Separation Anxiety in Dogz

On Saturday, Hubz and I went to the grocery store together for the first time in nine months, while Emma the Beagle stayed home alone. This may seem insignificant to you, but to us, it was like the Nationals had just won the World Series.

It’s huge.

When we adopted Emma two years ago, we learned pretty quickly that she had some major fears to overcome, but it never occurred to us that she’d be afraid to be left alone. Over time her fear grew into full-fledge panic, to where she would pee on the couch (see video below) and chew up the doorframe any time we left her.

Ironically, it turns out that Emma is not alone in this fear. At least 17% of dogs are reported to suffer from separation anxiety.

To put that into perspective, the CDC reports that 9.3% of Americans have diabetes. Think about how many people you know are diabetic. Now almost double that number. That’s how many dogs are in absolute terror every time the door closes — so scared that some will literally jump through a glass window to escape their prison.

And yet, most vets, dog trainers, and behavioral consultants that I’ve encountered do not understand how to treat the condition.

After a slew of failed efforts last year to help Emma, we finally discovered the guru of dog separation anxiety — Malena DeMartini. I spoke with her in May but couldn’t start working with one of her certified separation anxiety trainers until we settled into our new home in June.

On Emma’s first day of training, she could handle being left alone (with us on the other side of a clear glass window that she could see through!) for 10 seconds. Since then, Hubz and I have done the equivalent of watching paint dry every day to help Emma overcome her phobia.

We are using a process called “desensitization,” where we depart for longer and longer periods each day. On Day One, we did a combination of things including standing outside for one second, turning the door knob, opening the door one inch, etc.

We continued the work in July, August, September, October, November, December, January, February, and we are still doing it now in March. Every day: Walk out, walk in, grab purse and keys, walk out, open garage door, come back in, blah blah blah.

Because of our herculean efforts to completely bore the fear right out of Emma, she is now able to handle 30-minute long absences. This week I’ve felt it pay off for the first time. WE WENT TO THE GROCERY STORE! And today during her training mission, I was able to PUT GAS IN MY CAR!

Prior to this, the only way I was able to do that kind of stuff, or go for a jog, or pop over to a neighbor’s house, or get the mail, was if Hubz or a pet sitter stayed with Ems.

You see, for desensitization to work, you can only leave your dog home alone during training missions.

Here’s why: I’m terrified of spiders. If I work on desensitizing myself to overcome that fear and start out being able to look at a picture of a spider and then progress to being able to touch a picture of a spider (which I cannot and WILL NOT do!), if you then lock me in a room with 50 tarantulas, the progress I made with that picture will be meaningless. I’m gonna lose my sh*t. (I’m kinda losing my sh*t right now just thinking about this scenario, actually.)

It’s the same with dogz. If I were to leave Emma behind and go catch a movie, and she can only handle 10 minutes or even 1 hour of alone time, we’d likely have to start back at the beginning. Turn the door handle, return, grab purse and keys, return, open door one inch, return…

So that’s where we are. Hubz and I are getting our lives back. No one deserves it more than us, except maybe Emma. That little girl went through hell before we adopted her and then again every time we left her alone.

To help you understand where we came from and where we are now, here’s a video of Emma in full-on panic last year before we started training her:

And now, here’s the video of what Emma looked like today when I went out to get gas:

What a difference 272 days of walking in and out of our house a million times makes.



20 comments on “Separation Anxiety in Dogz

  1. Many of these dogs are returned to shelters because of their vocalizing or destructive behavior, which only exacerbates the problem, often leading to harsh treatment or even euthanasia. It’s a testament to you as owners and to the trainers who work in this difficult area that Emma is one of the luckiest of dogs.

    • Thanks, Anne. I can only imagine. Hubz and I talk about it all the time. Emma is such a sweet, loving, and happy little girl. I don’t want to think about her fate had we not found her. Her schnuggles make up for any challenges. 🙂

  2. Hi Tracy, great job and really lovely to see the difference in Emma after all your hard work. She’s a very lucky girl (and very cute).

    I am curious where you got the stat for 17% for dogs in the US are suffering from SA. Is this the estimate by owners or veterinarians at any one time?

    The reason I ask is that an academic group in Bristol, UK, think that SA in dogs is under reported according to results from a recent pilot study. According to their research, it was estimated by owners that up to 18% of the dogs showed signs of distress. However, their pilot data indicated that up to 80% of dogs ‘showed some negative response’. Also interesting to note that for one cohort of dogs that did not display any typical outward stress behaviours, their biochemistry told a different story….

    As Anne notes above, some dogs are sadly caught in a vicious circle and returned to shelters.
    Great to see that this is being addressed by behaviourists as SA seems to be an unfortunate genetic side effect for some dogs.

    I actually don’t view SA as a behaviour problem – it seems more more like an inevitable natural behaviour given how we select companion dogs for breeding? A bit like RG and predatory behaviour – some dogs may need more work than others to adapt for our appropriateness but nevertheless, we need to ensure that all puppies, adolescents and dogs are gradually and humanely de-sensitised to being left alone as part of their learning?

