I have a confession to make: I did not used to believe in separation anxiety. I truly thought that it was a condition of underexercised or over-coddled dogs. To say that I am ashamed that I used to think this way is an enormous understatement. I brought Perri home last August as a five month old puppy, from a family of five that no longer wanted her due to her habit of chicken killing on their farm. I don’t know if she was never left alone before or often in her life. I don’t know if she had any boundaries set (free roaming seemed to be a privilege awarded to all of the other family dogs that I met when I picked Perri up on that farm.) I don’t know if it was pure and simple genetics. This is likely. I later found out that Perri was purchased from a closed-down doggie daycare/”hobby” breeder and was alarmed to find reviews of shyness and separation anxiety in more than a few dogs while reading on an online forum. Whatever the case, I was getting a wake up call about the harsh reality of separation anxiety. Perri had a bad case of it and I had no freaking clue what to do.
All of my dogs have been crate trained. Perri was going to be no exception. In fact, the day I picked her up I lifted her into the X-Large crate inside of my car and we drove home. She screamed for the entire ride and vomited all over herself and the crate. This was likely a combination of adjustment, car sickness and terror at being put into a crate and suddenly finding herself to be “alone.” Still, at the time I dismissed this as Poor Puppy and moved on with our day.
It continued. If you have ever dealt with a dog who has separation anxiety, you know how it goes. I tried to crate Perri and it was blood curdling screaming from Day One. (video examples can be seen here and here.) I have always done the “wait it out” and “make the crate a rewarding space” type methods with the dogs of my past and before long they crate peacefully and come to enjoy their little “den”. But Perri did not see her crate as a “den”. The more I ignored her the more frantic she became. There was no making of Perri’s crate into a good place to be with toys or food. She could not play or eat, she was too upset. Everything escalated, with rare moments of false progress and discouraging backsliding. If I would leave and come home again, the crate would be moved or she would have gotten out of it by prying the edges apart and squeezing out. Sometimes the tray would be flung out from the bottom. She put gouges in the dry wall by slamming the crate into it, she chewed up the carpet underneath of the crate. It got to the point where Perri’s feet were raw from self mutilation or her fight to escape and find somebody to Be With Her. Often she would wet the crate, and it was not a housebreaking issue. Our vet asked me after an exam, “Are you sure she is 9 months old? Her teeth are very ground down.” It was from trying to bite her way out of her crate.
Understandably, I could no longer bear to leave her in the crate. So I left her have free run of the house. Perri was “better” initially and then she backslid. She did not wet herself or self mutilate any longer, but she projected her anxiety outward instead. She would pull things off of the bookshelves, counter, table. She would rip trash out. She would scream. She would stand at the door while I was preparing to leave for work, panting. As soon as I would shut the door she would scream and claw at it. I could never shut her in a room with my other dogs if I would want to confine them for brief amounts of time. She would rip the wood apart by digging, clawing, and begging to be back with me. Begging to feel safe. Perri’s separation anxiety extended to even when I would leave a room. If I stood up from where I was sitting her head would bolt up and she would rush to follow me wherever I was going to go in the house. Even my showering was Too Much for Perri. As soon as I would close the shower curtain she would literally leap up the bathroom walls, door and sink searching for me and crying.
I was devastated, confused and very overwhelmed. My patience-wearing-dangerously-thin husband wanted her to have a lobotomy (joking. sort of.) I did not know what to do. I had never dealt with anything close to this in my life. I thankfully had a lot of dog-savvy friends to offer support and advice. I was willing to try most anything to get Perri to feel safe in her own home. These are some things that I learned through force of necessity. These are things that helped me and my dog defeat separation anxiety, not necessarily things that will help all dogs. But I think that maybe the lessons that I learned could help some dogs, so I felt like I should share.
1. My dog is not doing this to upset me.
Seems obvious, I know. But I had to remind myself of this from time to time. I feel deeply heartbroken that Perri had to suffer while I was learning the full scope of how terrified she really was. She had to suffer while I tried to pick my way through what were her anxiety issues and what were normal puppy issues. I recently watched a video seminar by Suzanne Clothier (Arousal, Anxiety and Fear) and she described the labels that we place on a dog’s anxiety as though they are places on a map. We are looking at the labels or little dots on a map, but the dog is actually living in that place. That is their world. I could speak a simple phrase, “Perri cries when I leave her alone.” when in reality Perri was absolutely overcome with overwhelming anxiety and terror that I could not begin to comprehend. It is so important to have compassion and have respect for the dog’s perspective.
2. Comfort Your Dog
There is a school of thought that petting and soothing your dog when they are afraid will encourage and reinforce the behavior. I find that to be very off putting. Perri no longer has separation anxiety and I did plenty of comforting to bring her out of that dark tunnel of fear. I do think that the timing of the praise/petting/comforting is very important when it comes to separation anxiety.
One thing that helped Perri tremendously was to do a lot of yo-yo’ing back and forth from her. I had to get up earlier for work in the morning to allow time for departure from Perri. I would walk out the door and come back inside and love on her before I had even shut it. Over and over and over again. Day after day, hundreds of probable thousands of times. If I wanted to leave a room in the house I would take a few steps away from Perri and return, and then build on that to more steps away, to out of sight. “I will always come back to you and comfort you. You are safe.” They key was to get back to Perri before her terror become unbearable to her, before it even started. It was important to get back to Perri while she was still feeling okay and build on any small successes. Comforting and showing affection to her was vital. Was this time consuming? Unbearably.
