“Tracy Krulik — You cured your dog’s separation anxiety. What are you going to do next?”
“I’m going to Disney World!!!!!”
It’s true! I really did cure Emma’s separation anxiety, and in a couple of weeks I will be heading to Orlando. I’m actually going down for the Pet Professional Guild’s annual summit, where I plan to learn, laugh, and play and spend a little time with my boy Mickey the Mouse.
But I’ve been reflecting a lot about the fact that it took us more than two years to cure poor Ems of this phobia, and so I wanted to share my takeaways to help other dogs recover more quickly.
Ems is not your normal sep anx dog. She wasn’t just afraid of being left alone, she was also afraid of leaving the house, car rides, other dogs, various floor surfaces, kids, etc. And she had some pretty serious physical issues, which exacerbated the problem. Because of all this, I realize now, Emma gave me no room for error. I had do the training absolutely perfectly, or things fell apart.
Let’s go issue by issue:
Desensitization for the win
Before I turned to Malena DeMartini for her expertise on separation anxiety, I tried Thundershirts, food toys, relaxation down-stay protocols, soft music, therapeutic massage, etc., but none of that worked. Not only did it not help Emma, but her behavior actually got worse. She progressed from barking, howling, and pacing to peeing on the carpet, to peeing on the couch, and eventually to chewing the doorframe.
The formula that finally worked was this: gradually leave her alone for longer and longer periods of time and suspend all other absences.
It might sound crazy to you to hear that we never left Emma alone except during training missions, but we really had no other choice. Our options were:
- Do it right and keep Emma and our home safe.
- Say “Ah screw it, let’s just put a cover on the couch. She’ll still be suffering, but at least we can save our couch.”
- Send Emma back to the shelter or find her another home.
Well, if you know Hubz and me, you know that our only true option was no. 1. We used the same method psychologists use to help people overcome their fears of spiders, needles, heights, etc., to help Emma overcome her fear of being alone.
Mix up absence durations
Emma, like most dogs, is a smart cookie. She can figure out patterns, and she did. It wasn’t enough for us to say, “Wow! Emma nailed that five-minute absence yesterday. Let’s push to seven-minutes tomorrow!” After a few days of thinking like that, Emma started to figure out what we were doing and rather than continue to succeed, she actually became more anxious.
So, instead of thinking day-to-day on Emma’s training plans, we looked at it as week-to-week.
Once a week we assessed how long Emma could handle, and then we varied up absence times each day to keep her from discovering a pattern. Here’s an example:
- Assessment: Emma nailed a 30-minute absence.
- Day 1: 15-minute absence (give her a nice win after such a big push the day before)
- Day 2: 30 minutes
- Day 3: 20 minutes
- Day 4: day off
- Day 5: 35 minutes
- Day 6: 18 minutes
- Day 7: day off
And then do a new assessment the next day.
This formula worked like magic. Ems never figured out a pattern, and so we were able to go to 40 minutes the next week, then 55, then more than an hour, then an hour and a half and up and up to where we are today: 4.5 HOURS!!!!! (When we started Emma’s training, she fell apart at 10 seconds, so MORE THAN FOUR HOURS? ARE YOU KIDDING ME!?!)
Embrace behavioral supplements and medications
I was totally against using anxiety and antidepressant medications, and boy was I wrong. I thought they would turn Ems into a zombie, or that she would just sleep all day. Nope. When we eventually worked with our vet to find the right combination of supplements and meds, Ems started feeling better emotionally, which meant her shroud of panic was lifted, and she could finally learn what I was working so hard to teach her.
It’s true, though, that her personality did change. But it changed for the better. Emma was happier, goofier, more confident, and more fun after we started her new medications. And when she did sleep, she looked far more relaxed.
If you also have concerns about using meds, check out this wonderful blogpost Malena wrote. I wish I had read it two years ago.
You think dog training is all belly rubs and kisses? Well, sure, there’s a lot of that too (yay!), but when done correctly, dog training runs like a laboratory experiment.
We logged every detail of Emma’s life in a spreadsheet so that we could look for patterns when Emma had bad or good days. Do you know what we figured out? That’s right: The Number One Rule of Emma. When Emma doesn’t feel well, she gets scared.
One of our separation anxiety trainers, Casey McGee, figured out how to “operationalize” Emma’s pain. Ems had two ailments that seemed to factor into her emotional health: allergies and arthritis (two of the Three A’s of Emma — with the third being “anxiety,” of course). We started counting days between treatments for both issues and found the sweet spot: If Ems got a cold-laser treatment for her arthritis twice a week and an anal gland expression twice a month, she didn’t get scared being alone.
This is probably the most important piece of the puzzle we call Emma the Beagle. Without tracking the data and finding the “physical health” component, I’d still be hiring baby sitters for Ems any time I wanted to go to Whole Foods.
Success does not follow a straight line
Regressions and plateaus happen. With every dog.
If Hubz and I knew that up front, we might have been better able to handle these dips and valleys when they came. Sometimes the dog just has an off day.
It’s like working out at the gym. Sometimes I feel superhuman and can lift anything my trainer throws at me; other times I feel like a slug and start chatting about last night’s singers on The Voice to distract my trainer from his mission of torturing me.
I am a thinking and feeling being who has good days, bad days, amazing days, and meh days. So is Emma.
It’s all information. Give me some bad training days, Pupz, so that I can figure out what factors might contribute to them. That will help me raise the odds that you’ll have more and more fantastic days. (See “track data” above.)
Take care of yourself too
So here we are, more than two years since we started using the desensitization protocol and more than three years since we figured out that Emma was scared, and we tried all those other methods that didn’t work. In some ways I feel like I have PTSD. I still feel anxious, myself, leaving Ems alone in the house, and I quickly check the video on my phone to make sure she hasn’t forgotten everything she has learned.
But do you see the picture on top of this post? That’s what Ems looks like after we leave the house. She finds a comfy spot, and she goes to sleep. She’s been doing this for months.
One day I hope to feel the same peace that Emma does when I leave her home alone. For now, I’m gradually increasing how much time I can go without checking the video feed to make sure she’s ok. And like Ems did, I’ll get there too.
Thank you Ems, for teaching me compassion, empathy, and patience. I’m so excited that I am now helping other dogs overcome their separation anxiety too. We all owe it to you, ETB. You’re one amazing (and, no longer, anxious) Beagle.