Does this sound familiar? "I've tried everything, and nothing worked. My dog is never going to overcome her separation anxiety."
That was something I said three years ago. I tried leaving stuffed Kongs for Emma the Beagle before I walked out the door, but she was too scared to eat. I tried using "relaxation protocols" where I taught Ems to stay in her bed while classical music played and lavender perfumed the air, but no matter how good Emma got at staying in the bed while I was there, she bolted to the door every time I walked out. And I worked with multiple veterinarians, nutritionists, behavior experts, trainers, and even a masseuse, to no avail.
With all that, over the course of a year, not only did Emma NOT stop frantically pacing, barking, and howling, but she began peeing on the floor, peeing on the couch, and chewing the doorframe. It was a disaster. I wasted a year of my life trying everything I could do to help my dog, and I only succeeded in making things worse.
So how then did we go from Emma losing it (like me that time a tarantula crawled into my mouth) within seconds of my departing to snoozing peacefully while I'm gone now for five hours? (OK. That never happened. No tarantula has ever crawled into my mouth, but that might give you an idea of how scared these dogs are when they're left alone.)
Going at the dog's pace
How did we transform Emma from Emma the Fearful Beagle to Emma the Bravest Beagle? We did it by making a deal with her to never leave her alone for more time than she could handle while we gradually built up longer and longer absences, through a process called "systematic desensitization." We let Emma dictate the pace--not the other way around.
Seriously. We never left her alone for more than she could handle, which on day one was 10 seconds!!! My husband and I had to get really creative to figure out what to do with Emma to make sure she was never left home alone too long, but we looked at it as an investment in our future. We had faith that if we stuck to the training protocol, eventually that 10 seconds would become one minute, which would eventually become five minutes, which would eventually become 20 minutes, and then 50 minutes, and then two hours, and today FIVE HOURS!
Pushing too far too fast
The biggest error most people make when attempting to train their sep anx dogs, is the mistake that hubz and I and all those experts made when we worked with Emma that first year. We pushed her past her fear threshold line--meaning, we gave her more than she could handle. It's not enough to go in an out and gradually extend absences longer and longer.
You have to be able to read your dog's body language to know if she's over threshold--if she's scared. Once you cross that line, the only thing you are teaching your dog is that your leaving is scary. It's no wonder that Emma got worse that first year. Just because we thought Emma should be able to handle being alone for a certain amount of time, didn't mean that Emma actually could handle being alone that long.
When people who are new to separation anxiety or have never had a sep anx dog find out that the training only works if you stop leaving them alone for more time than they can handle, they are incredulous. Who in their right mind is never going to leave their dog home alone? I'll tell you who: nearly every single person who reaches out to me to train their dogs to overcome their fears of being alone.
They are already NOT leaving their dogs home alone. Doing so is such hell for the pups and the people alike, that they are already bringing pet sitters in, dropping the dogs off with family, or taking their pups to daycare. So when they begin working with me, they are actually gaining freedom in their lives.
It's torture walking out of your home knowing that your pup is so terrified that he might jump through a window, chew up the door, or just "pee his pants." As hard as it was to schedule around Emma until she was trained up to an hour, two hours, FIVE HOURS, so that I could live a normal life, it was so much harder going about my life outside while I knew that she was living in hell at home.
This stuff works!
Coming up next: How to read your pup's body language
Becoming fluent in our dog's body language is the key to being able to go at the dog's pace. In my next post I will show you what to look for to make sure that you're not pushing too far to fast, or even moving too slowly. In the meantime, take a look at the iSpeakDog body language gallery to see some images of fearful dogs vs. non-distressed dogs.
Tracy Krulik, CTC, CSAT
Certified separation anxiety trainer, founder of iSpeakDog, and mom to Emma the Bravest Beagle.