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Pet Stories: In Your Own Words

The Courage Diary

By: Unknown

DAY 1

My four-year-old daughter and I lived alone in a rural community and I had to ask the question "Was it the right time to add a dog to the family"? I started looking through the local paper specifically for a child friendly dog breed.

I called all of the newspaper ads listing adult dogs but they were all taken. Glancing at the ads one last time, I noticed one more for Golden Retrievers that included some adult dogs. I called and there was one adult dog left, we raced off that evening to see him. I told myself that I would have to look at dozens of dogs before I would find the right one. But, when we pulled in the driveway I saw him for the first time and it was love at first sight.

He was the most beautiful dog and so well behaved with one exception, he looked very sad. The breeder explained that he was grieving for his sister who had been sold the week before. I sensed his grief as my daughter played and romped around him as he lay quietly on the grass. "We'll take him," I said a few moments later and into the backseat he went.

After our new dog settled down in the back seat I tried calling him by name "Chris" but got no visible response. I started teasing my daughter about her favorite cartoon "Courage the Cowardly Dog" and as I looked back and said to him, "Hey Courage!" his ears perked and he turned his head and looked at me. From that moment on we called him Courage and he obliged.

THE FIRST WEEK

Courage was the perfect dog never messing in the house, yard trained in three days, was patient with my daughter, and very smart. Only, Courage had never learned how to climb stairs, he cowered around people and he did not know how to play. Later I found out that he had been kept in a kennel run for the first year of his life with little or no interaction with humans or other dogs, (which is a common practice among breeders). There is some speculation that he may have been separated from his mother too early.

After carrying him up the steps into the house the first night, Courage lay down on the kitchen floor still grieving. In the days to come, wonderfully, the grief passed as he bonded with us. I soon learned that he needed us as much as we needed him but, unfortunately for Courage, his need would become much greater. Never hearing of canine separation anxiety before, I would soon find out more about this terribly debilitating condition that effects a large number of dogs.

THE NEXT FEW MONTHS

Going potty in the house, damaging personal items, excessive slobbering and barking are all signs of separation anxiety. I could have prevented a lot of frustration if I would have recognized the early warning signs.

At first, punishment for these trespasses seemed justified but punishing a dog during an anxiety episode is the wrong thing to do and only increases the dog's level of anxiety. The next logical step was to experiment with various types of confinement for Courage to prevent him from damaging himself or his environment while I worked during the daytime.

Okay, we got the dog, we got the crate, and then we lived happily ever after right? Not quite, crating a dog is great if the owner and the dog are trained to do it correctly, however, if they are not, the crate can be dangerous and even fatal for a dog. I came home from work one day and found Courage with his head stuck in the door of the metal crate. His face was swollen and he had rubbed skin and hair off his nose. Courage's snout was puffed out and he had twisted some of his claws trying to escape from his crate.

My beloved Courage followed me everywhere like my shadow and I took him everywhere we went when I could. I thought being so close to Courage was the best thing for him and truthfully, I loved his company. I didn't realize that when I had to leave Courage he believed I would not come back and that is why he panicked every time I left him alone.

I decided not to put Courage back into the crate because I didn't want to come home the next time and find him dead. I had to find a way to communicate to this wonderful animal that he was always going to be with us whether I was physically with him or not.

I discussed the problem with the veterinarian and Courage was diagnosed with separation anxiety. "Doggy daycare" was the best I could do until I found a way to solve this new very real problem. After speaking with the veterinarian about different methods of medical treatment, I made a commitment to Courage and myself that no matter what, we would not send Courage packing; we would stick it out together.

I started doing research and talking to dog owners and surprisingly found that many dogs suffer from separation anxiety. Many dogs are abandoned, abused, placed repeatedly in new homes and in extreme cases are destroyed because dog owners were not aware of the behavioral problems associated with canine separation anxiety.

A FEW MORE MONTHS PASS

When I would drop Courage off at doggy daycare, he would visibly shake from head to tail. I know Courage liked the handlers; they all loved to play with him, but I was leaving which for him was scary. We tried some of the new prescription drugs available for separation anxiety. These drugs worked for some separation anxiety cases but not all (we were the all).

The next step was to talk to behavioral specialists and dog trainers. The first trainer we visited nearly ripped Courage's head off with his choker while giving him the heel command. The trainer suggested we leave Courage with him for two weeks and he promised us a new completely transformed dog (I don't think so, hand gestures and all).

I learned while talking to trainers about the "pack". A pack is a structure that includes the dominant and the less dominant or pecking order of a group of dogs. For Courage to feel more secure and confident, I had to learn the pack protocol by enforcing my leader status in ways he could understand. This process would include basic commands, obedience training, and exposure to people and animals outside of his comfort zone.

All in all behavior specialists were the most helpful and insightful. The key to success with any advice you receive from a behavioral specialist is to listen closely to what they say and most importantly, understand why you need to do certain things such as:

* When getting a new dog or puppy be mindful of bonding and learn when too much too fast is not good.

