Update on Whizbee’s Separation Anxiety

This update is long overdue. Sorry! Whizbee is making great strides with separation anxiety (SA)! Currently, she can be left in the apartment with Severus for up to FOUR hours! This improvement is very uplifting for my husband and me. We are so proud of Whizbee and optimistic for a more “normal” future.

I mentioned this in an earlier blogpost, but SA was (and always will be) a deal breaker for me when it comes to acquiring new dogs. Separation anxiety dogs are life-changers. I understand that no breeder, shelter, or rescue group can guarantee a dog’s future behavior in his new home, but I have no shame in publicly announcing that I would never knowingly adopt a dog with a history of SA. It’s a lot to handle – financially, logistically, and emotionally. Especially because I do not work from home.

So How the F*ck Did You End Up with Whizbee?

Whizbee’s foster mom told me she did not have any separation anxiety so we adopted her, but after a week in our home, she began displaying all the classic behaviors of a separation anxiety dog. (I feel I should also clarify that it’s entirely possible that she didn’t have SA in her foster home, but the trip to New England and the adoption itself triggered it. Traumatic events often trigger SA in dogs that are genetically predisposed to it.) Every SA dog is different and will behave differently when left alone, but Whizbee’s specific behaviors were:

  • Shadowing. She followed me around the house constantly. Even if she was in a deep sleep, she’d wake up the moment I left the room and would follow me wherever I went.
  • Frantic at the door. She always had to be the first one out the door. Maybe because she was just excited to get out, but more likely because she feared being left behind. The first time I (unsuccessfully) tried to take Severus on a walk without her, I basically had to push her away from the door and close it quickly behind me.
  • Shrieking immediately after I left. If I did manage to shut the door behind me, she would start shrieking. The first time this happened, I stood in the hallway for 10 seconds to see if it would die down. It started to intensify so I had to go back inside, leash her up, and take her with me on Sev’s walk. Fun fact: this was the first time the two of them had contact with each other for any extended period of time. It was out of necessity because I couldn’t leave her home alone.
  • Pacing. Unable to lay down when a human wasn’t home.
  • Howling intermittently. I saw Nest Cam footage of her howling on and off for about three hours when she was left home alone without a human. She even knocked over the ex-pen I used to block the bedroom door, pawed open the bedroom door, and let Severus out! Severus was not enough comfort for her though. All he did was eat her frozen Kongs as she paced around and howled. This specific incident removed all doubt that her SA wasn’t likely to improve over time without intervention on our part. My husband and I took steps that evening to arrange daycare, a vet visit for medication, a training plan, etc.
  • Whining when I walk away. To this day, she still gets very anxious when I hand her off to someone else. She does best with my friend, Alison. With my husband, it’s a toss up. If I walk into a shop and leave her outside with him, there’s a 50% chance she’ll cry.

Other common SA behaviors that Whizbee did not exhibit were:

  • urination and/or defecation
  • self-mutilation (thank God)
  • destruction of home
  • attempts to escape (such as jumping out windows)

Resources and Luck

I consider myself very fortunate because I have a very knowledgable circle of friends and colleagues who support me. I knew that Malena DeMartini-Price was a renowned separation anxiety dog trainer so I looked up her online resources immediately. Kate, my nosework/agility teacher and one of my dog-training mentors, let me borrow her copy of Malena’s book. Because I have previous history with positive reinforcement dog training and a decent understanding of how conditioned emotional responses affect behavior modification, the book was easy for me to digest and implementation was straight-forward.

My friend, Alison, is a groomer at a pet salon that offers doggie daycare so she offered to watch Whizbee during the work day at a discounted daycare rate. She also happens to be Severus’s dog-sitter so I trust her with special needs dogs. Alison’s previous dog had separation anxiety, so she knows the struggle all too well and has been an empathetic listener whenever I need to express my own frustrations or concerns. Having a dog with SA can be very isolating, but having a friend who is always game for a dog-friendly field trip makes things much easier.