In time, when I would leave the house I would put Perri on my couch (compared to her standing in my kitchen staring at me with wide eyes and panting mouth.) and snuggle her and I began my walking away ritual anew from there. I don’t know when it happened, but these days I have a poodle that is happy to eat her food in the morning and then relax on my couch all day. I’m lucky if she even wakes up when I give her a kiss goodbye.
3. There is no “Blanket Cure”.
Every dog is different, and therefore every solution is different. It is frustrating to find the correct path for you and your dog and there is a lot of “playing by ear” and figuring out as you go. This is, in my experience, a very time consuming issue to fix and every dog progresses at her own pace.
I found a lot of comfort for Perri in a very strange solution that would not work for every lifestyle: I took her to work with me and she slept in my car. Some people thought this was cruel, but the reality was that Perri lived in a near constant anxiety attack unless she was either with me or snoozing in my Honda. She was simply not afraid when she was in the car. I don’t know why, I did not question it – I built upon it and used it to our advantage. But while I was working on leaving her alone at home, being able to take her with me and let her feel safe so that we would not harm her progress was a huge help. I park my car in a security monitored parking garage while I am at work.
An excellent alternative (that I considered!) was a doggie daycare, but again this is not an option for all dogs and is certainly a cost intensive option. Perri was intact at the time so she was not a candidate, and she also has fear of other large dogs until she has “warmed up” to them. For those two reasons, “The Car Method” was a great albeit strange choice that worked for us. Keep an open mind!
4. See your Veterinarian.
They can help! And not only that, but you should have your dog evaluated to make sure that there is not a medical reason for their behavior. I never went to see Perri’s vet specifically for separation anxiety. She had a yeast infection in her ear and while the vet was treating her for this she asked us how everything else was going. “Well, not good…” and I vented and poured out the details of Perri’s problems.
The vet suggested the yo-yo technique that worked so well for Perri, she made me feel a lot better and told me some stories of other cases of SA, and she asked me to please return if we did not have success with behavioral modification so that we could consider medication to help Perri relax. Your vet can be your partner in working with your dog’s issues, or can likely refer you to a behaviorist who can. Medication can be an excellent tool. Other options that I have heard about along the way were Dog Appeasing Pheremone (“DAP”) products, Rescue Remedy or Probiotics. The Thunder Coat can help some dogs, though I never tried it with Perri.
Don’t exclude anything. Every dog is different with different needs.
4. Dog’s Best Friend.
In time, my pitbull Molly was mine and Perri’s rock when it came to dealing with the SA. Who would guess that a breed so (foolishly) maligned would be a “nanny dog” for an anxious poodle? For Perri, having Molly with her was not enough in the beginning. Maybe they weren’t bonded enough, maybe she was too far into her terror to care if another dog was around. (Though my most successful crating arrangement to date was when I put Molly and Perri’s crates alongside of one another. Perri lasted an entire week of crating when she got to be next to Molly before she backslid.)
As time wore on, Perri would be snuggled with Molly and if I would leave a room and that was Okay. Or if I was leaving for work Perri would run to the basement where Molly was sleeping and hop on the couch next to her and who cared if I was leaving?
Bringing another dog into your home when you are already dealing with SA in one dog can seem daunting, a gamble or just a downright a bad idea. It can backfire. It is not something that I would even suggest as a “cure”. Perri and I were very fortunate to have a live-in buddy that could help her to feel better. Dogsitting or playdates could be a great way to find a temporary friend for your SA dog to hang out with and find some comfort.
5. Take Joy in Success.
Keep an eye out for progress and embrace it when it happens! It will happen, and in baby steps. I remember once I shut the dogs in a room when my nieces stopped by and I didn’t want them to be assaulted by the dog gang. Perri barked and cried, but it was the first time Perri did not try to rip a hole through one of my doors. I remember the first time I got up to leave a room and she actually stayed sleeping on the floor instead of panicking and chasing me. I remember yo-yo’ing with her on the couch and returning to find her head down and relaxed instead of perked up because I left. I remember her Canine Good Citizen test and how I had to leave her for three minutes with a friendly stranger. She passed.
Successes did not occur every day, but I took them as they came. You have to. Look for forward progress and build on it. Listen to your dog, feel out what they can handle and use it to your advantage. Success was my dog communicating to me, “I can handle this. This feels safe.”
6. Train Your Dog
I love training my dogs. Perri and I began training in pet obedience, then formal obedience and not long after that, agility. It all creates confidence, and confidence is what an anxious dog needs. Teaching tricks is a fantastic way to bond with your dog and make them feel confident. Teaching a dog the silliest things or working with them for just ten or fifteen minutes a day towards any training goal can have benefits far beyond what you can imagine. I believe that all of the training that we did and still do was very important in helping her feel brave and safe.
These days, Perri hangs out in her crate at obedience or agility trials, and when we drive to places in my car and she is crated, she does not cry. I can shut her into rooms and she sits calmly and waits for the door to open again, because she knows that it will open again. I can leave for work and it is not a theatrical event, because she knows that I will come back to her. She no longer sleeps in my car in the parking garage, but at home on my couch. Our path is not the path that would work for every SA dog, but it worked for us. It was hard and there were tears shed and moments when I felt like it would never end and “Why oh why is my sweet dog like this?” I am so happy to have been able to somehow help Perri believe, “I am safe. She will come back. Being alone is not forever and I am Okay.”