* It is a good idea with a very young dog to come and go often which helps them learn it is okay and you will return.

* Look for the early signs of separation anxiety before it becomes a full-blown condition.

* Denning introduces your dog to his new crate (den). A den is a small-enclosed place that your dog will feel safe in much like what a dog in the wild would prefer.

ALMOST A YEAR LATER

I was told Courage would probably never make a complete recovery from his separation anxiety. I was even told that at some point Courage would likely have to be destroyed. After months of boarding Courage, I began to feel desperate thinking it was time I found another home for him where someone would be home during the day.

Before throwing in the towel, I started looking for another dog to be a companion for Courage. I have an extended family of animals that includes, horses and cats and soon, another, furry, much smaller passenger in the back seat. We dubbed him "Dusti" a golden retriever puppy who had been exposed socially. My daughter adored Dusti because he was a little sprout and so was she. Courage took Dusti under his big paw after initially bulking over sharing his toys and the rest is history.

Did Dusti cure Courage's anxiety? No, not in the beginning, but I started working with Courage outside in the yard. I tied Dusti to a tree and asked Courage to go lie down while I did chores or worked with the horses. Courage would constantly try to weasel his way up to my side, except I would not let him anymore. His place was now with Dusti when he could not be with me. Courage could see me most of the time, and he knew where and what I was doing.

Courage did not take to this new arrangement easily. Nevertheless, my choices were clear, either Courage learned new behavior, or I would have to give him up. The latter would break my heart. Courage finally realized that he would rather please me by doing his job when he was asked. He had a choice too, being rewarded or being disciplined. Many are totally against discipline in favor of a heavy reward system. I'm telling you now, that without both reward and discipline, this would not have been a success story.

You must discipline each dog to the degree necessary based on breed, temperament, and age. You must reward the dog strongly with verbal praise, treats, loving attention, and playtime. Do not discipline when the dog exhibits the symptoms of anxiety but instead focus on disciplining the dog when he takes advantage of you. For instance, barking and clawing in his crate when you are in the same room and he can see you. Dog packs use discipline in their group structure aggressively; their survival depends on it.

The final phase of teaching Courage new behavior was crating him next to Dusti and slowly letting him adjust to being separated from me while I was in the same room. Gradually I started leaving the room and returning quickly. Once Courage realized he belonged in his crate at certain times (his job), he was not alone, and I would come back he grew closer to Dusti.

A HAPPY ENDING

Today the one hundred pound gentle giant that I love so much vigilantly protects my daughter and the cat (it's true), and keeps Dusti out of trouble. Courage has taught Dusti to go up and down stairs, go into his own crate on command and to play. Courage does not cower anymore; he plays passionately every day, loves his peanut butter and a good scratch from anyone who pays us a visit (once their properly cleared by him of course). Most importantly, he does his job, and has taken his place in our human and animal family with the confidence that he is there to stay and so are we.

CRATING/DENNING TIPS

1. Never, (I emphasize never) leave the dog's collar on when he is in his crate; which can cause strangulation.

2. Always place the crate in an area of the house where you and your family spend most of your time.

3. Metal crates are too open and visible and provide more opportunities for injury to the dog.

4. If you prefer to use a small room for confinement instead of a crate, keep in mind; a dog that is experiencing a severe anxiety attack can do significant damage to the room, himself, and even escape through a window or door.

5. A plastic crate has advantages because it offers more privacy and if the dog does try to get out of his crate there is less chance of injury.

6. Plastic crates are strong, sturdy, easier to clean, and easier to move from room to room.

7. The size of the crate should be large enough for the dog to turn around in yet small enough to keep the dog from using his crate as a potty.

8. Do not place your dog's crate (with him in it) to the outer limits of your home causing him to panic.

9. At bedtime never let your dog sleep with you in bed (share your den); instead, move his crate into your bedroom at night or place another crate there permanently.

10. Always let the dog go in the crate on his own and reward him with several of his favorite treats.

11. Give your dog more treats randomly while he is in his crate, especially when he is being calm and quiet.

12. Ask your dog to go into his crate often and leave him in while you stay in the room.

13. Walk in and out of the room frequently while your dog is crated.

14. As the dog accepts that you are gone and is not slobbering excessively or barking extend the time you are out of the room.

15. Leave the TV or radio on while you are gone.

The most severe anxiety for your dog occurs in the first twenty minutes after being left alone. When you plan on leaving for a few hours put a rawhide chew bone in the crate dipped in peanut butter. It is a great reward and it will keep him busy for hopefully twenty mininutes. Courage would not eat anything in his crate in the beginning but now he runs into his crate and waits excitedly. (I thought the day would never come). I give Courage his regular treats when he is in his crate, unless I am leaving for an extended period and then I reward him with a peanut butter bone.

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