I admit, when I first read this post on A.G. Out Loud, I got a little defensive. My shoulders tensed, my back curved – just like my cat when Shiva gets too pushy. By the time I finished reading, I felt so uncomfortable that I just got mad. A million scathing sentences filled my head and my fingers twitched, dying to type an over-emotional response on my blog. Instead, I closed my laptop and walked my dog in the pouring rain. A smart decision, no doubt. Now that a few days have passed and I have gotten over my instinctive reactions, I feel I can address the issue with a modicum of intelligence. Truthfully, I have been meaning to write a post on this very topic for a long time. I should thank Anne for forcing me to do it.
Full confession: Shiva goes in her crate every time we have to leave her alone in the house.
Up until about six months ago, I never ever felt good about doing this. In fact, I felt like total crap. From day one, an awful feeling would lodge at the bottom of my stomach and sit there until I got home again. Even though my trainer told us it was actually helping her, even though I knew it was the only way, I felt like the worst dog owner in the world every single time. A large part of my defensiveness about the aforementioned post comes from all that guilt. Obviously I haven’t gotten over it all yet. I probably never will.
Shiva has separation anxiety. It’s better now, but it isn’t cured. I have hope as she gets older it will fade even more. Separation anxiety is very common in shelter dogs. I wish I had known that before. Shiva’s difficulties at being left alone, even for five minutes, appeared almost immediately. I’ll never forget that first morning when I fed her breakfast. I put the bowl down in front of her and then headed into the kitchen to wash some dishes. Shiva couldn’t see me from where she was in the living room so she would grab a mouthful of food, run into the kitchen to make sure I was still there, run back to grab more food, run back to the kitchen, over and over until she was done. Knowing now how hard it is for her to walk away from even one piece of kibble, I think it illustrates just how freaked out she was at the possibility of being alone. She was even willing to leave a bowl full of food.
Shiva’s anxiety has absolutely been the most stressful thing to deal with out of all her issues. Far worse even than her human reactivity. Not only did it prevent us from ever leaving the house, but it was dangerous. So many times we experimented with leaving her out of her crate. We learned she could get into the garbage bin so we moved that into the office and closed the door. We learned she could get into the bathroom cupboard so we closed that door as well. We put up a baby gate between the two floors of our house so she couldn’t get downstairs. We made sure there was nothing left, not even a tea towel, on the kitchen counters. We apologized to our neighbours and brought them copious amounts of wine in hopes they wouldn’t complain about her whining to our landlords. Short of medication, we tried everything our trainer recommended to help fix the problem. She told us it would take time, years even.
We felt utterly helpless.
Two years, ten pairs of shoes, too many books, a couple of containers of fish food, a package of toilet paper, a blanket, a lighter, and who knows what else (I have forgotten most of it), later we have finally come to the conclusion that when we are gone, Shiva actually prefers to be in her crate. With a well-stuffed Kong, a bowl of fresh water, and a favoured bone, Shiva feels secure. She knows she has one job to do and finally trusts that we will return home. As far as I know, Shiva hasn’t whined or howled for months. She is even calm when we return home. Often she is more interested in her Kong than she is in us. We have finally hit on the right combination. I am really, really reluctant to mess with the formula.
Routine is also key. We usually try to leave and return at the same times every day. She still has difficulty if we have to leave at an unusual time, say we want to go out for dinner on a Saturday night. Often those times we will return home to see her blanket shoved into a corner of the crate and Shiva standing up, staring at us. I try very hard not to feel guilty because I know the only way she will ever get better is if we leave her. Turning down all invitations, which is what we did for the first year and a half, isn’t helping her feel less anxious. It’s just making it harder for the one time we have to go out. I’ve finally learned this now and accepted it.
It doesn’t mean I enjoy it. It doesn’t mean I don’t care about my dog.
I try to think of how far we have come in two years. Hopefully in two more years Shiva will be comfortable enough to hang out in the house without the confining space of her crate. Hopefully by then we won’t have to worry about her eating something that could potentially kill her in the hours we are gone. In the meantime, I can’t look at her crate as something awful any more. That wasn’t helping. I have no doubt she sensed my extreme dislike of the situation and that added to her stress. Now that I have relaxed a little, I think she has as well. No, this isn’t ideal and it certainly isn’t what I had in mind when I got a dog, but it is unfortunately necessary.
I have to believe if we stay on this track maybe one day it won’t be.