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Behavioral Therapy Helps A Shelter Dog

Amy Marder, V.M.D.

Victoria, one of the ASPCA’s behavior counselors, spotted an appealing mixed breed dog at the Center for Animal Care and Control (CACC) in Manhattan. A handsome six month old, the dog had been picked up by CACC as a stray. Victoria named the dog “Viv,” after an English rock musician, and brought him to the ASPCA for evaluation. After passing both his health check and behavioral evaluation with flying colors, Viv was neutered and made available for adoption. He quickly found a home with two sisters.

Wrong foot forward
Due to his age and energy level, our adoption counselors recommended to the women that Viv be confined to a crate when left alone. In a crate he would be safe and unlikely to be destructive. We also recommended that at first he be left alone only for five to 10 minutes, then for gradually lengthening periods as he got used to his new home. Unfortunately, the sisters felt that crating was inhumane. They also felt the dog – whom they renamed “Spencer” – could handle being by himself. But as we predicted, the dog chewed and tore up many things in the apartment. He also barked and howled frantically when he was left alone. Sadly, instead of seeking help from one of our behavior counselors, the sisters responded to Spencer’s destructiveness and barking the way that many do: with punishment. When they arrived home from work and saw what he had done, they dragged him over to the “evidence” and hit him. Thinking that they were teaching him not to destroy their belongings, they performed this ritual daily. Punishment that occurred hours after the behavior, however, did nothing to stop the behavior. All it accomplished was to make Spencer fearful of his owners. Fortunately, the sisters returned the dog to us after only three weeks.

When we got him back, it was obvious that Spencer was afraid of hands, although he had not been before. Spencer spent another few weeks with us. During this time we petted him gently, fed him plenty of treats and taught him obedience exercises with our hands. Luckily, the hand shyness largely disappeared.

Second time around
Then Valerie entered Spencer’s life. An artist, Valerie fell in love with Spencer’s sweet, energetic personality when she saw him in our shelter. She understood that Spencer barked and was destructive when left alone, but was willing to work with him. She was waiting to begin graduate school, so she had the time. Valerie renamed the dog “Miles”; he didn’t answer to Spencer, anyway.

We again suggested getting the dog used to a crate so that he would be comfortable being confined when home alone. But Miles wouldn’t stand for it. Although he slept in his crate overnight, he became very distressed if crated when left alone, even for short periods. He spent the whole time barking, crying and trying to escape – giving himself a bloody nose in his struggles.

Valerie came to the ASPCA Center for Behavioral Therapy for help. We put together a treatment program of short separations and antianxiety drug therapy. We hoped that if Valerie returned home before Miles’ anxiety started, the dog would learn not to be anxious when she left. The antianxiety drug Clomicalm™ would help reinforce that being alone is not so scary. Because of his history, we decided not to crate Miles when he was alone.

It’s been about two months since Valerie adopted Miles. She is able to leave him alone for an eight-hour day, and he is no longer destructive. He whines when Valerie leaves, but it’s slowly getting better. The nicest outcome is the beautiful partnership that has developed between Valerie and Miles. They have completed one of our obedience classes and are ready to take the test to become an ASPCA/Delta Society Pet Partner team. Miles is a natural to cheer people in medical facilities. He was also discovered by a photographer one day in Valerie’s local dog run. Look for him in the December J. Crew catalog.

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