Separation Anxiety & Extreme Sensitivity

Dealing with both problems requires patience, but they can be overcome.

(Problem) I read with much interest your article about separation anxiety. This is a fairly new phenomenon to me, given the number of hunting dogs I've owned. However, I now have a female English setter named Willow who is just over a year old and suffers greatly from this disorder. I would like to learn how best to treat this issue before she matures much more.


(Question) Could you describe in as much detail as possible exactly what Willow does that makes you think she has a separation anxiety problem and the situations in which she does them? Every dog is an individual and will react differently to any given situation, so I want to hear what Willow's symptoms are.

(Response) In Willow's first year of life she lived with three different families or breeders in the Mideastern states before she was shipped to me. Also keep in mind that the primary reason I bought her was as a dog to back my other setter and as a pet for our family. This may help in setting the stage.


Since picking her up at the airport in mid October she never leaves my side unless I kennel her in a run or her crate. She constantly searches me out when I leave her, even though I have two young daughters and a wife who try and comfort her if I should leave the room.


She will whine incessantly when she sees me before I let her out of her run or crate. When I travel with her she'll drool terribly in the car and usually ends up getting sick, which I've never seen before. So the concept of taking her on a hunting trip is a bit challenging at this point.

She also seems to lack confidence when I put her on a leash. She will either lie down or will almost crawl on the ground as if she's been beaten when I try to get her to walk at heel beside me.

On the other hand, we have three other dogs that she reacts to well and constantly wants to play and run with, especially my 85-pound male setter. My reason for buying her from this particular kennel was because I already own another setter that I'm crazy about from the same kennel.

Another issue I've noticed when I kennel her is she will walk in her stool and I have even seen her eat it at times. My vet did put her on the canine version of Prozac, which I've since discontinued as I did not see much improvement. We're working to build up her confidence level although this is not easy, as you're well aware.

Willow will also defecate at the gate of her run regularly and sit in it during the course of the day. I've trained her to leave the yard when she's let out and do her business in the woods, which she now does consistently. Can you give me any advice on how to correct this problem when she's kenneled, as it is difficult having to wash her daily?

If I had known this about her I certainly wouldn't have bought her, given all of her anxieties. And there is yet another concern I would like to address. Whenever I release her from her kennel into an enclosed area to run, she will frantically pace back and forth for hours until I let her out. This also causes her to continuously drink a tremendous amount of water. Do you know of any techniques I can use to change this behavior?

(Solutions) We can't know what Willow went through at her three previous homes. We also don't know why she was not kept in the first one. Generally a dog that has been bounced from pillar to post in its first year of life is just like a child that has been bounced through three or four foster homes. There is no sense of belonging and no security, so who can blame the dog for being insecure? That is why she has grabbed onto you and is so upset when you leave and so happy when you come home.

The line of dogs you mentioned were always noted for being "people dogs," close working and very cooperative hunting dogs. I suspect the people who had Willow before you were not interested in that, but rather preferred the more modern wide-ranging, faster-paced type of setter.

I think she will make a great dog for you, as a hunter and a family dog, if you are careful with her and handle her with kid gloves, as it were. We know a lot of damage has been done because it shows in what you have told me. But I think you can reverse it with a lot of patience and clever manipulation. It is entirely possible to correct all her problems with the right balance of tough love.

Willow is carrying much more baggage than separation anxiety, which she also has. But it is more a result than a cause of her insecurity. I will try to address Willow's problems in sequence though you will be working on several at the same time. The first one will be the walking on leash problem because it is necessary for getting around the other problems.

The lack of confidence you see when trying to walk her on leash is partly due to her being overly sensitive and partly due to her having learned that lying down is a way of successfully getting out of doing it. What I would do is get a short piece of a leash, maybe only six or eight inches long, attach it to her collar and let her drag it around while playing with your male setter in the yard and so on.

Gradually get longer pieces until she is wearing a normal six-foot leash. Walk with her and eventually pick up the leash, trot beside her with it on and gradually take more control. Your training will have to be modified to fit her temperament. You have correctly noted her over-dependence and lack of confidence. You will need to work carefully to instill confidence.

On the plus side, dogs with this type of temperament are more anxious to please so are, in a lot of ways, far easier to train once you get past the lack of confidence, sensitivity and the strong dependence. You must definitely lead them through it and not push them through.

When you have gotten her so she will walk on the leash and you have taught her to sit, you will have to teach her to stay sitting quietly for up to 15 minutes while you are out of sight. To do this, start with her sitting on a six-foot leash. Walk to the front of her about half the leash length, praise her, then go a bit to one side to the front, then walk across her to the other side.

Keep working to each side until you can go behind her and she stays sitting facing forward. Gradually--an inch or two at a time--increase the distance from her until you are out the full length of the leash.

Next go to a long line, a 30-foot checkcord or a lunge line used for horses. Keep increasing the distance between the two of you until you are out the full 30 feet and she is content to stay sitting.

It is important that you always return to her to take her off the sit/stay. Never be out 20 or 30 feet and call her to you. She will soon anticipate you calling and break, which will set you back to starting over again.

As yo

u increase the distance, you will also vary the time before you go back to her. Also, keep varying the number of repeats so you might have two sit/stays and then walk around at heel for a few minutes, then one sit and another walk, then three and a walk so it isn't boring to her but is keeping her alert and attuned to you rather than anticipating what is coming next.

When you get out to the end of the 30 feet and she is staying for up to a minute or so before you return to her, lay the line down and walk on farther. Keep extending the distance by another 10 or 20 feet, then step out of sight around the corner of the house. Stay only a few seconds then go back to her, walk her about and repeat it for a longer period.

