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Terrier’s a terror when owner exits
Dear Dr. Spiegel, In the last six months, I have adopted a three-year old Lab and a two year old Lakeland Terrier, both neutered males. I live alone and they have been wonderful companions. However, about two months ago, the terrier began to bark frantically whenever I, or anyone else, would leave the house. If he sees me even going near the door, he'll stand between me (and anyone else leaving) and bark. I've had to keep a fence/gate by the door to confine him in an area so I can leave the house without his following me. He's been to obedience training with his former family (but he didn't do too well), and his former family couldn't keep him because he was too hyper. Having had a Schnauzer and an Airedale, I'm used to terrier behavior, and outside of the above mentioned problem, he seems to have adjusted well to his new home. Do you have any suggestions as to how I can handle this? J.B., Newark
Dear J.B., As you know, terriers can be quite stubborn and strong-willed. He does not want you to leave and he's clearly expressing this through his actions. In assessing a situation like this and determining a suitable treatment plan, it will be important to know whether the barking persists after you have left and whether it is accompanied by any of several other behaviors which can be consistent with separation anxiety (e.g., destructiveness - chewing, scratching; urination/or defecation, hypervigilance - watching out windows for you, restlessness/pacing, vomiting, intensely excited greetings when you return, overdependence - following you from room to room when you're home). If he exhibits any of these other signs, he is likely experiencing separation anxiety, in which case a consult would be warranted. If it is just the act of leaving that upsets him, and he settles afterwards, we could simply desensitize him to the stimuli associated with departures. What this means is that we want to disassociate the present meaning (leaving) from the action of your going to the door. The first thing you must do is identify at what point in your attempt to leave does his barking or rush to get between you and the door begin. Is it when you get to within 5 feet of the door? Is it when you enter the hallway that leads to the door? Is it when you pick up your keys or put on your shoes? Whatever behavior he is cuing in on, you have to think about what you do just before that behavior and begin the desensitization process there. For explanation purposes, let's say that he starts his rush to the door when you enter the hallway leading to the door. Begin the desensitization by walking towards the hallway without entering it. Do this multiple times to be certain that he is ignoring this. Then begin walking towards the hallway and just entering it. Do this multiple times in addition to the previous step of going towards the hallway so that it does not elicit the rushing to the door reaction. Then add in walking part way down the hall, and then gradually getting closer and closer to the door. Through this whole process, the most important thing is to avoid eliciting his reaction. If the reaction is elicited, then you must back up to one of the previous tasks that he is o.k. with and proceed more slowly. Build up to touching the door knob, opening the door slightly, opening the door fully, going out the door, closing it partially then fully behind you, and staying outside for progressively longer periods of time. As you progress through the tasks, remember to include the easier tasks of just entering the hallway, walking part way to the door, etc. These tasks have to be done multiple times without incident to insure that he is learning to ignore them. While you are doing all this, you need to avoid his reacting at the door when you or someone else must leave for real. Do this by confining him to an area out of sight of the door before you make any attempt to leave. You can discontinue the confinement when you are able to get out the door for 10 to 15 seconds without problem with the exercises described. It is very important to do the above mentioned tasks frequently and to be certain that he is not reacting to them. If he does react by barking or rushing to get between you and the door, and you do not leave then his behavior is being reinforced. He will learn that by engaging in those behaviors, it stops you from leaving and that will only strengthen his undesirable response.