It all began with my sweet dog Leila. She is the twinkle in my eye, my heart-dog and my shadow.
Fortunately, I am lucky enough to work from home, and I am almost always with my dogs, and often they accompany me wherever I go. But, one day I started to notice that when I came home after being away for an hour or two either running errands or seeing clients, Leila would be waiting right at the door, and was not just happy to see me, but more like over-arousal with jumping, whining and mouthing my hands – like the kind of over-excited greeting you might expect after being gone for 10 years! It hadn’t been like that before.
I also noticed that she hadn’t touched her filled Kong or chewing items that I had left for her. Other tell-tale signs that something was amiss, was the odd toileting in the house, and urgent need to drink water shortly after I came home.
My heart sank as I realised that I had read about these and other ‘symptoms’ in articles on separation anxiety in dogs.
At first I guess, I didn’t want to believe it to be true.
Why would she have cause to worry that I wasn’t coming home?
Why could she not feel comfortable and safe when she had my other dog Charlies as company – he was always there with her, she wasn’t actually ‘alone’?
I was actually quite proud of the fact that I never just walked out the door and left my dogs at home, without making sure that they had all their needs met first.
They had been fed, taken for a walk, played with and even left with a variety of food puzzles, toys and chewing activities.
The questions continuously flooded my thoughts:
“What did I do wrong?
At the time, I had already begun my studies to qualify as a dog trainer and behaviour consultant. It was the realisation of a dream which was finally coming together, albeit much later in my life than expected.
And so my quest began, to read all the material I could get my hands on, and immerse myself in groups and communities where people gathered to discuss their trials and tribulations of living with a dog who has separation anxiety. I wanted to understand what caused it and how I could help my sweet Leila to overcome this debilitating ‘affliction’.
There is a minefield of information out there
I was pretty shocked at just how common and widespread this problem is, and how many people are continuously reaching out (often in desperation), to find a solution and bring harmony into their lives with their beloved pups.
I noticed that there is a lot of support out there, but certainly no one-size-fits-all approach to solving the issue. Which I guess, is logical knowing that all people, all dogs and all situations are unique.
However, the range of behaviour ‘symptoms’ and degree in which each dog expresses these, is diverse and often multi-layered. This just added to the complexity of it all, and finding the right tools and methods for my particular case with Leila, was not as straightforward as I had hoped and expected.
Of course, there are some standard training protocols like desensitization and counter-conditioning involved, but there is also a lot of conflicting advice about departure and arrival protocols, how you need to act towards your dog when they show these behaviours, and why your dog is displaying these behaviours in the first place.
There are some common beliefs that the dog is simply too attached to you and too demanding of your attention, or is trying to ‘dominate’ you with their behaviour. Some of the solutions that were offered included ignoring your dog and not giving them attention, or even no longer allowing them access to physical contact with you. And, making sure your dog knows ‘who’s the boss’ in the household by implementing strict rules and levels of hierarchy.
These ideas did really not sit well with me. I believed my dog was crying out for help and not trying to control my life.
I believed my dog was crying out for help and not trying to control my life.
We installed a video monitoring system at home, so that I could see what both dogs got up to when I left them alone for a while.
The video footage was quite heartbreaking for me to watch. I saw how Leila paced and cried, going from the door to the window then to her resting place in the living room where she only settled for a couple of minutes before pacing and crying again.
She was super alert and vigilant and reacted with barking or whining as soon as she heard any outside noises. We live in an apartment, so there are constantly people going in and out of the building and up and down the stairs, neighbour’s dogs barking or delivery trucks coming and going.
I also noticed that prior to my departure she would remove herself to a place on the couch and wasn’t interested in interacting or ‘saying goodbye’ to me.
At first I interpreted this as her expressing something like, “well I don’t care that you are going anyway”. However, I learnt that this was more likely signalling depression and shutting down as she anticipated the imminent separation. Leila had learned through her experience that separation would trigger stressful feelings in her, and she also learned that she had no control over the situation. None of her whimpering, barking or other vocalisations had ever successfully stopped me from leaving or brought me back again quickly enough.
Knowing this was truly distressing for me. I didn’t want to intentionally leave her or make her feel upset, but I had a life to live. I needed to run errands, visit clients and facilitate my training classes, and it wasn’t always appropriate for her to come along.
I began to schedule my appointments for evenings and weekends so that at least my husband was home to look after her. Although Leila would still pace and cry, it was a little less, and I felt more at ease knowing someone she knew, loved and trusted was there to comfort her.
Sometimes I would ask friends or extended family members to look after her when we went out, but that too didn’t seem to offer her much relief.
When I was home, we worked on a ‘systematic desensitization’ programme whereby I would slowly and carefully desensitize her to the actions and events which normally led up to me leaving the house, and which would trigger an emotional response in Leila.
For example, putting on my jacket and boots and grabbing my car keys, was a cue that would cause her to hide under the table or go to her bed and curl up, her body language looking like I had just punished her.
Through the process we had to re-train her brain that these cues did not always predict my imminent departure. I did this by sometimes putting on my jacket and boots and getting my keys and then NOT proceeding out the door, but intentionally going about my business in the house as usual, whilst Leila lay nearby and enjoyed a tasty stuffed food toy.
It is an often slow and painstaking process, which requires lots of patience and time.
For some dogs the behaviours expressed might look quite different. Instead of getting depressed and shutting down, the dog might start to whine, bark or even frantically start tugging at the clothes of their person in order to get them to stay. Other dogs become anxious and start panting, pacing and can’t settle even before the person has left the house.
