One of the issues readers have asked me to address is how to help a dog feel comfortable when being left at a kennel or a friend’s while they are away on a trip. It’s a great question, and is especially relevant now that the GREAT ROLLER COASTER OF HOLIDAYS is looming ahead of us. (You do have your Thanksgiving dinner made and all your Christmas presents purchased and wrapped, yes?)
I’m going to expand my answer to include teaching dogs in a variety of contexts that they are not being abandoned because their owner has to leave them in an unfamiliar place. This seems like a reasonable fear, although perhaps not in the sense of “my owner is deserting me” but rather “My owner just walked away and I have no idea what is going to happen next”. How would an adult dog dropped off at a boarding kennel know that you would be coming back? How would a puppy left for the first time in a crate know what is going to happen after you leave the room? Of course, we’ve often been told that dogs “are accepting” and don’t (or can’t) worry about the future. But we don’t know what they worry about, really, do we? Certainly any sentient creature can worry about what is happening to it, and what might happen in the very near future. We can only speculate about what they might be thinking when left in an unfamiliar place, but we know that sometimes their behavior–barking, howling, whining, chewing, pacing–suggests that they are distressed about being left alone in a strange place. But there are three relatively simple things we can do, well before the holidays arrive, to help dogs be comfortable if we have to leave them.
1. Teach your dog to expect your return by leaving for only a few seconds at first. I’ve advised clients to drive their dog to the boarding kennel at least a week before they are leaving. Hand your dog to a kennel worker, or take them to their kennel space and give them a chew treat. Walk out of sight for only a second or two, return and let your dog out. You might even take away the chew treat if that works for you and your dog. Repeat, and go out of sight for a little longer, returning before you dog can begin to fuss. Try one more time, leaving for a minute or so, and then retrieve your dog and go home. If it’s convenient, or you’re helping a dog settle into a new place in your house (crate for example), you can repeat this every day, leaving for longer and longer periods.
2. Make the “unfamiliar place” familiar. You can do this a number of ways. At a boarding kennel, ask what area your dog will be in, and sit in there with your dog for awhile. When you are leaving on your trip, bring along familiar items, even the dog’s crate if he or she is comfortable in it. Best are things that smell familiar, because dogs surely must be overwhelmed with unfamiliar scents when they are left in a new place. When we travel to sheepdog events I always take the towel or blanket from the dog’s car crates and put them on the floor in the motel. Willie doesn’t pay much attention to them any more, but he used to, and Maggie only settles if I put the towel down beside my side of the bed and show her it’s there.
3. Keep them busy while you leave. Baby sitters tell parents all the time that the squalling child they walked away from settled down within minutes after they left. Transitions are tough for all of us, and usually get better once we’ve settled into the new normal. I despise leaving our dogs and cats when going on a trip. I am simply miserable as we drive away, but I feel better after a few minutes and I can turn my thoughts forward. I still miss the animals terribly while we are gone, and begin to ache for them if we’re away more than a day or two, but I don’t feel that desperate sense of my heart being ripped out of my chest. So give your dog the best chew toy in the world, whether it’s a Kong stuffed with frozen food or a beef horn or whatever is safe for your dog that you know he or she loves. The idea is to keep them busy while you walk away. If you’ve also done a few sessions of Step One, your dog will already have been conditioned to the sequence of events and be even more comfortable. (By the way, if you’ve ever wondered if dogs know how long we’ve been gone, check out this post from 2011.)
I first used these three steps years ago when I arrived in San Francisco to tape Pet Line for Animal Planet with my Border Collies Luke and Lassie. The producers had promised I’d have time to get my dogs used to the studio before I got swept off behind the cameras, but when I arrived I was told I had to be on camera in five minutes. “Put your dogs somewhere and follow me” I was told in no uncertain terms. Oh. “Give me 10 minutes,” I said. Luckily I had lugged their crates with me when I entered the studio. (Fun in the city: Drive to unknown destination in downtown San Francisco, walk 3 blocks carrying two folded crates while walking two farm dogs to the studio. Thank heaven, the dogs were fantastic.) I put up their crates in the quietest room I could find, asked them to “crate up,” gave them a chew treat and walked out the door. I returned in two seconds, if even that, and let them out.
