Thursday, March 21, 2013

Moving with a Reactive Dog

It's generally accepted that reactive dogs like routine. When they can predict what is going to happen, they relax a bit, knowing they don't need to be on alert for Scary Things Happening. As a result, many reactive dogs seem to have trouble with change. Even something as simple as rearranging the furniture can throw them into barking and growling fits. So when it became clear that Maisy and I were going to move, I was pretty apprehensive. Yes, she had been doing great, but I was concerned about behavioral regression.

When I first started looking for advice on moving with reactive dogs, I couldn't find much. There wasn't even much out there on moving with dogs, period! So today, I'm going to share a little bit about what it was like for Maisy and I. Hopefully this will be useful to someone!

Finding the Right Place
For most of her life, Maisy lived in a single family home in a relatively quiet neighborhood with a fenced yard. That all changed last summer when my ex-husband and I separated. Moving from two incomes to one (and with that one being a social worker's salary) meant that we were going to have to move to some kind of shared housing situation.

After thinking about Maisy's triggers, I knew that the hardest part for her would be the noises coming from other people's homes. She's always found random banging and pounding noises unsettling, and back before she was on medication, she would even react to car doors slamming outside. After consulting with her veterinary behaviorist, I ruled out traditional apartment settings and began looking for a duplex.

I wanted an upper level duplex, figuring that would minimize the noise. In retrospect, I think this was a good choice; we don't hear footsteps or things dropping above us. However, we do still hear noise. The people downstairs have several children, including a girl with autism who has occasional screaming fits. Surprisingly, this doesn't bother Maisy, and the great thing is that our neighbors will never complain if Maisy barks because they're so worried about me being bothered my their daughter.

I also knew that if I couldn't find a place with a private fenced yard, it would need to be in a safe neighborhood because there would be late-night potty walks happening. As it turns out, while we have a large yard in our new place, it's not fenced, and we have to share it with the kids downstairs, so I can't tie her out and leave her to do her business. Walking three times a day isn't bad most of the time, but on those sub-zero days, it's brutal. If I could do it all again, I would definitely have worked on teaching her to eliminate on cue!

Before We Moved
In addition to talking to Maisy's vet behaviorist, I also talked to the trainer we used to work with. Since she had moved from Minnesota to Boston with three dogs, including a reactive one, I figured she'd have some great advice. Once I found the right place, things moved fast, so I couldn't implement all of her suggestions, but I'll share them anyway.

Once you know where you'll be moving, introduce the new routine, or at least as much as you can predict what life will be like. Maisy isn't crated regularly when I'm gone but I knew I would want to use her crate more in the early days, so I needed to refresh her crate training. She was used to eliminating off-leash in a yard, so she needed to get used to all potty needs happening on walks while closely supervised.

I couldn't take Maisy to see the new place in advance, but I did take her over to the new neighborhood. I showed her the new house and yard, and we walked around nearby. I'm not sure it mattered, but I was hoping that she'd feel a little more comfortable with her surroundings if she'd seen them before.

Maisy already had an as-needed, short-acting anxiety drug that I knew worked for her, and I made sure I had plenty on hand. I also discussed the weaning protocol with her vet behaviorist in case we needed to use it regularly for awhile. If you don't have one, I highly recommend discussing it with your vet and doing a trial run. Maisy had previously had a pretty bad reaction to a different as-needed med, and it would suck if that had happened during our move. We did end up using medication fairly regularly for the first week, and then intermittently for about a month after that.

One final word of wisdom: Know where your dog's stuff is packed. Leashes, poop bags, food, toys, and any comfort items your dog might need/want will be needed right away. It took me forever to find her Kongs the day we moved. She eats out of them almost exclusively, it was important to me that I kept her routine as normal as possible for awhile after we moved.

The Big Day
If at all possible, have your dog out of the house while you pack and move. Trust me on this. I am fortunate enough to have a boarding kennel that I trust and that Maisy loves, but I didn't think of sending her there until after we'd already moved. Even staying with a friend would have been better.

Despite having lots of friends help me move, it still took two trips. I gave her an anti-anxiety med, and then Maisy stayed in the old place during the first trip. She drove over with me on the second trip, but stayed in the car until things were settled. This took awhile, but thankfully she's comfortable in her car crate. Once things were as settled as they were going to get, I brought her up to see the new place. She seemed confused, but explored. (My cat, on the other hand, hid for the first three days. Poor Nicky.)

The First Days
My main goal was to keep things as normal as possible during this time. Meal times were the same. Potty times were the same, even if they were on leash now. We played and trained and hiked and did as many of our old activities as possible.

I did two things to help Maisy adjust to the new noises of shared living. First, I used white noise to help block out what I could. I found that a box fan on high near the front door went a long way for this. And second, I set up her Manners Minder (remote-controlled treat dispenser), and dispensed a piece of kibble every time I heard a noise, regardless of whether or not she alerted to it.

And Beyond
Maisy adjusted pretty quickly. She started running for our door when we got out of the car. She learned to reorient through doorways and wait for me before we left the apartment instead of just running out the door like she did in the old place. We began meeting neighbors- canine and human alike.

Although the initial transition was difficult, Maisy has since adapted well to her new home. Better yet, she really seems to have blossomed. Her veterinary behaviorist is amazed at how well she's doing these days. Life is harder in ways now- I don't have anyone to let her out if I'm running late from work- but I am happier, too. I think that's part of her great improvement.

If you're moving soon- good luck! I hope something here is helpful. If you have moved with a reactive dog, what worked for you? Please share your ideas so others can benefit from your experience!


Jamie Lynn said...

This is really helpful. With a move probably in the not-so-distant future for us, I've been on the lookout for tips on moving with reactive dogs - you're right there's not much out there! Thanks for taking the time to put this together.

Viv said...

My mom brought Lilee cross-country to be re-homed with me and luckily she was able to stay a few extra days to help her acclimate. We'd slowly increase the time that we'd be gone for so she had time to get used to the new house before we left her alone.

In hindsight, I would have introduced new things in the neighborhood slower and wish I was more dog-educated to be able to make everything new and potentially scary a more positive experience.

Great post!

Anonymous said... paul from england uk ...

your dog looks identical to the last dog i had, was twenty three years ago now and theres not a day i dont think about see your happy lil dog brought back such memories

un piloto inmenso said...

May I ask who the trainer is who moved from MN to Boston? I recently moved to Boston with my reactive dog, and I'm looking for professional help.


Crystal Thompson said...

Robin Sallie. I don't think she's teaching now/anymore, though.