What are the main behavioral reasons people give away their dogs according to the HSUS? There are several studies on this topic, but the general causes are: 1.) Hyperactivity; 2.) Barking; 3.) Destructiveness; and 4.) Failed Housetraining. When you look at that list, what seems to be the overall common issue?
It sure looks like separation anxiety to me. The primary cause of separation anxiety is improper early socialization. The secondary cause is some kind of traumatic abandonment, such as an escape and transfer to an animal shelter.
Now, it could be if we asked all these owners, we might find these issues were not all connected in some or most of these dogs. Those people who do surveys often don’t know enough about whatever they are researching to then go deeper into the topic.
Hyperactivity has a variety of causes. Let’s take one version: for newly rescued dogs, the first thing I look at is the body fat scoring of the dog. Many dogs come out of a shelter underweight. You can see visible ribs, and they tend to scarf down their food. When dogs are trapped in a shelter around all that adversity, they don’t eat very well. Not only does that further traumatize the dog, but it also sets up the dog to be a pain to deal with when it first enters a new home.
Here’s how I interpret the hunger. Last night I woke up at 3:30 am for the typical reason. When I laid back down, I felt hungry. While I was still tired and didn’t want to get up and go to the kitchen to get something to eat, it kept me awake. I didn’t fall back asleep, and so as I write this article, I’m tired this afternoon. Hunger will keep you awake, and it will also tempt you to get going to find something to make that discomfort go away. Most times I do get up and forage for something in the pantry. So, imagine a dog coming into your home hungry. The dog isn’t going to settle down, is going to be more competitive with the other dogs in the home, more destructive, and more likely to keep moving around. In nature, hungry animals get going, they don’t relax and ignore it. Thus, my first recommendation for newly adopted rescue dogs is to feed them and get their bodyweight up to a healthy bodyfat score. Similarly, if a dog has separation anxiety, it might also be hungry most of the day when you are gone. The food bowl might be full, or you might have left them a treat-filled KONG, but they aren’t going to eat while they are alone.
Often the owner of a hyperactive dog resorts to either giving the dog even more exercise or will start yelling at the dog to calm down. Neither of these strategies will ever work. The hungry dog will be even hungrier. A stressed and hungry dog can’t calm down.
What about excessive barking? Well, we all know that lonely dogs bark. This again might be a case of separation anxiety. One clue is the tone and staccato of the barking. If you listen, you can usually tell what the dog is vocalizing about. A lonely bark sounds different than a territorial defensive bark. The lonely bark also goes on and on, and the lonely barks are the ones that get the most neighbor complaints. What a sad situation for the dog. It’s lonely, so the owner leaves the dog alone in a backyard (which makes the dog even lonelier), the dog barks to attract a reunion by the owner, the HOA or landlord threatens the owner, so the owner instead retaliates against the dog and gives the dog away! People are so unfeeling. What’s worse, they will get another dog, do the same thing, churn out another dog with separation anxiety, and then abandon that dog.
Not all barking is loneliness barking. I worked with a barking dog in Ahwatukee about a year ago. The dog barked a lot. A lot. This dog liked barking. So, the motivation was different, and the solution was different. They had no intention of giving the dog away, they just wanted to stop the excessive barking.
The worst destructiveness I’ve seen over the years has been a result of separation anxiety. Dogs like this will tear up a lot of stuff. What makes it worse is for the owner to then come home and punish the dog, even just verbally. So, the owner creates the separation anxiety because of poor socialization, then yells at the dog for being lonely and not coping well, and then the dog is given away.
[Thanks a lot, hope that happens to you one day. I’ll find a nice shelter to stuff you into and see how that works out. I’ll leave the house for the dog and find them a new owner.]
But seriously, why aren’t people getting professional help for all of this? This same study indicated that only 6% of the owners of these dogs had hired a dog trainer to help them. So, it’s not the dog, it’s the people.
Other destructiveness is also, usually, a result of improper early socialization, supervision, containment, housekeeping, and/or training. If anxiety isn’t the source of the problem, you must start the dog all over again. It takes longer with an adult dog than a puppy, but it can be fixed over time. You don’t have to get rid of the dog.
Lastly… failed housetraining. Of course, if only 6% of these owners get professional help when the dogs aren’t house trained, how do they expect things to get better? Dogs aren’t going to invent a new system on their own. I think house training is the most important lesson for every dog to master. While it was number 4 on the list of excuses for abandonment, I think it is much higher on the list. When lax owners delay proper training, the dog fails to learn the right house-training lessons. Lax owners also tend to be the ones to then abandon the dogs into the back yard when away from the home or at night. Now, you not only have a dog that isn’t getting the proper instruction, but you are also making the dog lonely and setting up separation anxiety and all the other issues the above study mentions. Thus, the owner doesn’t do the work, blames the dog, often hits the dog, then begins the abandonment in the yard, then the dog is abandoned to a shelter.
Shelters are full of dogs like this. People mess up their dogs then pass their problems onto others to fix. A lot of dogs die in shelters because of these pre-existing behavioral issues. No wonder so many people are apprehensive of getting a shelter dog that might be a hassle. Fortunately, all these problems have solutions. I haven’t had one student who had any of these issues that failed to fix them… if they followed through on their homework. These people aren’t the 6%.
I’m seeing a dog tonight with some of these issues. I feel good about the conversation we had on the phone this morning, and I’m betting they will get this done. The main issue is hyperactivity, but I’m suspecting the deeper issue is some form of separation anxiety. It sounds like a nice dog. He’s skinny, apparently you can see his ribs. I’ve already given them some tips to get him back up to full body weight, and we’ll sort out the rest. Someone didn’t do right by this dog, but there are answers for dogs like this if people will exercise some appropriate love and effort.