    • Hey Nicola,

      Eli Lily, makers of Reconcile, a medication to treat SA that I believe is no longer on the market, did a study back in 2007. That’s where the 17% comes from. I just looked at Malena DeMartini’s website, and she has actually dropped the number down to 15%. I’ll check with her to see where she’s getting that data. It’s my understanding that the 2007 data was supplied by veterinarians, so I would not be surprised at all if the number is much higher than that. If pet guardians don’t tell the vet about their pet’s problems, the vet can’t report on it.

      Malena mentioned that she had done a study at one point looking at what non-SA dogs look like when they’re home alone to compare to SA dogs. This new study you mention makes me wonder what the control is for labeling a dog SA or not.

      With Emma, we’ve solved the hardest part of the equation: the actual separation anxiety, which was towards me, specifically. She can now stay home with my husband or a pet sitter when I’m not around and remain calm. She’s still a little wary, but for the most part, she can handle being away from me. (I’m just so darn lovable!!!) Now we’re working on her isolation distress. She can cope with our absences, but she does not like it one bit. But she’s getting there. I will dance with joy the first time she lies down for a nap while we’re gone. And blog about it. 😉

      Did you know that Malena is going to be holding a workshop in the UK this May? Here’s the info:

      I’m going to dig into that study you posted. Fascinating stuff. Thanks for sharing.

  3. Hey Tracy, thanks so much for that link and I will definitely be attending the talk in Manchester! SA both fascinates and concerns me because of your astute observation:

    ‘This new study you mention makes me wonder what the control is for labeling a dog SA or not.’

    If a dog is not outwardly displaying recognisable symptoms or the behaviour of SA, that does not prove that our dogs are not suffering from SA biochemically (chronically raised cortisol is a killer is it not?) according not to the pilot study. It is a welfare issue I am keen to see gain a bit more general awareness and hopefully research so that we can truly understand more about what is going on when we leave our dogs alone.

    I read your story about your journey with Emma and felt a pang of emotion as it is a very similar journey to my own which has led me to developing a geek like interest in humane canine training methodology and behaviour.

    Great blog and I look forward to reading and learning more about you and Emma! Thanks so much for sharing.

    • So glad you popped in! I went to Withington Girls’ School in Manchester for a bit when I was a kid. I would KILL to join you at that workshop. Alas, Emma’s not ready for me to travel away that long yet. We’ll get there!

      Thanks for all your info. Hope your pup’s doing well!

  4. Congratulations on your success with Emma!

    In the “Positive Training Workz” section of your blog you talked about teaching Emma to stay. Was that part of the desensitization process taught by your trainer? Did you eventually teach Emma how to hold a long down/stay for 30 minutes, working slowly over time through the 7 levels of the stay?

    Just curious.!Dog-Training-Treating-Separation-Anxiety/ny8mx/56d8696c0cf2bc6add17a783

    • Hey Lee,

      Thanks! We did not train Emma to stay as part of the desensitization process. Actually, we tried doing that while working with a different trainer as well as a behavior consultant, but it didn’t help. I was amazed to discover, when we started Emma’s training using Malena’s protocol, that we didn’t actually do anything special to prep Emma for our departures: no crating, gating, or even stuffing food toys. Instead, from Day One, we simply got up, grabbed our bags/keys/jackets/shoes and opened the door. The training has been simply to desensitize Emma to our departures but to allow her to live in her normal habitat while doing so.

      None of the “traditional” sep anx training worked for us. Emma has a confinement phobia (probably due to life as a caged breeder), and so crate training made it worst. Things like a Thundershirt, pheromone spray, herbs, and meds, all failed as well. And, when Emma’s scared, she develops anorexia. So although we scattered stuffed Kongs and other food toys around, they all remained untouched until the minute we walked back into the home. Then she darted around and feasted.

      The Stay video that I posted is me re-teaching Emma to do it using Jean Donaldson’s method. We had it fairly good before, but Jean’s method is cementing the behavior– cementing Emma’s belly to the mat, that is. 🙂

      If you have an opportunity to watch one of Malena’s webinars or attend a live conference, I highly recommend it. Her work in sep anx is groundbreaking. Malena’s speaking at the PPG conference in November if you’re attending that. I will be there. 🙂

      Thanks again! I’ll play around on your website. Looks great!

  5. Oh, it’s seems like we don’t just share the color of our walls!
    I don’t keep the bad ones, I probably should but I don’t want to…

    The video is a time lapse of 3 hours. After we passed the 40 minutes threshold, duration was not an issue anymore. You’re probably almost there too.
    Evenings are still a no go for now but it will come soon enough!

    That feeling when you walk through the alleys of the supermarket…! Aaaah! 😉
    I don’t look at my phone anymore! Can you believe it!?

    Oh yes, because we also get conditioned you know!
    I’m working from home, kind of a good and bad thing at the same time when you have a pup with SA.
    When my dog started to show enough progress, I could enroll into some classes, 1h30 twice a week.
    At first, I would sometimes get the run just after I left. It took me a while to not fear that situation myself. It had been more than two years…

    March 7th was kind of special, because there wasn’t even a little whimper.
    Gosh, that day I kept singing “We are the champioooooons!”

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