For many dogs the emotions will go through a full cycle starting with being sad or anxious, then after continuous failed attempts at ‘calling for social support’ (aka. barking, howling, whining etc), they become frustrated and might start to dig, chew or scratch anything they can find in order to release their built up energy. Some dogs may be in a state of fear and will urinate or defecate. This is purely as a result of the autonomic nervous system switching over to the fight/flight system and is a function the dog has no control over. This is definitely not a conscious effort on their part to ‘protest against being left alone’ as some people believe.
There are also dogs who will experience fear and panic as they try to escape the confines of the room/house they are in, in an attempt to follow their person. Dogs can seriously injure themselves if they become panicked, as well as do some serious damage to property.
This is known clinically as severe separation anxiety disorder and calls for intervention by qualified behaviourists and/or a vet, who will often prescribe medication to help these dogs to cope with this extremely emotionally challenging condition.
Each dog’s experience is unique and one has to find the right techniques and tools to best assist them. Hence the reason why recently the general term of ‘Separation Anxiety’ is now referred to as ‘Separation Distress’ or ‘Separation Related Behaviours’.
Recognising the signs early on, can make treating separation related problems much easier, and prevent them from escalating. If left untreated, over time as the cycle of stress becomes chronic, it can manifest in many different mental, physical and emotional problems.
Continuing with training with Leila: We practiced short stays alone, where I would get her all comfortable, and then pop outside or down to the cellar or garage for just a few minutes at a time, and slowly stretch this time of absence, all the time making sure that she wasn’t get stressed at any stage of the exercise.
I set up more ‘comfort zones’ for her in the house, letting her sleep in my bedroom where she loved to hang out with me, and was close to my ‘scent’ even when I wasn’t there.
Finally, after many months we got to a place where I could leave her alone at home for about one hour without her pacing and whimpering. She was still pretty upset when I left, and homecoming greetings were always over-the-top exuberant, but she would eat the treats and chew toys I left for her, and there was no toileting in the house.
I was pleased with our progress, although both Leila and I were still a far way from being completely comfortable with the whole dilemma.
At that stage I accepted that my life was going to be pretty much about arranging around her needs. I was a little disappointed by the thought, but I was also totally okay with it. After all, she is my heart dog and I love that we have such a strong bond together. I would do anything to make sure she feels loved, protected and happy.
But, our story doesn’t end there…..
Our big breakthrough came when I joined the Brilliant Partners Academy, and through some one-on-one coaching with the wonderfully knowledgeable and intuitive Kathy Kawalec, I was able to see our separation issue from a fresh, new perspective.
It takes 2 to tango.
I was reminded that separation requires 2 parties. I was one of those 2 parties, Leila the other.
It’s not just about the fear of being left alone, it’s about the sad feelings of being separated from someone you love, trust and who gives you the comfort and support in times of need.
Have you ever been separated from someone you love and trust? How did that make you feel?
My mum and family live thousands of miles away from me, and I miss them. But, thanks to technology I can hop onto my phone or computer at any time, and chat to them face to face, and experience being together with them again.
The truth is we are always connected, anywhere, anytime. We just have to ‘dial up’ that connection and we are with that person.
Just because our dogs can’t talk, doesn’t mean we can’t make that connection. We can make that connection through our hearts.
I invite you to take a moment and perhaps close your eyes. Think of your dog. Imagine that you are in your favourite place with him/her, doing something you love to do together. Picture all the details….where are you? What is your dog doing? How is he/she expressing their joy at being together with you and doing the thing you both love? How does that make you feel?
If you did that, congratulations you just dialled up a connection with your dog! 🙂
This is what I started to practice with Leila. We made heart-connections on a daily basis. Mostly when I was with her, perhaps cuddling on the couch or out walking in our favourite quiet spot in nature. I became fully present with her and savoured each of those delightful moments. These become the memories and feelings that I could easily use to dial up our connection at any time.
This gave me a new way to approach the times we were separated. We built up a new ritual for my departure. Where I had previously left some lavender essential oil in the diffuser to help her stay calm, I switched to using a drop of mandarin essential oil, which is uplifting and joyful. I put a drop on me and a drop inside a little pendant I brought to hang on her collar. This was a little reminder of our connection.
I told her where I was going, what I was going to be doing and when I would be back. I told her I would check-in with her to let her know I was okay and to make sure that she was fine too.
All I had to do was take a quick sniff of the mandarin oil on my wrist and recall those wonderful times together where Leila and I were together, feeling safe, calm and happy. Instead of worrying about if she was coping at home alone, I was relaxed, knowing that we were always connected heart-to-heart.
We did continue our training with extending the separation times, but something dramatically changed for both of us, and suddenly this process went a lot quicker and a lot smoother.
We were soon able to build up to stays of 3 and even 4 hours.
Happy me, happy pup!
Why does this matter?
I guess the main message that I would like to share with you about my experience, is that we need to examine the thoughts and feelings that accompany separation related behaviours, both for ourselves as well as our dogs.
Our dogs are not simply stimulus – response machines that can be trained to do anything.
If we recognise and acknowledge that our dogs have the same emotions, feelings and basic desires to feel safe, loved and connected as we do, then we can help them (and us) to meet those needs. This will go a long way in supporting our dogs to become more confident and resilient individuals, in and out of the times of separation.
A large part of the course that I will soon be offering on separation related behaviours in dogs will include how to meet the emotional needs of dogs, and how through our own change in mindset we can better support them. We will also explore ways to build a deeper heart connection with our dogs, and build resilience to any and all of life’s challenges.