left both dogs in the kitchen diner where their beds were and shut the inner door and front door behind me.
Less than half an hour later I returned to complete mayhem: Where the linoleum and the floor boards underneath had once been there was now just a hole and the corner of a solid pine door was missing! In addition there was pee and poo everywhere. Toby! Oh dear! I, in my ignorance, expressed my anger and shouted at the poor dog……Wrong move. I felt terrible for doing it afterwards. Another lesson learned: Ignore the bad and praise the good behaviour for, as I later discovered, poor Toby had what we now call separation anxiety (SA) and chastising him was completely the wrong thing to do.
Of course I quickly realized that SA was probably the reason Toby had been surrendered to the RSPCA in the first place and I cried at the thought of what this little dog had previously experienced to cause him such distress.
I vowed then that I was never going to shout at him again or give up on him but work with him to help him overcome this dreadful fear of being left alone.
The trouble was that I was at a complete loss as how to go about helping him. At that time it seemed to me that dog training seemed to be limited to the rather sledgehammer Mrs Woodhouse method of Sit! Stay! Lie Down! Fetch! Walkies!! The words ‘Dog Behaviourist’ had never been heard or certainly not by me.
There was no google or FB support groups so in desperation I turned to a long standing friend who had a dog and she thankfully directed me to a dog trainer called Katie who turned out to be our saviour.
Katie talked to me over the phone at length and suggested that the way forward was training classes to strengthen the bond between myself and Toby which she advised would eventually lead to an increase in his confidence about being left by alone. However, in the short term I had to work out a way of never leaving Toby home by himself albeit with Ollie and the two cats for company! Talking to Katie, my partner and much appreciated friends we managed to devise a complex timetable of dog sitting duties. What a palaver!! Interestingly, Toby didn’t mind being left in the car for a while so occasionally I had no alternative but to do just that, weather permitting for an hour or two. Not ideal I know but desperate times called for desperate measures.
In those days dog crates or cages weren’t commonly used and even now I have mixed feelings about them. I certainly don’t think a crate would have helped Toby at that time although a few years later when he ruptured his cruciate ligament, the vet advised crate rest which Toby tolerated for 6 weeks quite happily. However, this wouldn’t have been possible in the first couple of years of Toby’s life with us. In fact, I think he would have seriously injured himself trying to escape a crate as I have heard of many dogs doing when some people use them as a way to attempt a solution or remedy for SA in their dogs.
For the next weeks and months we worked hard on training Toby with positive reinforcement methods. His general obedience proved to be quickly learned and excellent and he also loved the bit of doggy agility we participated in too. This given, I was able to concentrate in particular on the long ‘stay’ whereby we gradually built up the distance we could walk away from him and eventually leave the room, shut the door and count to 1, 2, 3, 10, 20, 60 seconds and so on. At first this worked much better at the dog training class in the church hall but still, at home, presented more challenges and we often took 3 steps forward and 2 steps back in the process.
During this time I hit upon the idea of using a baby gate at home with Toby and acquired a second hand one from a friend. I don’t think they were as widely used to contain dogs as they perhaps are now but it revolutionized our progress. It seemed to allow Toby to relax psychologically in the kitchen without me being there knowing I was still elsewhere in the house. I also discovered that getting Toby to ‘stay’ on a special rug seemed to relax him and trigger less anxiety. Putting coats on and getting the house and car keys quietly and out of his direct view also seemed to help him too.
All this time we were working hard on going out through the front or back door to mix it up a bit whilst telling Toby to stay on his special rug. Gladly all this effort and time paid off, the trial and error, the frustrated tears and countless thank you gifts to friends and relatives who had stepped up to aid his recovery were bearing fruit and we were able to leave Toby and Ollie in the kitchen diner with the baby gate across the door and go out. Gradually we were able to increase the time we could leave him from only a few seconds to 4-5 hours. This took over 2 years to achieve though and seriously impacted on our home and work life but we never once considered giving up on him or rehoming him.
Toby died 7 years ago at the grand old age of 16. We’d had the pleasure of his company for 14 fabulous years with no regrets, only love. He taught those around him so much about doggy behaviour and the negative and positive impact humans can have on our canine companions for which I for one will always be grateful. Bless you Toby. What I learned through him has helped me to be a better doggy mum to the dogs I now share my life with.
In conclusion it is highly probable that these lockdown days may result in many more dogs experiencing SA when their humans return to the workplace. I would urge anyone with concerns to start to build up their dog’s confidence at being left as soon as possible. There is far more help available on the internet and supportive FB groups. In particular I know of an excellent book called ‘Be Right Back’ by Julie Naismith which addresses SA and gives guidance and strategies for overcoming what can be a very distressing condition for dogs and their humans. Whatever you do, do for the love of your pooch.
The rewards are manifest and you’ll never regret it.