“Crate Up!” I said again, and the dogs happily ran into their crates. I gave them a treat, walked out of the room and count off five seconds. I walked back in, let them out without making a big fuss, and then repeated the exercise. Except this time I stayed away for an entire minute before I returned. And then I was whisked away for several hours. When I returned, the dogs were sound asleep in their crates.
However, this was an “unfamiliar place” and yet it was not. The dogs were well familiar with their crates, but had never been in a television studio in downtown San Francisco before. So there was a lot new for them. But if you have to leave your dog in a boarding kennel for the first time, you might try a similar approach.
Do these steps really help most dogs? I honestly can’t say, because I’ve seen no research comparing these steps with any kind of a control. But it makes sense that it would help, at least to decrease behaviors that correlate with emotional distress, like chewing, whining or barking. It appears to have helped many of my client’s dogs, and I’d love to hear if something like this has helped yours.
MEANWHILE back on the farm: Busy weekend. Maggie and I played hookey on Thursday and soaked in wisdom from Gordon Watt at a great sheepdog clinic at Heatherhope Farm in Illinois. On Saturday morning I was delighted to speak to the Madison Civics Club about The Education of Will. I am especially grateful that Mare Chapman, M.S., counselor extraordinaire spoke also, and we all loved meeting Capitol K9 Boris and his handler, Officer Henry Wilson. After that it’s pretty much been all about getting ready for New York (and seeing Hamilton in Chicago first, can’t wait), keeping Maggie’s “return to fitness program” going, resting up Willie (gimpy left foreleg), providing infinite cuddling for Tootsie, giving the cats some serious head rubs, and doing all I can to get the garden into shape for the winter. It’s the garden that is the focus of the photographs today.
We finished the Lasagna garden! Layers = thick cardboard, thick layer of old hay, old mulch/almost soil, thinner layer of old hay, aged manure from the barn, thick layer of new mulch (double shredded oak). I’ll let you know how it goes next summer.
A neighbor with a Bobcat was going to move the manure pile for us, but we ran out of time, so Jim and I did a lot of shoveling into lawn trailers, onto wheelbarrows and eventually onto the garden. After that, lots and lots of barrows of mulch. (If you came into our house Sunday evening you’d be overwhelmed with the scent of menthol from the Biofreeze slathered all over our backs.)
Nellie thought it was great fun to visit while I was finishing up spreading the mulch and trying to take my “ready to serve” lasagna garden photo. Here’s just one of many photos that Nellie photo bombed.
After a lot of petting, she decided she might like Parmesan. She’ll have to wait until the garden is all cooked this spring I guess.
Here’s a recent addition to the farm–George the ATV, 4-wheeler, or whatever you call it where you live. We live at the bottom of a long, steep hill, which we climb one to five times a day. Jim and I are about to turn 69, and we are damned if we are going to stop being active farmers and country dwellers for many years to come. But after watching just about every neighbor we have jump onto their ATV and throttle away, we decided it wouldn’t hurt to have way to get up the hill that didn’t involve a long slog. Granted, walking up is great for keeping us in shape, but well, sometimes… The name George comes from the brand Foreman. I was thinking “Big Red” for UW-Madison, but Jim liked the name George. After loading ridiculously heavy, old railroad ties into the big trailer (don’t do this, see below), sawing them into pieces, lugging them to the garden and then taking them out for me because I discovered after the fact how incredibly toxic old railroad ties are, I’d say he gets to name the ATV whatever the hell he wants. (I am abashed I was not aware how toxic old railroad ties are—how could I not have known that? How could they be sold at garden stores when they are full of carcinogenic chemicals? And there are lots of alternatives. Sigh.) But I digress… George is a wonderful addition to the farm. So glad he’s here. Eeee Hah.