I recently got the following e-mail from Cathy, a reader:
Tisha (an 11-year-old Basenji) has developed separation anxiety since we moved onto the boat full time, and doesn’t like being left on the boat by herself for more than 10 minutes or so; after that she jumps off onto the marina and waits for us at the gate. We have put up a fence on the rail which has helped to keep her on the boat but then she cries constantly and will howl if we are away for more than half an hour. I have read up on anxiety behavior on dog training web sites but none refer to living on a boat and I wondered if you had any good ideas on how to train her to make her feel safe (funnily enough she doesn’t stress at all when we are sailing).
Well, we hadn’t had the problem with Paz so I couldn’t answer directly. The closest we came was when Winston (on left in the photo) was left on his boat anchored next to us. Bored, he jumped overboard and swam to shore. We found him and brought him back to our boat for the afternoon. Paz was in heaven — as an 9-month-old puppy, she had a huge crush on Winston!
So I posted Cathy’s question on The Boat Galley’s Facebook page and quickly had a number of helpful tips from other readers.
I’ve compiled them here to help other readers that may have a similar problem and so that this wonderful info doesn’t disappear into the black hole of Facebook! (NOTE: I’ve edited slightly, mostly in combining multiple comments from one person into a single entry.)
Lang Sheorn: Our schnoodle Ollie didn’t like being left alone on the boat, and would whine and whine. To train him I left and came back for only 10 minutes or so several times a day. I found it important to leave calmly. . . I’d gather my things and say “you stay, I’ll be back!” Same thing when coming home. He’d be soooo excited to see me but I take my time putting things away and would love on him when he calmed down. Not making a big deal is important leaving and coming back.
We leave him below because it’s safer and he cannot climb the stairs to get out. We also have to “dog-proof” so he doesn’t chew on certain things.
Mandy Jensen: I had a dog with separation anxiety, albeit we didn’t often leave him on our boat so it was mostly at home. But I had a trainer come in and she gave me some pointers which worked wonderfully. When you are getting ready to leave (house or boat or wherever) don’t make any fuss. Calmly gather your things together, put your coat and shoes on etc quietly and in a calm manner and most important: ignore your dog. Don’t give him pets or talk to him in a high voice or anything.
When you come home do the exact same thing, the dog typically is jumping all over you, excited you are home, don’t give him any attention just ignore the excited behavior until he calms down a bit and then calmly give him a pet or say hello or whatever but in a calm manner.
And if the dog has gotten into anything (mine used to love toilet paper, paperback books and pens) do not let him see you clean it up. Put the dog somewhere else and clean it up out of his sight.
The reason this all works is because the anxiety is actually excitement and they don’t know how to deal with it. When we react all excited to see them it just makes them more excited. By your being calm it has the opposite effect and they become calmer and eventually they don’t equate your leaving or returning with a bunch of excited nerves. Within one week my dog didn’t leave the couch when I left the house – I couldn’t believe how well it worked!
Yvonne Anderson: My dog is 9 and we had a similar issue. He was just used to us being around all of the time and was very stressed when we would leave him. He had been crate trained on land and seemed to be most comfortable when he was in his cage when he was alone. I ended up buying a crate for the boat and he is doing fine now. I give him a treat to go in and he lays down and settles in. I also use the crate at night when we are on the boat so he doesn’t just associate the crate with being left. It worked for us – good luck!
Karla McGaugh Vialle: We leave the TV on with cartoons playing. You might try stuffing a Kong and giving it when you leave. The lesson is good things come while you are away.
Laura Mushrush O’Shurak Werner: Our dog won’t tolerate a crate (we tried it for the first 2 months we lived aboard), and he screamed like crazy when left alone.
We finally got a bark collar. They’re not cruel and it doesn’t hurt, and we only needed it for a few weeks. There is another dog in our marina who goes nuts when people walk by and after being warned by the marina owner they resorted to a bark collar too. It’s amazing how calm he is when wearing it and he now sits quietly instead of turning inside out at every movement.
Then by mistake we discovered a method that worked. Wilbur is used to someone being with him all the time and really hated being left alone. For a while I had a situation that required my leaving him alone anywhere from a few minutes at a time or even an hour or so. This could happen several times a day. What I found was that if he was left for just a couple of minutes here and there, he didn’t have time to build up anxiety. After that he seemed to think that I’d be home any second and didn’t bark.
I later read that that’s a training technique, leave for a minute or so at a time several times a day. It takes an awful lot of patience but I don’t feel so bad about leaving for a few hours now.
And yes, we too leave the TV on (or music if that’s what you have on while you’re home) while we’re gone. We used to give him a Kong stuffed with peanut butter but we don’t have to do that anymore.
Also, I never leave him in the cockpit when we go somewhere as anything could happen including someone stealing him!!! Although I don’t know if anyone would really attempt to take a pit bull off someone else’s boat. Good Luck!!
William R De Vries: Either a crate and keep the pooch down below with some background noise and you may also need a bark collar.
The dog should not be running around free when you’re not onboard. Crating should only be used to protect and house, not for discipline.
Rob Askew: Try leaving some music on in the boat for her. Play similar music while you are on board with her so she can familiarize the sounds with you being there.
Also try to give her one of those rubber toys filled with peanut butter or something to chew on to keep her occupied for a bit.
If you come to her rescue when you notice the crying and howling, she will associate that as being a solution to get someone to give her company when she feels lonely. This of course will only make matters worse.
Linda Miller: Our dog was so anxiety stricken that I went to the vet & he put her on Prozac. She was born and adopted out of a shelter, then returned six months later. Then we adopted her & shortly after moved from New Orleans back to Seattle. The people returned her because their 10 year old Jack Russell Terrier was terrorizing her. She was very afraid of other dogs and any new situations. The dingy ride to shore was very frightening to her.I am happy to say that after a month of medication, I took her to the dog park today and her tail did not tuck under when other dogs came up to say hello. She did not attempt to bite. She now loves going to shore in the dinghy with tail a wagging! Our Vet said most dogs that react this well to medication are able to go off the medication without any return of anxiety. Before the medication fully kicked in, we put her in her kennel (inside the boat) and that worked well. We now have a soft crate.
A few words of warning from our mistakes in the past. Bark collars – make sure your dog does not have on a metal collar. Never tie your dog to a cleat on the dock. Our retriever tried to jump on the boat while tied up, hit the water, and frantically kept trying to swim under our sailboat-with a choke collar (which I would never use again). Thank God I was inside the boat and heard.
Danielle Gagne: My boat dog, Simon, has had good luck with his new iCalmDog music player & the Through a Dog’s Ear CD music collection. We recently spent 6 months on our boat in the MED and played the music for him each time we left the boat and put his new player in his dog crate when he flew home from Europe! It worked great for us. If you do try it, please do let us know how it works for you!
Jo Ann Thompson: Another option I did not see mentioned is the hormone, pheromone, for helping to calm dogs with seperation anxiety. Sounds crazy, but it did help our nervous GSP calm down when we had to be away from home for any length of time. We used the collar type (it looks like a flea collar) which would probably be your best bet on a boat. I have also heard great results from the Thundershirts!
Terry Lynn Simmons: Use a crate, make it your doggie’s special place while you are with her. Lots of special treats, toys etc. Make it a fun place. Maybe feed her her dinner in it for a week or so before you start leaving her. Good luck.
Got more tips? Please leave a note in the comments!