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.
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.