Gradually work up to remaining out of sight for 15 minutes. Then work on doing this with no leash at all or have the leash off lying on the ground near her. By then she should have developed a lot of confidence and trust and she will know that you will always eventually come back. It will establish trust and faith in you without her needing to "worry."

From here on it should be no problem to extend the "wait" to an hour or to six or eight hours if you like. For long periods where there might be distractions, it helps to leave an article of your clothing like a jacket or gloves or just her leash to serve as an anchor. This exercise will give her the self-confidence and trust in you so you can proceed with her field training. It will also help in curbing the separation anxiety, but probably will not cure it completely.

To get her over any separation anxiety that might still be there, you will need to redirect her attention onto something else away from your leaving. There are several things you should do. First, be sure she is very happy in her crate, never feels "locked up," but rather, feels secure in her crate. To do this, get a large nylon bone, drill one-quarter to three-eighths-inch holes, and stuff cheese in the holes. Give her the bone, in her crate, 10 to 15 minutes before you plan to leave. Do not make any big deal of leaving; just go out the door.

The first time should be short, like only a minute or two, then come back in, saying nothing. In fact, ignore her in her crate for at least a few minutes before acknowledging her, then keep it low key with minimal excitement in your voice or in your posture and bearing.

Next time, do the same cheese in the bone thing and go out for, say, five minutes, returning and repeating the low-key attitude. Keep increasing the time until you can go out for an hour with no problem. The key is to increase the time away from her in small enough increments so she can adjust to and handle your absence.

Next time, do the same cheese in the bone thing and go out for, say, five minutes, returning and repeating the low-key attitude. Keep increasing the time until you can go out for an hour with no problem. The key is to increase the time away from her in small enough increments so she can adjust to and handle your absence.

The problem of carsickness is part of the same general problem. It can be handled by giving the dog Gravol or a similar motion sickness drug. There are several drugs available and your vet can advise you on which are the best for your dog. Use one that you can eventually wean her from.

You will need to give her the correct dose of whatever you and your vet decide to use, wait the prescribed time, and then take her for rides of increasing duration. If these are successful, you can start to gradually wean her from whatever drug you use until she is riding without any medication. Improvement in her self-confidence will also help get her over the carsickness.

The problem with the feces is again part of the same overall problem and will be curtailed by an increased self-confidence level. Normally, dogs are very clean, seldom "dirtying their den." If they do, it is because they were forced into it. It tells you something about at least one of her homes before you got her.

I suspect she was kenneled with little or no access to outside runs or perhaps in one of those elevated kennels. We can't be sure, but we can pretty well assume she was left in a confined space for long periods with no access to a toilet area. Now she has formed the habit of convenience.

If you can get her out for a trip into the woods morning, noon and evening so she can empty out minimally thee times every day, this should break her habit or go a long way toward breaking it. This will take a lot of time out of your day, however.

Something else you could try is to get a sheet of expanded metal about three by four or four by four feet with at least one inch sized holes. There are some made for dog kennels that I have seen that are coated with a heavy layer of plastic and have three to four inch legs to elevate them slightly.

Place this platform where she sits at the gate. If she does defecate, it will mostly go through and she will stay cleaner. She sits at the gate because that is the first place you will come to when you get home. When she is more self confident, she will not be sitting by the gate waiting for you so much.

As I said earlier, Willow is carrying a lot more baggage than the separation anxiety you worried about in your first note. You have described a dog with hyperactive disorder, or maybe even attention deficit hyperactive disorder, commonly referred to as ADHD. Prozac is not a good drug to use for this because it requires getting exactly the right blood levels and then maintaining them. Generally this takes about two weeks with intensive monitoring to be sure you have the right balance between too little and too much.

Clomicalm is another drug that has the same problem. The drug you should try is Elavil, generic name, amitriptyline. Your vet should have it and would probably prescribe two to four mg/kg. either once or twice daily. If this drug doesn't calm Willow down within half an hour from taking the pill, she truly is hyperactive. If it does work to calm her right down, she is not ADHD, but rather, it is a thing she has learned and it has become a stereotyped behavior, which can be fixed by behavior modification techniques like counter-conditioning.

But if she is truly hyperactive and the amitriptyline does not calm her, the drug you will need to go to is Ritalin, or the generic name of methylphenidate; this is the same drug that is given to kids who are diagnosed as ADHD. For a setter-sized dog, it would be a 20 to 25 mg tablet every 12 hours. Your vet would need to prescribe it. It would calm the dog if she is truly hyperactive, but if she is not truly hyperactive it is a potent stimulant and will make her even more active. That is why it is essential to use the amitriptyline first to see what it does to her activity level.

But I suspect she has learned this behavior as a kind of superstitious thing in that if she paces long enough, you will let her out. It works every time and she gets reinforced for pacing by being let out into the yard with you. When you have built her self confidence to the point she can be left alone without getting all worried, some of this stuff

will disappear. The apparent hyperactive pacing will probably respond well to amitriptyline and can help you in the counter conditioning.

If she is on the drug, you can start to wean her as soon as she shows she can be still and not pacing for a minute or two. Take a week or so to wean her from two pills a day to none. Again, the drug is only to help get you over the hump. It is not a cure in itself. The water drinking is probably part of the things she does to get you to open the gate and not because of the increased pacing. The sequences of behaviors in these superstitious patterns can be quite complicated. Please keep me posted on her progress and let me know if any other problems occur.

For solutions to your dog's behavior problems or behavior-related training problems, you can contact Ed Bailey at: edbailey@uoguelph.ca.

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