A dog with separation anxiety


Illustration. ( Haley Hooper for the Washington Post)
June 11

Question:Will our kids be scarred for life if we give our dog away?

We adopted a wonderful rescue dog almost a year ago and have been dealing with his severe separation anxiety ever since. When we’re at home, this 18-month-old pet is the calmest, most perfect dog, and our two boys, 9 and 10, are totally in love with him. When we’re at work, however, he breaks out of anything and destroys it (and sometimes hurts himself) because he wants to be with us — or with anyone — so much.

So far we’ve gone through several wire crates and we’ve had to build up our fence really high to keep him contained. We have to pay thousands of dollars to get a new industrial-strength crate or replace our fence, which aren’t easy options for us. The expenses, the chaos and the worry are stressing our family, and I can’t help wondering if it isn’t cruel to keep our dog in a crate all day.

It would break our kids’ hearts to give him away, and it might break my heart, too. We adopted another dog several years ago, but we knew after just two nights that he wasn’t the right fit and we gave him up. I promised the boys that we would always keep this dog. I hate to break my word. Should we keep this dog because it would be too traumatic for the children to give him up? Or should we try to find a new home for him, as painful as that would be?

Answer: Sometimes a family has to give away a beloved dog because he has turned into a biter or become a constant barker, or maybe the landlord won’t allow any animal that’s bigger than a bird. But surely you don’t have to give him away when there are so many better ways to contain an 18-month-old dog than to put him in an industrial crate.

In most instances, a dog is too precious to give away — and in this instance, a child is too precious to disappoint.

Your dog may have separation anxiety, as many dogs do, but maybe he’s just got plain-old crate anxiety. Who would want to live in a wire cage all day when he could be hanging out with the dog next door or chasing a squirrel in the yard? A dog, after all, is a pack animal, so he’s bound to want a friend rather than a crate.

That doesn’t mean that your dog (or any dog) should go wherever he wants to go and do whatever he wants to do. There are other, more imaginative solutions. But don’t look for these solutions by yourself. Because the dog belongs to the whole family, the whole family should decide what happens.

Begin by asking your vet for some advice; take the boys with you and have them each bring a pencil and a notebook. They’re old enough to ask questions, to write down the answers and to research them.

Your vet may suggest a complicated chew toy that you can fill with peanut butter. It will take your dog so long to extract it, he will have fun for a long period of time. Or the vet may suggest some calming products by ThunderWorks. One of them is called Thunder Spray, a pheromone that contains lavender and chamomile ($20); Thundershirt ($40), which your dog can wear during the day; and a weighted Thundercoat ($70) to wear outside when it’s cold or wet. The clothes can calm down a nervous dog just as a weighted vest can calm down a child with sensory processing disorder.

The vet may also remind your sons to play fetch with your dog for 30 minutes or more during the day. If they can’t do that, then pay someone (a neighbor who likes dogs, a teen home from college) to do this job because a dog needs to burn off excess energy just as much as a 2-year-old.

And almost surely the vet will tell you to buy a wireless electronic fence (PetSafe; $300), which is pricey but will keep your dog where he belongs. Some people might think that this fencing will hurt your dog, but after he gets a couple of mild shocks, he’ll learn to listen to the beeps that come first, and the minute they beep, he’ll move to a safer spot.

Finally, you need to buy “Be the Pack Leader” by dog whisperer Cesar Millan (Harmony; $15), because nobody understands dogs better than he does.

Send questions about parenting to advice@margueritekelly.com.

Read a transcript of a recent live Q&A hosted by Kelly at washingtonpost.com/advice , where you can also find past Family Almanac columns.

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