Not to be overlooked, I have a husband who was willing to work on this issue! Family buy-in and consistency is non-negotiable for treating a separation anxiety dog. We talked finances and logistics and decided it was worth seeing if Whizbee could make significant progress in six months. Our loose goal was for her to be able to stay home during the work day by nine months, but if we didn’t see significant progress at six months we would face some hard decisions. It’s pretty fair to say that we have seen significant progress and it’s been five months! I’m grateful for where we are today, but I realize that this sort of training is not always feasible for a busier or larger family. A young couple without kids (I hear that those little humans require a great deal of attention and time) or an older, empty-nesting couple is more ideal for SA training, in my opinion.

And we can’t forget perhaps the biggest factor. The factor that can make or break any major project. Money! It makes the world go around! With adequate financial resources, you can pay away most of your problems! Sure – you could hire a dog-sitter or even better, a private dog trainer, for nine hours a day to hang out in your apartment and work on desensitizing your SA dog to departure routines and short separations. Grocery shopping? No problem! It’s 2017 and there are plenty of grocery delivery services. It’ll cost ya though! We’re not that wealthy, but we are financially flexible enough to afford daycare during the work days (Thank goodness Whizbee is not dog-aggressive, because then daycare would not be an option.) and a top-notch dog-sitter who is willing to go above and beyond for Whizbee when we go out of town. We are very blessed in this regard. Not to mention we’re one of the few novice SA dog owners who haven’t had to pay a behaviorist to implement an effective treatment protocol. I’m not a behaviorist, but all my previous dog-training education (which, of course, costed money) is paying off now!

I guess my point is: This shit is not for everyone. Seriously. After living through it, I would never pass judgment on someone who sought to re-home a dog with separation anxiety. Sometimes, it just isn’t going to work, and the most compassionate thing (for both dog and dog owner) would be to find that dog another home that could better meet his/her needs. People can’t magically grow money on trees, and SA treatment is very resource intensive if you don’t work from home. Treatment can take many months (even years) and trying to rush the process only makes it worse. Someone commented on a Treating Separation Anxiety in Dogs Facebook post about how it’s taken her dog two years to get up to twenty minutes. TWO YEARS FOR TWENTY MINUTES!! Could you do that?? We couldn’t. Most people couldn’t. That’s the reality of separation anxiety dogs though. Sometimes they can’t be treated, or the rate of progress is so slow it doesn’t translate into tangible lifestyle improvements for the owners. We are so fortunate that Whizbee’s SA is less severe and her progress is convincing.

What Constitutes Success?

It depends on your definition of “success”, but not every SA dog can be “successfully” treated. For example, the majority of SA dogs can learn to stay home quietly while their owners go to work, but many of them are not okay if the owners leave again that night. It’s as if the owners are permitted one long separation per day – that’s it. Plan all necessary outings and errands accordingly! Or perhaps an SA dog plateaus at five hours. Well, most people need to work more than five hours a day so maybe that dog will require a dog-walker mid-day Monday through Friday. Is that still success? Depends on your definition! I know SA will always be a part of Whizbee. I’ll probably never feel comfortable coming and going and coming and going and coming and going the way we can with Severus. I’ll probably never get over compulsively checking my Nest app. But if Whizbee can be left home alone with Severus while my husband and I go to work, I’ll call that a success. It will alleviate some financial burden (daycare costs) and allow us more flexibility in our schedule and budget.

Evolution of Whizbee’s Separations

Early in our SA treatment, I struggled with motivation. The last thing I want to do after I come home from work is leave again in the name of SA training. I had to stay nearby just in case Whizbee’s anxiety started to go south so I’d often sit in my apartment’s lobby or in the car. It was tedious. And a tad frustrating when you have other things to get done that require you to be inside your home (like cooking dinner).

