Guest post from Mo and Anita Ahmadi, Foster and Adoptive Parents for Love-A-Bull
When we first started fostering Bunny (aka “The Bunster”), we knew she had issues with separation anxiety. Since my husband is retired, we figured she won’t have to be alone long hours while the humans are at work. And in the beginning, the wonderful people from Love-A-Bull took turns dogsitting the Bunster every time we all had to go somewhere. The Bunster turned out to be a great dog! She was just as sweet as can be. And so calm and mellow! So we were very confident that she would do just fine the first time we actually left her home alone while we had dinner with friends. Imagine our shock when we returned a few hours later to a house that looked like a tornado had been through it.
My first response was to call the (at that moment not so wonderful) people from Love-A-Bull to ask them to come get THAT dog out of my house immediately! The volunteers arrived on Easter and spent a few hours with us. So, after some damage control (and a lot of hand holding), a good night’s sleep, and some reflection, I changed my mind by morning. What I realized was the incredible amount of anxiety and fear Bunny must have felt to do that kind of damage in such a relatively short amount of time! And, then all I felt was sadness! Yes, I cried.
The wonderful (yes, they were once again wonderful!) people from Love-A-Bull brainstormed with us, dogsat for us, consoled us, gave us great training tips, and we stuck it out with the Bunster. It was very clear that this dog had an incredible amount of strength and stamina when her anxiety set in. It was also clear that we needed a very sturdy crate for her. Again, the wonderful friends at Love-A-Bull came to the rescue with a plan. Of course, the Bunster wanted nothing to do with this little prison. No doubt she has had her experiences with similar devices or something else that scared her. We started out by only feeding her inside the crate. Well, apparently, the Bunster doesn’t HAVE to eat (at least not if it meant she had to enter the crate). The great thing about this particular crate is that you can take it apart. We took the top and the door off and just used the bottom shell. We put food in it, we put toys in it. You have no idea how long a dog can stretch herself so she can reach food in the very back of the crate, while still keeping her hindlegs OUTSIDE the crate.
Clearly we had to pull out all the stops! So we cuddled ourselves in this crate shell, and so did our daughter (yes, we have pictures of our daughter inside a dog crate – but please don’t call CPS on us!). With much sweet-talking and coaxing, eventually the Bunster would slowly join us in this cozy little den. We continued to only feed her inside that den. Only good experiences, that’s what we told ourselves. Can you imagine how elated we were when she went into her crate (mind you, it’s still just the bottom half at that time) for the first time without any coaxing, food, or other motivation? She just sat in there, looking all smug, saying, “Okay, this is where I get food, right?”
Okay, we felt ready for the next step. We gently leaned the top half of the crate against the back of the bottom, just to “introduce” the Bunster to the second piece. And we just started inching the roof part onto the bottom half. I don’t think any of the humans spent any more time inside the crate at that point, but we still fed the Bunster in there for a while. Eventually, we screwed the top on and put the door in. We had the occasional setback and had to take a few steps back a few times, but eventually, with much love and patience, we found ourselves with a fully intact dog crate and a dog still willing to spend time inside.
After a few weeks of this we stopped feeding her in the crate, but she only got her treats if she went in the crate when asked. After a while just saying the words “go to bed” or “get in the crate” was all it took for her to run in there, turn around and wait for her treat. In fact, the crate is now her refuge. It’s where she goes when she knows she is going to be fed, get a treat, or go on a car ride. First she runs in the crate, turns around looks at us as if to say “I am being good, now it’s your turn to do your thing.” We also taught her to go in her crate when the TV goes off at night since we let her sleep in there. Even if we turn the TV off just to leave the house, she goes in the crate, which works out great. Her crate is now one of her favorite places! She has come a long way!
I will spare you the details of some of the setbacks, like when there was a river of saliva inside and near her crate after we came home, or when she had been gnawing on the crate door, or like when we video-taped her while we were out, just to get an idea of how long she stays calm after we leave before she reaches her state of utter anxiety, or where we left her alone for only a few seconds, then a few minutes, then a few more minutes, then long enough to go to the grocery store, and eventually long enough to go out to dinner again or to attend our daughter’s school musical, without needing a dogsitter for the Bunster at home… BTW, using a video camera to watch what you dog does during times like this is great. The camera helps you identify problems and come up with a strategy on how to solve it. Also, needless to say Bunny is no longer a foster dog in our house. We adopted her.
After all the work we had done with her on “curing,” or at least reducing her separation anxiety, we just didn’t have the heart to separate from her again. We couldn’t possibly put her through that again. Also, we had invested way too much money in her already, what with all the damage she had done to our house! We have fostered dogs since this dog came into our lives, and also before, time and circumstances permitting. We had one other dog who absolutely refused the crate. He was not prone to breaking out, just didn’t want to go inside one. Again, who knows what his past experiences were. But compared to the Bunster, he was a piece of cake to get used to the crate, mostly because we were better trained by then on how to deal with the problem. We just had a plain wire crate. He got food only inside the crate. First just by the door, then just inside the door, then a bit further inside the crate, and eventually in the very far corners of the crate. Again, you won’t believe how long a dog can stretch to get food from inside the crate without having all four paws inside that crate. Oh, and we only have one pictures of our daughter inside THAT crate. This dog learned much faster, let down his guard much quicker, and was not nearly traumatized by crates to the same extent the Bunster was. Also, by now we were experts, right?!
Anyway, just to recap: Never force them inside against their will! Never put them in there for punishment! With enough “incentives” and patience, they will eventually go in there by their own free will! We promise! Especially, if you try to make the crate a place where good things happen. Where they get treats, where they get toys, where they are safe, where they have nice warm bedding, whatever you can think of to make it a “good” place.
Mo and Anita Ahmadi, Foster and Adoptive Parents for Love-A-Bull