There was a hiccup at the thirty minute mark. One separation trial, Whizbee started howling again thirty minutes after I left. Plateaus and regressions are normal in SA training, but this setback was a major blow to my confidence. I didn’t tell very many people about this regression because it was emotionally exhausting for me to think about. It took about three weeks for me to attempt another separation with her. Finally, I put on my Big Girl Pants and mustered up the courage to start working on it again. I jumped back to 5 minute separations and we eased our way up to and over thirty minutes.

Malena’s treatment protocol encourages owners to start trying new things if they hit a plateau, so we made a major change in our set-up and started leaving Whizbee and Severus together rather than separated by the bedroom door. I was originally hesitant to leave them together since I wanted to leave treats out for Whizbee (and we all know how Severus feels about treats). By this point, Sev had gotten a lot better about not guarding food from her and respecting her space when she was actively eating something. I took a leap of faith and left them together with just one small bully stick per dog. It was a scary risk the first time, but no fights! Whew! I do think Whizbee is more comfortable when she has access to him. And I think Sev is happy he’s not locked out of the bedroom anymore. They both get free run of the apartment when we leave.

When Whizbee started to succeed with sixty minute separations, I was so relieved. I started to think that maybe, just maybe, she could really be ours forever. However, I wasn’t really satisfied with her posture and choice of real estate. She was quiet, which is a bare minimum. But she would often stand next to the door with her head down or lay right in front of it. She wasn’t as relaxed as I wanted her to be. My goal was to have her sleep on a bed or in her crate rather than cling to the door. As with all training, I decided to address this in baby steps (aka shaping). I relocated her crate from the far side of the living room to the wall adjacent to the front door. I also moved multiple beds to the space just next to the door. I hoped that, at some point, she would realize she might as well take one step away from the door and lay on a comfortable bed instead of the hardwood floor. It didn’t happen immediately, but eventually she started choosing to lay on a bed or in the crate. Then I started moving the beds farther away from the door, about six inches at a time. Now she mostly chooses the crate and beds over the sad hardwood floor next to the door! She and Sev play musical doggie furniture, taking turns with the beds and the crate. Sometimes she even leaves the camera’s frame, which means she hangs out in the bedroom! Amazing progress!

Nest Cam 1
We leave the crate door open all the time and both pups choose to go in it for naps.
Nest Cam 2
Musical Dog Beds

Once I felt confident about Whizbee’s ability to handle ninety minutes, we started bumping up the separation times in larger increments. It felt so amazing the first time we took our laptops and books to Starbucks, bought two drinks, and left Whizbee and Severus at home for a whopping three hours! It’s difficult to fit in long separation trials (2+ hours) every week day, but we make it a priority to do them on the weekends. On weekdays, we still practice shorter separations. Today, we hit the four hour mark! Now we can actually run errands during these separations. MY HUSBAND AND I CAN BOTH GO INTO THE GROCERY STORE. This is huge!!!

There is still more progress to be made. I hope the journey is smooth from here on out, but I know there are no guarantees. I’ll end this blog post with the most beautiful photo. I am so proud of Whizbee.

Nest Cam 3
Whizbee relaxed enough to leave the living room entirely and probably decided to lounge in the bedroom instead!

P.S. Check Out These Links

If you have a dog with separation anxiety or know someone who is struggling with this issue, check out Malena DeMartini-Price’s website. If you need private coaching, she guides a fleet of experienced trainers who specialize in remote separation anxiety treatment. We have not utilized this resource yet for Whizbee, but it is something we might need in the future. Especially when it comes time for us to move. (Moving is traumatic and might trigger a regression in Whizbee’s SA. My hope is that with guidance from experienced SA trainers, we can make the transition as painless as possible.)

If you just want to hear some wisdom from the separation anxiety goddess herself, Malena guested on the podcast Pawprint, which is an animal rescue podcast that I love. I highly recommend listening to her episode if this subject interests you at all.

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